The new Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) booking engine is now live. We pleaded with them not to release it until it was ready and key features were implemented but they decided to press ahead with it anyway. The previous WebTIS booking engine had its origins with GNER and is nearly 10 years old. Regular travellers along the east coast have come to rely on the functionality it provided.

I was told about VTEC's plans to replace WebTIS with a new booking engine back in 2015, I was supportive of the idea. WebTIS is good, but it's best not to stand still and keep innovating. The mobile experience with WebTIS also had a lot to be desired.

The main issue was the site was launched with some key features missing, but that's already been covered here. 

This post is to look at how poor the transition has been handled as well as some of the non-critical rough edges that have not been dealt with.

The transition

The old website was decommissioned in the evening of 31 July 2017 although I was told it was going to happen on the morning of 1 Aug, so I was in the unfortunate position where I was trying to make a booking and the website became unavailable. The plan had been to book using my remaining eVouchers rather than rely on them being transferred over.

What was surprising was the beta site was effectively promoted to the live site despite some of the content being outdated. The CMS powering most of the content seems to have been forked when the beta site was launched meaning a lot of content was out of date. There was even a link "Take me back to the old site" which was left in from the beta days which just takes you back to the homepage, the old site is no more.

After a quick look around there's some other information that was outdated:

  • The Foodbar menu is currently showing the winter 2016/17 menu. A lot of the items have changed and Hop on Board was 5p cheaper back then
  • The Nectar FAQ says Nectar points are not available on season tickets as they can't be booked online, but online season ticket purchase is one of the features of the new site
  • The carnets page says you can buy carnets online but the new site does not support this
  • One of the first class menu rotations is missing the 'Rest of the day' menu as well as having two 'Evening meal' menus, one of which is out of date
  • The video explaining how to use the seat selector is based on the old site
  • Changing tickets - screenshot still shows old site
  • The smartphone app page still points to the old 'Trains Live' app

It would have made sense to refresh the information in the CMS before launch and then update the appropriate sections where the functionality in the new site differs. You'd expect they'd have updated content ready for the new site going live.

In order for users to be able to modify bookings made on the old site it would have made sense that this was still accessible during the transition period, this would have also helped those who needed to use features of the old site which are not yet available in the new.

Rough edges

One thing I've noticed is a lot of people are annoyed that the new site requires people to re-register, personally I don't think that is too big a deal but they could have made the process simpler. There's ways to make the process more seamless while still maintaining security. 

There's a lot more rough edges in the site which, although not being release blockers, make a suboptimal experience. 

  • The text cropping the route selected does not take up all the available space. It will even insert ellipsis to truncate one character. 
    [VTEC poor truncation]
  • The booking confirmation emails do not include the collection reference in the subject
  • Reservations booked through the site will have the generic "Mx G Customer" in the name field of the reservation slip
  • There's no calendar attachment in the confirmation email
  • If you click "Add to calendar" in my bookings, the reference number is different to the one needed to collect the tickets
  • The 'My support cases' does not appear to update

Accessibility

This is still something I'm looking into, the WebTIS booking engine had a text only mode developed in association with Shaw Trust which was designed to make the website more accessible to those requiring screen readers (visually impared) or other assistive technologies. There does not seem to be an accessible alternative to the main site.