The Virgin Trains East Coast booking engine was officially launched on 1 August 2017, when we heard it was going live (and therefore the original booking engine based on WebTIS would become unavailable) we were shouting from the rooftops for them to stop!

The reason was we didn't think the site was ready for production use, it had been available in beta since at least June and I had been using the site to do most of my bookings and providing feedback along the way. When the site is in beta it means it's not ready for production but it's in a stage when it's ready to be used by people who are interested that are willing to accept there's still some issues. This is a public testing stage where feedback from users should shape the final stages of development before the initial release.

When it first became available in beta I spent a few hours going through the site documenting issues that were present in the site. Initially the feedback was welcomed and I was happy to report any issues and suggestions I had. The first problem I encountered was silence when I asked if cycle reservations would be available when the site officially goes live. I did not get an answer to this and so from that point I was starting making feedback more public rather than private.

Some points to note

A lot of frustration was caused by the lack of information - there was no response to the question about cycle reservations or any of the other issues we identified before the site officially launched. As we still don't have online cycle reservations a year later it's clear that this feature was never intended to be in the initial public release so this should have been made clear to those using the beta. A decent beta programme would have given early users access to the release notes so it was clear what features were available, what issues were already known and what features were expected to be implemented before the release. There should also have been a better means for serious users to report bugs and offer feature suggestions.

The bad communication continued after the official release promising missing features would be in place by phase 2, it's now a year later and this mythical phase 2 hasn't materialised. After a few months they stopped talking about phase 2 and they're generally silent about the missing features. Some openness would have been appreciated, generally when you know the reasons for something it's less frustrating plus you may be able to suggest alternative solutions.

One year on

Some of the issues have been fixed and a few new features such as PayPal payments have been added but the major features we lost when this new site was launched still have not made a return.

  • Amending bookings: it's still not possible to amend an advance ticket. The old site used to allow you to amend the ticket on payment of the admin fee (£10) and any fare difference. The new site has a workaround which means you have to cancel your ticket and buy a new one, if you're short of money this can be a problem as the refunds are not immediate. Although this process involves more effort for the customer they still have to pay the £10 admin fee for the privilege.
  • Cycle reservations: we've mentioned this one many times! Still not possible to book bikes online on the LNER site, but we've listed other sites you can use. Initially if you had booked your tickets through the VTEC/LNER website you had to either call up web support to get cycle reservations added or do it at a ticket office. The social media team are now able to do cycle reservations, although this is not as handy as being able to add them at the time of booking it does have the added benefit that now the social media team can help with short notice cycle reservations (e.g. if you arrive at a station earlier or later than expected)
  • Catering vouchers: these should be simple to implement online so it's possible they've not been implemented as an excuse to phase them out. Catering vouchers cost £4 to buy but are worth £5 in the Foodbar, this is effectively a 20% discount on your catering if you're willing to pay in advance (the vouchers do not give change but can be combined with cash and card payments). It's still possible to buy these but only at LNER ticket offices, all mention of them was removed from the website too so it's possible they're trying to kill these off citing lack of demand.
  • Seat selector and individual seats: on your seating preferences it's still not possible to select 'Individual' seat, these are the solo seats in first class and very popular for those travelling alone who don't want disturbed by other people. The workaround for that is to use the seat selector but this only works for LNER services so if your trip involves a connection to another operator you're out of luck, there's also certain LNER services where the seat map won't appear.
  • Overcharging: we've documented areas in the past where the site could potentially overcharge passengers. Some have been fixed but others are still an issue. New issues are still appearing which suggests poor testing.
  • 'My support cases' is supposed to be a page that lists all contact with LNER but it seems hit an miss whether these show up. It's supposed to list things including delay repay claims, complaints, praise and suggestions and presumably it matches the email address with the one in your online account. None of my cases from 2018 have appeared on this page.
  • 'My loyalty cards' is supposed to list the Nectar (and Flying Club pre-LNER) points earned. For my account it stopped listing my Flying Club points months ago even though they correctly appeared on my Flying Club account. For testing purposes I've tried the same with Nectar and although these posted to Nectar fine the points did not appear in this section.
  • 'My contact settings' has preferences for what sort of marketing material you want to receive. I deliberately checked all the boxes to receive all the marketing material to keep an eye on what's being sent out but often when I go back to this preference page I see all the options have been unchecked again.

Although we don't know what has been fixed behind the scenes there does seem to have been very little progress made on public facing issues.

I believe the booking engine still belongs to Stagecoach so presumably LNER will be paying a licence fee for it. Last time I checked it wasn't used by the other Stagecoach TOC East Midlands Trains or the part Stagecoach owned Virgin Trains but a more feature limited version was used by South West Trains when it was still a Stagecoach franchise. It's up to LNER whether they decide to stick with this booking engine or switch to one of the others available. The other option is if they decide to start again and develop their own booking engine, that is a project I'd love to be involved in and would do everything in my power to ensure it was done right this time but I doubt they're going to risk another attempt at developing a booking engine.

Another surprise is that a month after Virgin Trains East Coast became LNER the 'Travel Buddy' app is still in Virgin branding. It should have been possible for this to be done in a day. All it would have taken is someone to work with the developers to create the replacement graphics. 

Conclusion

It has taken me by surprise how slow progress has been on the booking engine but as we've had no engagement with the teams responsible it's impossible to know the reasons for this and whether anything could be done to improve this. The only thing that is clear is that a booking engine that was supposed to improve the experience is still a year later worse in many ways to the one it replaced, a booking engine that had its origins in 2007 and is showing its age.

The one thing that the new booking engine has achieved is making me visit the ticket office more. If I want catering vouchers it's now only possible to get them from the ticket office. 

There's so much potential can be achieved with a decent booking engine and a decent app. Although I don't share the desire of many train operators to cut down on ticket office provision (there's times when we can all benefit from trained ticketing staff) I do also see the value in using technology to improve the passenger experience. Passengers should not be forced into using substandard technology because the ticket office is closed or the queues are too long but because they're comfortable with it and find that it benefits their journey.

I'd love to see the LNER vision for the future and their roadmap to attain it. Would I be able to push them in the right direction? Who knows, but I love a challenge!