21 September, 2005: If god had intended us to fly...

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So, I'm off to Stockholm on holiday tomorrow, but I promised you all another episode of `adventures in customer service', and here it is (though it's not the one about NTL, because I don't right now have sufficient energy or sweet, calming beer to face writing that one down).

As you may be aware I am not a great fan of flying, and do my best to avoid it whenever possible. So, I thought, why not take the train to Stockholm? How hard could it be? For those who haven't seen it, Mark Smith's website The Man in Seat 61 will answer questions such as these; it turns out the answer is, `as hard as going from London to Brussels, from Brussels to Hamburg (overnight), from Hamburg to Copenhagen, and then from Copenhagen to Stockholm'. This takes about twenty-two hours, which might seem excessive, but it also involves precisely zero airports, which is pretty-much ideal.

Unfortunately buying tickets for European rail travel is not a simple business. Rather than just buying them from a ticket machine or a website you have to go through the tiresome and protracted business of getting a `quote' (price) from a `travel agent' (person who sits in front of a computer looking at a website which does sell the ticket you want, but to which you're not allowed access). You then hand over a fat wad of cash to pay for the tickets and keep the `travel agent' happy.

Allegedly Deutsche Bahn UK are the people to talk to in this field, so we tried them.

This began promisingly enough. I sent the people an email asking for the price of tickets on a particular set of trains and received -- less than twelve hours later! -- the reply that, for the very reasonable (they thought) sum of 636 a pair of return tickets from London to Stockholm could be mine (for comparison, tickets for the same journey on Ryanair were about 100, but obviously involved having to go through two separate airports).

So, we thought, fair enough; or, rather, not fair enough, but what can you do? (Exercise for the reader: compose a suitable rant about the evils or monopoly nationalised industries, or insufficient European integration, or whatever, to go here.) So I rang them up to buy the tickets (naturally you can't buy over the web even after getting a `quote'). And, they assured me, the tickets would soon be posted to me (paper tickets! that you can't just print out at home! how quaint!).

A little while later a chap from rang me up to explain that my credit card had been declined. Having overcome my surprise, I checked the address he was trying to put the transaction through on, corrected it, and thought no more about it.

The next day they called me to say that my card had been declined again. So I gave the chap a different credit card number, and rang my bank to find out what was going on. They told me that the transaction had not been declined, but had gone through fine; and that it had subsequently -- between the first and second phone call alleging that it had been declined -- been refunded. I was surprised at this and asked my bank to check the source and amount of the transaction; they confirmed that it was Deutsche Bahn, but that the transaction had been for 780.

This surprised me even more, given that I hadn't anticipated these muppets helping themselves to over a hundred quid more than they'd initially asked for. So I rang them again and spoke to some other idiot (one Thomas Huber) who explained that train tickets can change their prices at any time and that, therefore, DB hadn't any intention of honouring their original quote; and then spoke over me for a quarter of an hour before I finally managed to get into his thick skull the information that I'd been charged almost 150 more than quoted, without being warned that this would happen!

At this point he was struck more-or-less dumb and was able only to suggest that I contact his manager before he hung up.

Now, to pause for a moment, it's obviously true that train tickets can get more expensive with time. It's also true that Deutsche Bahn's pro-forma quotation email is worded to the effect that the price they quote is more-or-less notional and in the brief interval between their supplying it and your ringing them up the quoted price may no longer be available. So this is all fair enough, up to a point; I question whether this was actually what had happened in this case, given that in the time between their giving me a quote and my ringing them up the price of tickets on Ryanair for the same journey had not increased at all, and -- since aeroplanes are much smaller than trains -- you would expect air tickets to rise in price more quickly further in advance than do rail tickets, but who knows? I am also certain that the delay of several hours between my ringing them with my credit card details and their charging my card was due purely to their own incompetence and disorganisation rather than a scam intended to inflate the prices they're able to charge.

In any case it's absolutely not OK for them to charge me some arbitrary sum larger than that quoted without warning me that that they were about to do so; and I'm not all that hot on them lying that my credit card had been declined when they'd in fact successfully charged hundreds of pounds to it.

Anyway, needless to say, correspondence with the proffered manager (one Gill Brassington) was pretty futile. She first told me that the quote I'd been given was in fact valid for the whole of the day on which it was sent, and then refused to explain why, then, I'd been charged more than promised. She then simultaneously denied that they'd made any error by overcharging while claiming that she'd apologised for their doing so (which she hadn't -- she apologised only for ``the confusion regarding your booking from London to Stockholm'').

It would be uncharitable to assume that since she refused to acknowledge the error, overcharging me without warning was intentional. Anyway, nothing anybody at Deutsche Bahn said gave me any confidence that they wouldn't cock up (or deliberately inflate) any further transaction; indeed, they were careful to make clear that they might charge me more-or-less anything if I were foolish enough to try to buy anything from them again.

Now, while I'd more-or-less resigned myself to paying over six hundred quid to get to Stockholm and back, I was pretty unhappy about the idea of paying over seven hundred quid -- and that to a bunch of people who were not only incompetent and rude but also actually lied to me. So I decided that I would not be offering Deutsche Bahn UK the use of any more of my money.

I then looked for some other `quotes' from some other `travel agents', but tragically they were all even more expensive than Deutsche Bahn's (even after they'd added their hundred-and-fifty quid incompetence fee).

So I gave up: we're flying Ryanair.

Anyway, at the close of this fiasco, Gill Brassington sent me an email to the effect that she had no interest in explaining what the fuck she and her staff had been playing at, and that (if I had the energy to) I should write a letter to one Oliver Ueck, apparently the director of the company. Well, frankly, I can't be arsed, but I will send him the URL to this post; let's see if he has the balls to explain himself.

(As a brief digression: why are train tickets so much more expensive than air tickets? Naively I'd expect that budget airlines would have driven down the price of rail travel to something competitive, but they clearly haven't. Since rail travel is -- for people who don't mind airports -- much less convenient than air travel, I guess the passengers must mostly be (a) people who like trains, and (b) people who don't like flying. Are there really enough of these to sustain a market for long-distance rail travel at six to seven times the price of air travel? Perhaps it's like first/business-class air travel -- mostly people's employers are paying, rather than the passengers themselves. I'd also welcome any suggestions on where to buy rail tickets without being lied to, overcharged, or otherwise fucked around.)

Coming up in future episodes of `adventures in customer service': mail-order computer companies, and how none of them seem to have mastered the relatively simple provisions of the Sale of Goods Act 1979; a (very) brief discussion of the differences between `an enterprise-class data center' and `a big building full of incompetent jobsworths with air conditioning that doesn't work'; and, if you're very, very lucky -- I wasn't -- the lengthy saga of NTL and their all-encompassing hopelessness.

Copyright (c) 2005 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.