Passengers hit by online booking fees

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Passengers hit by online booking fees

Website TheTrainline adds charges for postage, card payments and even collecting tickets at the station

Britain's biggest rail ticket website is angering train passengers by either rejecting their credit cards or hitting them with a barrage of new fees.

Thousands of bank holiday travellers have only recently discovered that TheTrainline.com has introduced charges that can add up to £5.50 on to the cost of a ticket. But even for those prepared to swallow the fees, new software means that many customers are being turned away when they come to pay.

TheTrainline, which sells almost 20 per cent of the country's rail tickets, recently introduced a £1 charge to post out tickets, a £2.50 fee to pay by credit card and 50p to pay by debit card. It has also introduced a 50p charge for tickets to be picked up from self-service machines or station ticket windows. On top of these charges, it adds £2 to each ticket for travel insurance using an 'opt out' system, meaning that passengers are charged unless they notice and elect not to take the cover.

This is in stark contrast to the train operating companies' own websites, most of which use a rebranded version of the very same ticketing system. This means tickets at exactly the same prices as on TheTrainline are available directly through the websites of Virgin and First Great Western without any postage, collection or card fees. National Express, which now operates the East Coast Main Line (formerly run by GNER), uses its own online booking engine and also does not charge fees. These websites have an 'opt in' system for the insurance, so passengers only buy if they tick a box.

Passengers vented their anger about the charges online last week. 'For years, the easiest way to buy train tickets has been at Trainline. They used to be good and now they are rubbish. Why? They've started charging for things that don't cost money,' said one blogger. 'Anyway, this is what my transaction meant for TheTrainline - a £28.40 [the price of the journey] "fee" to book somewhere else.'

On the TheTrainline website the company blames a drop in commission on ticket sales for the fees, but a spokesman says: 'These charges have been introduced to ensure we can continue to invest in innovations and cutting-edge technology that continue to make our website the most independent, convenient and easy way to book rail tickets online.

'A 50p charge has also been applied to tickets picked up from self-service machines at the station, which is just half of the fee levied on us by the train operating companies.'

Passenger Focus, the rail consumer watchdog, is urging people to buy directly from the train operators' websites rather than use thetrainline.com. 'We do not condone TheTrainline adding hidden charges - for example, for using a credit card or picking up tickets from the station,' said chief executive Anthony Smith. 'We have met the TheTrainline to try to stop this practice.'

Passengers charged by the TheTrainline for their tickets are in one sense the fortunate ones, however. Linda Patterson, an NHS consultant who lives in west Yorkshire, is one of a number of would-be customers who have recently had valid credit and debit cards rejected without explanation. Patterson, who uses trains to and from work and was previously a regular user of TheTrainline website, has tried in the past few weeks to buy tickets and has found that none of her cards has been accepted.

'It's a real nuisance, particularly as you only find out at the very, very end of the online booking process,' she says. 'Recently I had to buy the ticket I wanted at King's Cross and it ended up costing more.'

TheTrainline admits it has a problem. 'We recently invested significantly in new e-security measures which has resulted in some of our customers' cards being rejected,' says Ben Pearson, commercial director. 'We are working to resolve this as a priority.'

Virgin Trains, which outsources its own website to TheTrainline, is one of several operators caught up in the problem. 'It's clearly an issue. A number of customers have raised this with us. If someone wants to travel with us and finds it impossible to use their card, it's not a good start,' says Virgin Trains spokesman Ken Gibbs.

Meanwhile, the online communities are suggesting alternatives to thetrainline.com, including the website, for raileasy.co.uk. The Observer tried buying the same tickets from London to Exmouth for three adults and one child to travel in two weeks' time. The Trainline quoted us £206.50 for the journey, while Raileasy quoted £159.25, a saving of almost £50. However, Raileasy also charges fees; £1 for booking and £ 4.11 to pay by credit card for these tickets. The Trainline added on £8 for insurance (optional), £2.50 to pay by credit card and £1 to post our tickets.

Another alternative is to call the train companies, because prices quoted over the phone and online can vary.







Lisa Bachelor and Andrew Bibby
The Observer, Sunday May 4 2008
guardian.co.uk
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
 
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