[Booking engine review]

How did the VTEC website launch go?

A week ago (30 July 2017) we heard that Virgin Trains East Coast were planning to launch their new website which was in beta at the time, this was surprising as it was not feature complete. We immediately put together an article explaining why launching the site in the current state was a bad idea and we also put together a guide for cyclists as we knew that the site would launch without facilities for bike reservations.

So was our prediction right? Was it wrong to have launched the site in the current state? The answer has to be yes. In fact the launch went even worse than expected which meant we decided to extend the booking advice beyond cyclists to be a general guide for people booking elsewhere.

Here are the additional problems to the ones we predicted:

  • It's not possible to cancel bookings made on the old site. This has also resulted in long wait times for people calling web support.
  • It's not possible to modify (change the date or time) of any bookings. The only option is to make a new booking and cancel the old one.
  • These long call waits were also causing problems for people who needed to get through to VTEC web support for other reasons.
  • eVouchers from the old site were not available on the new site at time of switchover, they were supposed to be made available within a few days but many still have nothing.
  • The process to modify tickets on the new site is unintuitive and requires booking a new ticket and then refunding the old one.
  • The 'verify email' feature when registering was failing intermittently.
  • Customers weren't warned that they'd not be able to modify existing bookings when the old site closed.

The mistakes

  • Launching before they were ready! We said that many times. The features that are missing are those that we've had since WebTIS launched in 2007, you can't say it's phase one to excuse not being feature complete.
  • Not having a process to modify existing bookings, this could have been simply by leaving the 'My Account' section of the old site still accessible.
  • The social media team need to be given access to the booking system to help with straightforward queries. I know the social teams at Virgin Trains West Coast and CrossCountry can do tasks such as cycle reservations and arranging collection on a different card. This would help reduce the pressure on the call centre.
  • Setting expectations high - over promise, under deliver. Awesome is not a word most would associate with the new site - yet!

What happened?

Really, we have no idea so can only speculate.

We know this project to replace the booking engine was being talked about since early 2015 and so it was hoping to go live in 2016. This would be such a long time to produce such an incomplete website so perhaps the original supplier of the website was ditched in 2016 and a new company was brought in?

As for the launch before it's ready it's possible that the licence to use WebTIS expired on 31 July 2017 and they didn't want to pay to extend it. This could be a costly mistake as this could put people off booking direct and, unless Worldline were holding them to ransom over licence fees, extending the licence for a few more months would have eased the transition path.

What can you do?

  • If you're dissatisfied with the new site or the transition process submit a complaint. Using the online form ensures your complaint is logged and allocated a reference number.
  • If you need any of the missing features of the old site then consider booking elsewhere.
  • Mention the options available to other people who book rail travel and if they're a regular traveller on the East Coast Mainline please encourage them to submit feedback.

What we will do?

Just like Virgin we can be loud and annoying when we need to be! The East Coast Mainline has been the flagship mainline in the UK for as long as most of us can remember and we will fight hard so that it remains so! 

Many of us remember fondly the days of GNER (1996-2007). They were stylish, but understated. While you had Virgin on the west coast telling everyone how amazing they were, GNER just quietly carried on being the best! Where other companies were trying to cut back or scrap the restaurant services inherited from British Rail, GNER increased them up to a total of 100 weekday trains a day at their highest point. They employed more on-board chefs than the other rail operators combined.

Even under National Express (2007-09), the East Coast service remained the best in the UK. It seemed a lot worse than GNER but overall it was still better than the offering from other operators around the UK.

The nationalised East Coast (2009-15) undid some of the cutbacks of National Express and developed a class leading loyalty scheme to encourage people to travel more frequently by train. They introduced a complimentary first class offering in 2011, an offering that's significantly better than the complimentary offering on Virgin Trains West Coast. East Coast proved that you could run the East Coast Mainline at a profit and still deliver excellent service.

Virgin Trains East Coast (2015 onwards) started bad by announcing the abolition of the loyalty scheme before the franchise even started, this felt like it would be the start of endless National Express style cuts ultimately resulting in a service that mirrors Virgin Trains on the west coast.

Fortunately apart from the loyalty scheme there were no (noticeable) cuts in the first two years. They seemed to be building on what made East Coast great and also improving areas such as the breakfasts. A nice addition was the Hop on Board ale and the Foodbar product range was extended. They weren't perfect, but Virgin Trains East Coast were doing a decent job.

Unfortunately 2017 seems to have had a number of mistakes. Prior to the website launch I would say the biggest mistake was the change to crew rosters. Now the train manager role has been created which combines the guard and the crew leader. This means on-board the train there is a sole point of contact whether it is operational or customer service related. Many quieter trains have had fewer staff on-board. As time has gone on and they're optimising the rotas the number of issues are reducing but it's still usual to see a couple of Tweets a day about services without the advertised catering offering. This is not ideal for a service that used to pride itself on catering.

There's some smaller changes that also show that they're trying to make the service deliverable with fewer staff, the main one being on a weekday the sandwiches are now handed out in boxes rather than being plated. It's only a small difference but as well as having less of a premium feel it could be the start of gradual decline.

Let's look at the current Virgin Trains East Coast first class offering. There's breakfast until 11 and after that there's the 'rest of the day' menu, this includes sandwiches, wraps and a couple of larger hot meals as well as the hot sausage roll. Many northbound evening services have a chef on-board and offer the evening meal menu which always has something extra to the rest of the day menu. So in theory (barring staff or stock shortages) you can get hot food on every weekday service.

Over on the west coast it's a different matter. They start off well with breakfast, then they have 'brunch' which a cut down breakfast menu, after brunch there's no hot food offered in the afternoon just sandwiches and snack. It picks up again slightly with the evening meal menu but it's not a patch on the East Coast evening meal menu, for a start there's no chef so the food quality is not as good as East Coast. They don't have any weekly menu rotation either so if you're a regular you can get fed up fast. After the evening meal it goes back to sandwiches and a snack. Unbelievably the food on a plane to Manchester (business class, about 40 mins in the air) is better than that on the train (first class, two hour trip). My last train trip to Manchester only had one drinks run, on east coast there'd be at least two on a journey that length.

If you think the cut down weekend service on the east coast is bad, you'll find it's actually the best weekend service across the rail network. Most rail operators are unstaffed in first class on a weekend. Virgin Trains East Coast doesn't offer complimentary alcohol on a weekend, on the west coast they don't even offer complimentary soft drinks. It would be good if rail operators in general offered a better service on the weekend. The plane doesn't distinguish between weekdays and weekends (as my Sunday evening flight from Glasgow shows)