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Thanks to overcomplicated and unreliable websites, two thirds of people were unable to book a rail journey from the UK to European cities.

Just 33% of users in the study managed to complete the task, compared to 98% who tried to book the equivalent flight online. Rail tickets also took nearly twice as long as flights to book. I've been looking at a couple of rail websites to see what was so difficult.

The study was carried out by responsibletravel.com, which asked a panel to book rail journeys and flights from the UK to Barcelona, Rome, Brussels and Munich. For those that were able to book, it took an average of 11.9 minutes to book a train ticket, while the average booking time for a flight was 6.6 minutes.

Having used a few rail websites, I can understand some of the usability issues; the Grand Central website needs some work for one, but the fact that only 33% managed to complete the tasks is surprising, so I tried to recreate the study myself and see if I could book a train from London to Brussels. 

I tried Eurostar first, and since they do trains to Brussels, I thought this would be easy enough, but having entered my journey details and times all I got was a blank screen. I tried this on several occasions over a two hour period and still got the same. A complete fail.

RailEurope came top of a Google search for 'rail travel to Europe' so I tried that site next, and since it didn't provide trains to Brussels, I aimed for Munich instead, but got this screen telling me no journeys were found:

RailEurope no journeys found

It suggested that I search again using different dates and times, but having tried another couple of searches for a train to Munich and getting the same result, I gave up. Rail websites can't possibly have tickets available for all journeys on all days, but they should provide better help for users than this.

Not allowing me to search for unavailable journeys at all would be best, but the site could at least suggest the next available train to me to spare me the pain of further fruitless searches.

Having had to go to the second page of Google, I found a site (InternationRail.com) that offered me trains from London to Brussels, but at £500+ return, I think a flight would be cheaper. Besides, I like a few signs such as kitemarks to convince me I can trust a website before I'll buy from one I've never heard of, even though it may be perfectly reliable. Perhaps there are some other websites providing rail travel from the UK to Europe, but I didn't come across any.

So, having wondered why only 33% of people managed to book a rail ticket from the UK to the four European cities tested by Responsible Travel's panel, I'm now surprised that any of them managed it at all.

Graham Charlton

Published 4 March, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

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David Hamill

David Hamill, Usability Specialist at Freelance

I've experienced this pain in real life while trying to get down to the Pyrenees. I was fed up with British Airways losing my bike on the way, so I looked into the train as an alternative.

In the end I gave up and flew with BA. Yes, they lost my bike in both directions :0(

over 7 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi David, good to know its not just me...

over 7 years ago

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S Howells

I have never been able to book train tickets online, the website I've tried to use is already registered with my flatmate's details and I CANNOT find a way to log out and register my details so when I have tried to book it automatically assumes I am someone else. Very annoying.

over 7 years ago

David Hamill

David Hamill, Usability Specialist at Freelance

Sounds like National Express. Try deleting your cookies.

over 7 years ago

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Philippa Hammond

I've frequently tried to book tickets using Rail Europe and failed - I thought it was just me! It never ever finds the journeys you select, and doesn't explain why or offer alternatives, even though I know it is possible to travel that route...:\

over 7 years ago

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S Howells

David, thank you, result, I just booked a train ticket on Trainline, £1.00 charge to book online but then it took off £5.00 don't know why plus a £15.00 voucher off any booking before 4/6/09!

over 7 years ago

David Hamill

David Hamill, Usability Specialist at Freelance

No problem, glad to help.

over 7 years ago

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S Howells

Hello travel manager, after accepting the first voucher I was offered a second £15.00 voucher which stated a monthly fee is due if you sign up so I avoided that. I have now checked more carefully the site offering the first discount. Having hunted through the terms and conditions I found this: Membership Fee: Member will be charged a monthly, bi-monthly (every two months), quarterly or annual membership fee. The amount of this fee and its frequency is explained to Member at the time that Member joins Shopper Discounts & Rewards (the "Membership Fee"). The Membership Fee will be billed automatically to Member's designated payment vehicle, which may include credit or debit card, ISP account, DDA account, debit account, mortgage account, and/or other or charge account(each a "Billing Device") during the initial membership term and each renewal term. WL may from time to time change the Membership Fee during any renewal term (but will not change the Membership Fee in relation to the initial term). Member will be notified at least twenty eight (28) days in advance of any revised charge applying.

1. I will never ever use trainline again

2. I would like to see whoever is behind these compnanies locked up.

3.  I will be cancelling a membership that I should not have been stupid enough to sign up for.

4. I will complain to Trading Standards about trainline & shopper discounts and let you know what happens.

Thank you

over 7 years ago

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Stan

The Eurostar website functions extremely well in my experience.

It even encourages you to choose your preferred seat and carriage.

The prices are perfectly clear and nothing is hidden, unlike many airline websites.

over 7 years ago

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GCEK

Just be careful with Rail Europe, as you usually end up paying up to 100% more than the real price.

When it says that it is the 'the official distributor of European railways' it is a load of rubbish - there is no such thing as 'European Railways', as each country has its own national rail system. It also says 'our fast, comfortable and eco-friendly trains' - they actually do not own any trains at all, and are a re-seller of tickets at an almost criminal mark-up on the back of unsuspecting travellers who are totally misled by their blurb.

I just did a little quick test - Raileurope.au quotes Vienna - Salzburg at AUD109, whereas the price you would pay on the day is about AUD77. So much for their statement 'thanks to its unique distribution system, Rail Europe offers real time availability and the best possible price' - I believe the opposite to be true - in 99% of situations it will offer you the worst possible price.

about 7 years ago

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