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4th September 2018

National Rail is not known for being on time, but this was ridiculous.  

I had to get to Guildford for 12:15 on 3rd September.  I thought; let’s do the eco bit and take a nice fuel-efficient electric train even though it would cost a whopping £50 as an off-peak return from Bournemouth.  That way I could also work and arrive relatively fresh.  Good idea.  It all started the previous evening when I ordered my ticket …………….

It took me an hour with a fast broadband connection to get the rail websites to link together enough to order a ticket.  A website called ‘National Rail’ is where you make your initial enquiry.  Apparently the different regional operators have their own websites with their own profitability, which you are directed to when making a purchase.   OK if you accept the complexity which privatisation has brought the customer - and of course directorships and consultancies to our darling professional politicians.  After an hour of dropped pages, non-working links and no ability to provide a decent level of journey info in one place, I finally found what I wanted and paid for it, only £50 quid!   So, an hour late to bed because of the railway website nonsenses and inoperability.

My real difficulties started the morning of travel.  Just to be safe - or so I thought - I made a special very early journey to the station to get my tickets.  But no, both ticket offices firmly closed with zero access.  So I was resigned to printing my tickets from the machine on departure, should be easy-peasy.  Despite allowing a good 10 minutes for this, the only “Fast Service” ticket machines working had a queue going nowhere, and the queue at the counter with similar problems.  Eventually I managing to get onto a self-service machine, it wouldn’t accept my booking credit card, so off to the counter queue.  The clerk eventually did ‘something’ from his kiosk which freed the self-service machine and told me my tickets were in the tray.  This coincided with another person thinking they were her tickets and started walking off with them, so another negotiation took place.

This is where the story REALLY begins.  My train was over the bridge and I watched it leave at 09:55 as I was descending the stairs, shouting.  This was the direct result of the dire difficulty in getting printed tickets.  Why don’t they use smartphone downloadable e-tickets just like the airlines?  Don’t panic, OK, I had to be in Guildford for 12:30 so the next train should, get me to destination just a couple of minutes late.  But was I to wait for the next ‘fast’ train or what?  The very few BR staff manning the barriers had grotty little booklets and told me that in their opinions my best bet was the next quickest train at 10:22 but it would only take me as far as Winchester where I had to change train again to alight at Woking, where a final change would take me to Guildford.   They couldn’t give me any times, and no timetables available here either!  

I decided to get on the next train and if I couldn’t figure out which train to take using my laptop, I would hopefully have more luck in asking at the much larger Southampton Central.  Needless to say, altohugh a web connection was available it was of the very narrowband variety.  It turned out the best option was to take the 11:17 to Woking arriving 12:15, then hop onto the Guildford Train at 12:25.  This would get me into Guildford at 12:33, just three minutes late and was thus vaguely tenable.  But the Woking train had to be on time. Was it?  Not a chance.  It arrived (with apologies for lateness from the guard) at 12:24, just in time to see my connection to Guildford drawing out of the station at 12:25, on time for once!

By this time it had become abundantly clear that I needed to forget the railway service and take a taxi to stand any chance of getting to Guildford roughly in time.  The taxi cost £20 and running through several traffic jams got me within a minutes’ walk of my destination at 12:44 - far too late, the bird had flown.

I had noted throughout that getting any meaningful information was almost impossible.  Even platform numbers were obscured or missing and when any information display was visible it showed very little information but pronounced the rail service to be ‘on time’.  I’d like to know the definition of ‘on time’, does it mean “within half an hour give or take 15 minutes”?  Interrogating the relevant website besides being hit-and-miss showed zero in terms of recent history and no concerted attempt to provide useable information on the train supposed to be taken.

So thank you, National Rail and South West Trains - you cost me £70 directly for nothing, and £91 for the course which I missed.

I also blame myself as I didn’t think even mildly ‘out of the box’ at Bournemouth station.  I could have jumped straight into a Europcar rental car just opposite the station and taken a quiet, calm and relatively pleasant trip to Guildford, or called a friend…..

Moral; Don’t think you are saving the planet by using the train - 3 out of my 5 trains were quite dirty diesels despite a 3-rail electric system being in use, what’s THAT about?  And don’t use the train in the UK if you want a successful and timely journey, like clean working toilets, or one which is cost-effective.  I certainly never will again.

Mike Wattam