Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) plan to replace the booking engine used on their website on 1st August 2017 replacing WebTIS which was launched back in 2007.

On 29th November 2007 the operator of the East Coast Mainline at the time, GNER, launched a brand new website and booking engine which was a significant improvement over other booking engines at the time which were all just based on thetrainline. The website didn't last long in GNER colours, National Express East Coast took over the franchise on 9th December so the site lasted under two weeks under the GNER brand.

Some key features available from day one that weren't available previously included the ability to request disabled assistance online, book cycle spaces online, purchase catering vouchers, reserve a seat in the on-board restaurant and make changes to tickets.

GNER had started a project to develop a new more powerful booking engine for its customers, in 2007 all rail operators were using a booking engine based on thetrainline and as the only option available meant that it stagnated and had very little improvement for years. GNER were also unhappy with the outsourced web support offered by thetrainline and wanted to bring it in house.

Unfortunately as Sea Containers (GNER's parent company) was in severe financial difficulties they were unable to continue their financial obligations for the franchise and the franchise was put to tender and was won by National Express. Presumably they hoped to launch the site earlier but due to delays in development it wasn't ready until towards the end of their franchise. As the branding was already in place it was decided to go live when it was ready even though it meant it was only around for such a short time most people wouldn't realise GNER introduced it. Here it is, as you see it still looks familiar.[GNER WebTIS]

Today, there's not much difference:


Although the basic UI didn't change some key improvements were made over time such as being able to select a seat from the seat map. Other train operators also adopted WebTIS, initially the Govia franchises such as Southern, Southeastern and London Midland and then getting picked up by FirstGroup and Chiltern. Some operators took additional features that were never in the East Coast version such as season ticket sales and rail rovers. The East Coast version was extended to support the 'escape' loyalty scheme and then East Coast Rewards. 

The Govia franchises have already moved away from WebTIS and Virgin Trains East Coast is in the process of doing so. WebTIS is showing its age but it's still a popular booking engine for many, although it could be considered overly complicated for those who just want the cheapest fare. It's understandable that companies want to start developing alternatives. Innovation can progress faster if there's competition in booking engines. The launch of WebTIS did force thetrainline into making improvements to their booking engine, the additional competition in booking engines should also hopefully help innovation.

So, it should be a good thing for Virgin Trains East Coast to do what GNER did ten years ago and push for something better? In the current form, the new VTEC booking engine is not feature complete and here's a list of issues that remain unfixed a day before the release.

WebTIS introduced the ability to reserve bikes online, ten years later cycling is becoming more popular than ever and VTEC introduce a site where their official advice is to phone to book a cycling space!

Fortunately you can still book your VTEC cycle spaces by other operators websites, the ones that still use WebTIS which are FirstGroup (GWR, TransPennine Express, Hull Trains) and Chiltern Railways.

I predict a lot of badwill for VTEC with this decision. They could have waited an additional month or so before releasing to make sure everything is ready, instead they release with core functionality missing.