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.