Thursday, March 22, 2007

Amazing Web Dysfunction at Britain's National Rail

I usually avoid writing a general "wow this site is bad" post, but this is a case where the site is just so bad... and it comes from someone with the resources to do better (as in, have basic functionality work) that I have to point it out.

I'm about to go to London and so today I found myself on the UK National Rail site. Honestly, I haven't seen anything this terrible in years. First, just trying to find a simple train schedule - say, the PDF of what you might get at a station - is apparently impossible (I just gave up after a while). There's a journey planner, which is a fabulous feature; but only if it actually works.

I was trying to find the schedule for Sunday evening from a station outside of London (near where I'll be staying) to Victoria Station (where I plan to meet an old college friend who lives in London now). First, it didn't understand "Victoria" as a station; that's not so bad, because there are other stations in Britain with that name. But when I picked "London Victoria" off the drop-down menu, the next screen informed me that there is no such station.

Except that of course, there is, and it was on their list.

I tried again, and apparently in the last few seconds Victoria Station had returned to existence in our reality... but then I was told that I had timed out of the system. Apparently you have to complete your journey plan within twelve seconds.

I spent about half an hour on the site today, and came to a simple conclusion: I should ask the concierge at my hotel for help, because National Rail certainly won't be providing any. I actually had a much easier time navigating the Paris transit and French national rail sites last year, despite understanding about thirty words of French. (Yes, there are English versions, but there are some features you can only access in French; besides, I was spending enough time there to feel like I should give it a try in French.)

And believe me, as someone with family ties to the UK, it pains to me to say that the French are better at something like a rail web site.

I have heard that Britons are upset about the sad state of their country's rail system these days. If the web site is an indicator of the competence of those running the system, they have good reason to be alarmed.

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