Health Warning: Can using the web damage your health?

Can using a computer be injurious to one's health? If you're trying to book a particular rail journey via a particular website in the UK, the answer is a resounding "Yes", according to this article I wrote in February 2008.

This is what I had to do a few days ago, and although I often book my tickets online, on this occasion it was nightmarish. Well, it was like being in the Twilight Zone. Let me tell you the whole sorry tale. Read it and weep -- and perhaps pass on to your students how not to design an online "experience".

Goodmayes Station

At first, everything went quite smoothly. Well, smoothly-ish. You get a choice of 4 types of return ticket:

Standard open ("Standard" is the euphemism employed to denote second class)

First Open

First + Breakfast

First Inclusive

Apart from the different levels of service associated with each of these, there are also differences in price: from the ludicrously expensive to the eyewatering. Let's put it this way: it is actually cheaper to fly in many cases than to use the rail services. So much for encouraging us to look after the environment. But let's press on.

The fun really begins when you click on a button which informs you that two single tickets might be cheaper than a return ticket.  Why? Because you are then confronted with a choice of 30 ticket types for each part of the journey, ie outward and return. That's right: you have to choose 2 tickets from a choice of 60.

Now, some tickets aren't valid at certain times of the day, and this is indicated. But does that make the process any easier? Well, no, because you have to keep scrolling up and down to see if you have checked the correct column -- because the lines separating the columns are white, on a light blue background. In fact, you only really know whether or not you have made the right choice when you click on "Continue" and get taken to a confirmation page.

So what are the differences between some of these ticket types? Some are only able to be used on the train you specify. If you oversleep, that's your tough luck because you will have to buy a new ticket. But you can pay a bit more money in the first place and have a greater choice. But there are some tickets which all have the same name apart from the letter they end with, which ranges from A to H. And the only difference between these ones is that the further up the alphabet you go, the lower the price. Many of these tickets, ie the more expensive and the cheaper ones, are available for the same journey at the same time, so the choice comes down to whether you want to save money or plough some of your hard-earned cash into the coffers of a company that appears to be incapable of simplifying a process that is actually -- or should be -- quite straightforward.

OK, so you manage to work your way through this labyrinth but then, in a moment of under-confidence, decide to see if a later train might not be better. Bad move! Because by doing so, you lose the choices you have just spent ages making, and are once again faced with the prospect of looking at white lines on a light blue background. Disability Discrimination Act? What's that?

After an hour of this nonsense I clicked on the "Purchase option", and submitted my card details. A page appeared telling me that I had successfully booked my journey. It also told me that my Reference Number is [blank], and that it is crucial that I keep it safe. There was no option but to phone the company...

Me: Good evening. I have booked a ticket online, but it has not given me a reference number.

Company: OK, sir, I will look into it. What's the reference number please?

Me: It didn't give me a reference number. That's why I'm phoning.

Company: What do you mean it didn't give you a reference number?

Me: I mean that it did not give me a reference number.

Company: But you had confirmation that you'd bought the ticket?

Me: Yes.

Company: And what was the reference number on that page.

Me: There wasn't one. That's why I'm phoning you.

Company: There wasn't a reference number?

Me (to wife): Can you talk to this idiot before I have a nervous breakdown?

Elaine: It didn't have a reference number on the page.

Company: Oh I see. Well that's fine, it won't have taken your money. Just go back on the website and try again.

Ninety minutes after I had started on this venture, I finally had confirmation that I had purchased a ticket. But then came the sting in the tail: it was a strict condition of sale that the ticket cannot be used on any train that passes through Slough -- a fact that had not been mentioned before I handed over my credit card details.

Why not? Is Slough in quarantine or something?

Where is Slough anyway?

And the train is non-stop, so what will they do? Throw me off?

I will just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I have started reading a book I borrowed from my local library last week: The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Mysteries.

A slightly different version of this article was posted to the Technology & Learning blog on 5 February 2008.

Postscript: I should point out that I almost always purchase train tickets via the web, and this is the only instance I've had of it all going horribly wrong. As far as I can recall, in the six years since I wrote this article, everything has gone remarkably smoothly!