Travel: Railways - Crossed lines

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The Independent Online
If you have seen a figure scavenging furtively around station platforms and booking offices in the past few weeks, it was probably me. Trying to find out what rail deals are around is an exercise as frustrating as a stalled train. Most of the bargains here were picked up from posters and pamphlets in the stations themselves.

For schedule and fare information, every train operator's automated phone system refers you to the National Rail Enquiry number, 0345 484950.

In my experience, the chances of receiving sensible, accurate information from this source for any remotely complicated journey are minimal.

The reason seems to be the way that the system is set up. Your call is diverted to one of several call centres around Britain. Some of these are run by train operating companies, who are not always assiduous about giving helpful advice about rivals' services. Others are run by telephone companies whose staff need not ever have been near a train.

An example of how even a simple request can be mishandled: on Wednesday this week, I called to ask the time of a train from London Waterloo to Bath. The subsequent conversation went like this:

"From Waterloo?"

"Yes, please"

"To Bath?"

"Yes, please"

"I've got nothing from Waterloo - all the trains for Bath go from Paddington."

Wales & West, which runs trains daily from Waterloo to Bath and beyond, pays thousands of pounds each year for a telephone service that diverts potential customers to its rival, Great Western Trains.

The next question, to a different operator, was about a ScotRail promotion on Sundays giving a 50 per cent reduction to anyone travelling with a child. I checked on a specific journey from Edinburgh to Aberdeen. That it was not going to be a productive conversation became evident almost immediately:

"Aberdeen. Hmmm. Is that A-B-E-R ...?" Twenty minutes later, via a ScotRail operator based in Newcastle, I finally got the information I needed.

No wonder motoring is so popular.