Friday, May 01, 2009

Thought of train

The usual routine for holiday travel plans in the UK involves car rental, collection of the vehicle from and return to the airport, and a lot of petrol being turned into pollution. Last year I realised that it would be futile to rent a car and pay £35 per day to have it standing idle and unloved for several days, so I decided to give public transport a whirl and, after learning that rail travel between Heathrow Airport and Plymouth was prohibitively expensive, I took a National Express coach.

Later this month I’ll be travelling again. Beloved Wife has to stay and work, otherwise we’d be renting a car for sure. I thought I’d give rail travel another try after discovering last time that coach drivers enjoy tailgating small cars on the motorway, coach seats are titchy, and there’s no room for any luggage in the cabin. Plus, the coach service from Heathrow was over three hours late “like it is every Friday.”

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I could book my train tickets on line. I could even select aisle or window, table, electricity supply, direction to face, near the loo, et cetera. Unfortunately it all went wrong when it came to the bit about obtaining the ticket. The Train Line is incapable of e-ticketing. Options on offer are to collect the pre-paid ticket from a machine at the station, or to have it mailed or couriered to a UK address. The only option available for an international traveller - and there are one or two of these milling around Heathrow - is to collect the ticket immediately before boarding the train.

Problem: No ticket machine at Heathrow. Obviously, no-one has ever flown in from abroad and wished to continue his journey by rail, leastways not from Heathrow. Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham or Bristol airports don’t have this problem. The Heathrow idiocy is caused by various parts of the journey being operated by differing rail companies.

I contacted The Train Line’s telephone helpdesk. A kind lady in Delhi told me that the only option was to buy my ticket upon arrival at the station. According to the website, that would cost an extra £46 each way. The email helpline wasn’t much better. I was advised that:
    “The nearest station to Heathrow Airport is Reading which has a Self Service Ticket Machine, therefore, you can retrieve your tickets from the Reading station.”
I’m glad that's clear. I have to get from Heathrow to Reading. But how? By train? Bus? Helicopter? Rollerskates? Could I collect the ticket at London Paddington, I asked. I suggested that perhaps I could board the train at Heathrow without holding a ticket (although I had paid for one and would have a printout of the web page), alight at Paddington, collect my ticket for the whole Heathrow - Paddington - Plymouth journey at Paddington and continue my journey.

Er, no.
    “I would like to inform that you need a valid ticket, before boarding the train. It is possible to collect the whole ticket from the London Paddington station. However, you will not be allowed to board the train without the ticket on the first part of the journey.
    Hence, please book the ticket at the station on the day of travel.
    I hope this information is helpful.”
Indeed. About as helpful as a concrete lifebelt. I would have to make my own way to Paddington, collect the ticket, somehow get back to Heathrow, then use my ticket to travel on the Heathrow Express to Paddington in order to complete my journey.

I have at last solved the problem. It turns out after some on-line research that there are any number of ways to get between Heathrow and Paddington. The cheapest practical option is the Tube, at £4 each way, but it’s a pest when combined with suitcases. I simply booked two single tickets for the Paddington – Plymouth return journey using The Train Line, plus an open return on the Heathrow Connect rail service. In all, £20 less than attempting to do the whole thing through a one-stop shop.



Keefieboy said...

I had a stonkingly complicated itinerary when I went to the UK last summer, and worked out all my coach and rail travel in advance. They wouldn't let me buy the tickets online (you can only do that using a card issued to a UK address for some barmy reason). So I got my son to do all the bookings and mail the tickets to me in Madrid. Still, the advance booking is worth it: one leg of my journey, Doncaster to London by rail, cost only ten quid. If I'd bought that ticket closer to the journey time, I'd be looking at upwards of seventy quid.

Grumpy Goat said...

The train operators know I've bought tickets. They have my money and I have a piece of paper with a unique reference number for each ticket, along with my name and the journey details.

Yet instead of showing this to the inspector as necessary, I am obliged to use the details to obtain a different piece of paper, the latter being the only version of the ticket that the inspector will recognise.

"The details are all in order but it's not valid because it's on the wrong bit of paper!" is the sort of thing one might expect when dealing with Officialdom in the middle east. This disease would seem to be a pandemic.


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