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National Rail Enquiries relaunched its website last month, giving the site a much needed makeover.

The site was redesigned by Fortune Cookie, and at first glance, seems to be a massive improvement on the old version with a fresher, cleaner look. How well does it perform for users though?

Homepage

The homepage now has a much cleaner look than before, with greater prominence given to the search box, which is the main reason most people will visit the site.

Below this is the live departures and arrivals search box, while further down the page and below the fold is the 'Ask Lisa' which is a virtual agent which answers questions by users.

When I looked at the site, thanks presumably to the snow and ice around the UK, a stripped down version of the website was on offer, with many of the ads removed, as well as the 'Ask Lisa' function :

Journey searches

Searches are simple enough, and a drop down menu produces suggestions as users type, though I would find it easier if the stations were highlighted rather than just underlined: 

Results appear quickly and are displayed clearly, in a large easy to read format. Thus you can see not only train times and arrivals, but also journey duration, number of changes, the relevant platform, as well as any delay alerts:

Rather than having to click a link and open a new page to see the information, simply mousing over the relevant link will display the information in a window so you can quickly see the details: 

The site doesn't actually sell tickets, but you can get price information, and will show the cheapest ticket for the journey, and send you to the rail operator's or a third party site such as thetrainline to place an order.

Dealing with heavy traffic and weather disruptions

I've checked the site a few times since Tuesday night, and, as mentioned before, a stripped down version has been on offer for the past 24 hours or more, due to 'high traffic volumes on our servers'.

This is obviously better than attempting to provide the full functionality of the site which is slow to load, and perhaps the traffic is at unprecedented levels thanks to the cold weather this week, but National Rail should look at how it will cope more effectively with traffic spikes in future.

Also, since this website will be one of the first places people will look to see if their rail journey will be disrupted by the snow, perhaps the messaging around this could be clearer. At the moment, only a generic message is on offer: 'disruption due to ice and snow across the UK on Wednesday 6 and Thursday 7 January'.

What people need is specific information on the journey they have already booked or are searching for on the site. However, even if search results for specific journeys, only a generic message is provided:

If you follow the links, there is some more specific information on which lines / operators are suffering from delays, but it would be better if the relevant information was provided to customers as they search for a particular journey.

Mobile

With the old site, I used to access it on my mobile to check journey times and prices, and check for information on delays etc from my phone, but the site (the journey search part at least) is useless, since you cannot use the calendar tool to select journey dates.

For upcoming train times, I can at least use the trainline iPhone app, but this doesn't give me up to date travel information. For that, you need to pay £4.99 for the National Rail Enquiries app...

Conclusion

I like the new site a lot more than the previous incarnation, which was due an update. It is clearer and easier to use, and even with the heavy load on the servers, it works quickly enough.

The functions of the site are clear, navigation has been much simplified, and the overall look and feel is a big improvement. My only real grip is the fact that it will not work on my mobile, which is how I want to use the site a lot of the time.

Graham Charlton

Published 7 January, 2010 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

Comments (23)

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Matthew

Perhaps you have a large screen, but here on a normal size monitor, I find it quite annoying that when I submit the journey form I then have to scroll down more than an entire pageful before I see any results - the first time, I actually thought it hadn't worked as all I could see was the header and the form again.

I find the hovering "windows" pretty unusable, especially on a small screen (plus even if you could get there it wouldn't work well on a mobile), as my mouse co-ordination is not great. And if I want to add a return journey, why do I have to wait two seconds for a pointless animation to shuffle the form elements into view? I would have thought looking up return journeys is a very common use case of the site.

http://traintimes.org.uk/ takes its information from the official site, and works on both computers and mobiles. It is quicker than the official site to load and run (no slow Flash animations of clocks telling me something my computer already does), puts things like iCalendar links up front rather than hidden away, and brings in changes, alerts, and stopping details all within the same page.

over 6 years ago

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Stugoo

I find the lack of specific information extremely frustrating. Along with a lack of real 'live' data. I understand monitoring the entire train network is a massive task but something they should really ahve looked at if they were to re-design the site. It may just be a re-skin but i feel the functionality has taken a step back, which primarly is the most annoying thing.

National rail should invest a bit of money in producing a mobile friendly version of the site ( only going by what you mentioned above) as I'm sure your not the only person to gripe about this... I currently use an android app to check the times and has been reliable to the point where the information on the app matches the information on the site and not the information at the station.

Also i continualy find that the time is wrong when the page loads and when i enter my journey information i have to 'select a journey that is not in the past'

over 6 years ago

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erica

i agree, mobile version is lacking but critical. i don't know why they've spent their money reskinning when extending mobile functionality really should be core to this type of website. a nice-looking layout on a big screen isn't what this site's all about.

also the reload thing's driving me bonkers. wonder how much stress that's putting on their server.

in my opinion it's been poorly planned. they obvously didn't seek user's opinions (i've had many others comment on the need for a mobile/light version, even prior to this relauch) and they really should have waited for summertime to do the work. relaunched sites always have teething problems and this site was released shortly before the recent snowstorms. nice planning.

over 6 years ago

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P King

Looks as if the useful 'via' option has disappeared:  you have to know which route(s) you want before seeking times for the separate parts of the journey.

The Live Station information is also de-improved!  You have to specify the destination now, so if you have the option of more than one station (notably in London) you now have to enter all the London termini one by one.  Improvement it isn't.  (Was any Beta testing undertaken?   Was it broken?   Need fixing?? )

over 6 years ago

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James Ainsworth

I think the new design and its usability on the likes of th iPhone is dreadful. A cynical me would comment that it is to push you towards buying the near £5 app in order to get live train coverage.

over 6 years ago

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Chris D

Afraid I don't like it either. Lokks to me as though it's trying to "look sexier" rather than being functional. As has already been said where's the VIA gone. Don't like the new date chosing part i.e no "to-morrow" lis box option and no "same day" for returns. Also seems slower than the old version. Plsu I really don't like the new Live Departures bit, it's much worse than the old one. Did they do any proper end-user usability testing, doesn't look like it to me

over 6 years ago

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RDT

The redesign is hopekess, as is the inexplicable positive review. Fortunately, he comments have it right: an attempt at "prettyfying" the site has rendered it harder to use and less functional. The litmus test of sites like National Rail Enquiries is the speed it takes the user to access and absorb the info they're seeking. The prior design worked very well, packing a lot of info into a compact area, while remaining highly usable and readable. The redesign is hopeless, a major backward step. Plus it's full of schoolboy errors which indicate little proper testing has occurred. For such a well used website, that's very poor show.

over 6 years ago

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Sheetal

It looks like no planning went into the layout of the page... there's so much wasted space... do I really need a giant Flash clock at the top of the page when I can quite easily see the time at the bottom right hand corner of my screen?

'Pretty' boxes look like they've just been thrown onto the page with what appears to be, no browser testing, unless text hanging out of the box is the style they are going for.

It's looks like it's another case where design (an over indulgence for gradients and rounded corners) has played more importance in the development of the site over the user.

over 6 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

Well I can find at least one positive for the team who put this together.

At least they planned in the 'stripped down' version  - for use when traffic is huge.

Not many sites do that, but it is a very sensible tool to have built in.

For many of the folk I talk to about web performance improvement, there is no way they can justify spending 20 or 30 times as much on infrastructure, just to handle the 'once in a blue moon' traffic peaks'.

Eg retailers, who may have user peaks at the very time they have big sales on and are thus making less margin per order anyway!

So a stripped-down site is a good investment - I;ve seen Boden use it effectively for their peak-weeks.

Another route of course is building in more Cloud based resources, to make it easier to dial-in extra capacity as needed.

But load testing becomes a little more involved.  Don't be tempted to assume that the cloud you've built can scale the way yout tech designed it.... as it's easy to overlook stuff and end up with disappointing scalability anyway

But, it's any good practise for Mktg folk to ask for meaningful load test reports now and again.

Deri

over 6 years ago

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DaveW

The website may look good but in practice it has a few issues such as trying to add a return journey and using it on PDAs. As a web designer, I would prefer the old clunky version back as at least it worked, even though it was steam driven!

over 6 years ago

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Trishsm

New site is rubbish, I never get to see live arrivals/departures on my work PC nor my home PC anymore, the time it takes to type in the station code and move the next entry is like watching a snail it's hopeless, and makes checking my home journey esp in the bad weather no point, I had bought the iPhone version and that is now what I use as thie main site is a complete waste of time.

Even when they say they are giving a light version I don't get anything.  Who has that time to waste of such a bad heavy resource design.  Clearly testers for it where not commuters.

over 6 years ago

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Nick

I agree with most comments here. Two major annoyances I have found: Tool tips, which appear when you mouse over various elements, don't disappear very easily and then cover up where you want to click. You have move the mouse right away before it disappears. Poor design! Also, I tried to change the type of railcard and it simply wouldn't let me, instead carrying on giving me the price of the ticket with the original railcard.

over 6 years ago

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Kato model trains

Today's model trains primarily come ready to run. This means all you need do is pull her out the box, make the proper connections and let her roll! This can be a good thing for beginners although for more advanced modelers you may want to make some ... If you’re looking for advice, I'd go for a higher grade set from Kato, Atlas, Bachmann, Walthers or Micro trains.

over 6 years ago

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AAA

This review is superficial and completely useless. It can be summarized as "oh, how cute!".

The new site is considerably worse than the old one, for these reasons:

- the "live departure and arrivals" functionality has been broken (as already noted by others here). It was perfectly good, but now is totally useless

- in general it is harder to find what one wants. The old site was maybe "uglier", but everything was within easy reach.

over 6 years ago

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P King

The 'new improved' Journey Planner doesn't work on my ASUS PC700 m/c, running Linux. The home page comes up brefly, then clears down. More recently, with a report that the 'Security Certificate' isn't recognised. Even if I authorise it either 'for this session', or 'permanently' the site won't stay up.

As far as I'm aware nothing's been altered at my end.   Anyone else with a PC running Linux plus Firefox browser with the same 'problem'?

But there's always 'Die Bahn', which offers an English version, worked well right from the start and still loads and runs. 'Danke Schon, Deutsche Bahn: Auf wiedersehen, National Eisenbahn'.....

over 6 years ago

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Phil at incolumis

I have to agree with the negative views about the new site. The old version was easy if you used it at lot..we did. The new one looks good but oh dear it just doesn't deliver, particularly on live deps/arrivals and pricing comparisons on ticketing are now hopeless. I'd much prefer to see the old one reinstated in total, forget the pretty looks, it worked. Phil

over 6 years ago

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hallodom

I agree with most of the review. I do find that there is always a delay when I click in the search fields before the list of stations drops down, this must be due to some load blocks due to, what seems to me, heavy graphic elements. However the site does have a mobile version which works great on my blackberry but I wonder how it performs on a none smart phone? Generally a lot better design after you've figured out that you must scroll down to find your search results!!

over 6 years ago

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christian

This site is buggy and genrally dreadful. The firm they used must be laughing all the way to the bank as they seem to have taken a functional if badly designed and chaotic site, added pretty graphics and not bothered to think about HOW/WHY/WHEN users might use it - dreadful!!!!

over 6 years ago

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FormerRailUser

This website redesign cost me money!  At the end of january I used it to find the time of the last train from Basingstoke to Andover on a saturday evening.  The redesigned website, having not been tested properly before going live, gave me the wrong information and I ended up turning up 1 minute after the last train had actually left.  Since then I have managed to get NRE to admit that it did have problems, particularly with the last train times, but that because they have a disclaimer hidden on the website that absolves them of any responsibility.  In other words, they make a website thats sole purpose is to provide train times, but under no circumstances do they accept any responsibility if said train times are wrong.  I sent my case to Passenger Focus who after 3 months of dealing with this have got back to me to basically repeat the spurious reply I got from NRE, and frankly had a job of convincing me they'd even read the letters that had been sent between me and NRE, let alone fought my case as a consumer.  This website sums up everything that's wrong with public transport in the UK at the moment.  Too much focus on making it look pretty, but when push comes to shove, it doesn't work and costs far too much.

over 6 years ago

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David Taylor

Agree with most comments.

"New" site is a major step back.

Live dep/ arrs a major worsening of user experience. I now key in the URLs eg http://ojp.nationalrail.co.uk/en/s/ldbboard/arr/KGX rather than browsing.

Finding out whether a station you're going to has a taxi rank is now near-impossible.

There are, however, lots of weird photos of the insides of toilet cubicles. Must be the world's biggest collection of toilet photos.

Site now asks for feedback - I've provided by email address twice and they still haven't been in touch, a week later.

about 6 years ago

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Distressed Rail User

The new site is horrible, truly horrible. It takes AGES to load. It's so slow. It's got far too many giant graphics and Javascript and other fancy stuff. The developers must be using the latest computer hardware with massive monitors and stuff, but they haven't given a thought to those of us on older hardware. On my humble old computer with a 800x600 display, the new website is very slow to load and doesn't always display properly. They obviously haven't tested it in all browsers. But for a high traffic site like this, they should have made sure it would work on older hardware and all the browsers.

The check fares facility on the new site isn't as good as the old one either. The old site let you see all the available fares on the same screen so you knew if you got the cheapest one. But now it hides the fares away behind tabs and you have to keep clicking the mouse loads to see it.

The new site requires more mouse clicks. Takes longer to use. Slower to load. Shows less information. Focuses too much on being pretty rather than being usuable. I don't want to waste time staring at a pretty site. I just want to get train times and fares as quickly as possible and then leave.

about 6 years ago

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K Hardie

I didn't like it when it changed...I've given it a chance....I mostly use thetrainline now or individual rail company sites.

This is 'glamming it up' fo the sake of it.

Some sites don't need (slow-loading) media-rich content, javascript 'tools' and giant playschool buttons with embossed field-entry borders or the friendly 'ask Lisa'-type facilitlies. Let's be clear here...this is essentailly a databse enquiry system. It worked before - it was quick, efficient, told you what you wanted to know (including on your mobile) and didn't involve scrolling past lots of quirky, gimmicky 'content' to get to your answers. People aren't on a site like to this have a browse, do some shopping, get a quote, read the news or find out what two-for-one offers are on at Pizza Express - so why adopt that sort of style?!

I find it clunky to use and think it represents a major step backwards from what was one of the most useful sites on the web...and on this point, I do find it funny that they have slapped the "Hitwise Top 10 Website Award" logo on it, as this was awarded to the old site. I'll be interested to see if they get an award again this year. I'd imagine not.

about 6 years ago

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Andy L

Completely agree with negative comments. 

Useless eye-candy.  And I cannot persuade the LDB feature to "take" station names despite finding them in the drop-down.

Same in Firefox and IE 7 or IE8 on Win XP or Win 7.

Appalling.  And totally unnecessary - it worked before - and as an information site does not need to capture and hold the attention of teenagers surfing through.

almost 6 years ago

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