Optimising travel configuration
I'm so used to planning my air travel online that I automatically assumed the same applied to rail travel. After several attempts using thetrainline.com and railtrack.co.uk, I realised that the British train system did not offer such flexibility.
It made sense to find an optimal routing for London to Bicester to Bath Spa to Exeter, one that would minimise my total travel time and ticket price. My friends in Bicester suspected that I might have to buy a return ticket from London Marylebone to Bicester and a separate return ticket via Bath Spa to Exeter St David's.
I searched for a telephone number on those two websites in vain. I recalled vaguely that the earlier you book, the cheaper the ticket. After giving up the online approach, I queued in the Travel Centre at London Waterloo station.
The young man at the end of the desk gave me a forced smile when I approached him after waiting for half an hour. I told him my ideal itinerary, my objective of minimising the total cost, and my flexibility (room for maneuvre).
He checked on his antiquated mainframe-look-alike computer screen and validated the schedule against a thick paperback reference manual. He apologised for this two prong approach claiming that the privatised and deregulated rail system in the UK meant that finding an optimal configuration was not trivial.
"You won't be able to go from Bicester to Bath or from Bicester to Exeter," he concluded at last.
I was happy to get a flexible return ticket to stay the night in Bicester.
"The cheapest ticket to Exeter St David's doesn't allow you to stop in Bath Spa," he added. "If you had bought it a few days ago, it would have been only 20 pounds on a Super Advance Fare."
"But I'd like to stop in Bath either on my way to Exeter or on my way back," I insisted.
"Then you're looking at a flexible fare, which is the most expensive."
"What's the cheapest ticket without going through Bath?" I asked. "I have to get there by 3:30 pm."
The young man looked through his book and replied politely, "Direct trains on the Apex Fare are no longer available. You'll have to get the flexible ticket."
After much to and fro, exploring various options, we agreed that I'd have to buy a return ticket to Bicester and a flexible return ticket to Exeter via Bath.
"Is there a pass I can buy that would give me a discount on the tickets?" I asked.
"No, I'm afraid. The trains are served by different train companies. The only passes that would work are the Senior Citizens rail pass, the Young Person's rail pass, and BritRail. BritRail can only be bought outside the country and it's for nonresidents."
I grudgingly signed my credit card for the two return tickets. 75 pounds. That's enough to fly to Amsterdam and back, never mind the hour I spent trying to find the optimal travel configuration!
8 July 2004 Thursday
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