NO-HEADLINE

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The Independent Online
The extraordinary oversubscription of British Airways' "New York for pounds 14" deal that lasted for about three nanoseconds last Wednesday demonstrates our collective soft spot for a bargain. Yet while the phones were overheating, I was trying to find something much more mundane: a flight between London and Glasgow for this weekend. And, in doing so, I discovered that the Internet provides more than a new means of communication; it also gives new meaning to phrases such as "cheapest fare".

British Midland's Cyberseat service claims to be the world's first Internet booking service where you can pay by credit card. What could be better than buying a ticket with a few keystrokes, safe in the knowledge that the screen had promised the cheapest fare available?

For a start, phoning British Midland reservations. On screen, I was assured that the lowest return fare for this weekend was pounds 109. "Total price," promises the screen, until you get to the point of paying, when pounds 10 tax suddenly appears.

Call me sceptical, but I was unconvinced that pounds 119 was the lowest fare available (after all, that represents eight-and-a-half holidays in New York with the BA deal). The century-old technology of the telephone to the rescue. "London to Glasgow? That'll be pounds 94." (Including tax.)

British Midland says its Internet system is directly connected to the reservations mainframe, and it must have been a momentary marketing blip (see also the BA New York offer) that made the pounds 94 fare available. So I tried the next day, and the next, with the same result. Finally I found myself in the peculiar position of trying simultaneously to book a seat on a plane on the Internet and on the telephone (less straightforward than it sounds). As the reservations agent was saying "pounds 94", the screen was insisting pounds 25 more.

In the end I called ScotRail and bought a return ticket on the sleeper, for a more modest pounds 79 - pounds 40 less than if I'd trusted the Internet.

Railtrack also has a website, and a handy one it is, too. Rather than wrestling with the 2,000 pages of the National Rail timetable, it can instantly find a way from Penzance to Perth or from Ramsgate to Rhyl.

What it doesn't tell you is how (un)reliable the trains are. I found out the exasperating way, when a short trip from Walsall to Birmingham took nearly twice as long as it should have, successfully obliterating any chance of connecting. In the generous amount of time I had hanging around New Street station (not a habit to be recommended), there is opportunity to study the poster of punctuality figures for Central Trains - yes, I was at a really loose end - which show the sad fact that on a return journey you are more likely than not to be at least 10 minutes delayed.

Birmingham New Street is already the worst place in Britain to change trains; another great concourse discovery was that you have to allow 15 minutes to change trains here, three times longer than most stations. If New Street is the central nervous system for Britain's railways, then it appears to have had a lobotomy.

The whole business of travelling by rail is so complicated that you need all the help you can get. Railtrack obliges with handy posters at Paddington station announcing Impartial Advice. The reason is that several destinations are available from both Paddington, on Great Western, and Waterloo, on South West Trains. After reading the poster, only a fool would go from Waterloo to Exeter by South West Trains: the day return fare is pounds 121.60.

An outrageous amount for a three-hour journey; thank goodness it isn't true. The fares from Waterloo and Paddington are exactly the same, a (still immodest) pounds 82. Is it a coincidence that Paddington, in whose ticket office the poster is displayed, is the main base of Great Western Trains?

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