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Train travel: A comfortable, convenient, cost-effective way to get around.
Author Name: Mrs S Dale
Advantages: None to be found on this occasion
Disadvantages: unsatisfactory service, inadequate online booking service
5pm on Friday and I'm booking an online train ticket for my mum who fancies trying a long-distant train journey to return home - advertised as a comfortable, convenient and cost effective travel option - "Get where you want to be... for less". Everything went swimmingly (ticket only £35.00 which seemed reasonable for this particular part of the journey), printed the booking confirmation emails and still time for a last glass of wine whilst finishing the packing, repacking and more repacking.
Before leaving at a respectable 9am on Saturday to get to the train station on time, a last check was made to ensure mum had at least all the essentials including the printed travel information - and away we go in the car on another foggy day into the hustle and bustle of Birmingham. The heavy Saturday morning traffic into Birmingham with fog warnings and the usual morning-motor-monsters was, with hindsight, the calm before the storm.
On arrival at Birmingham New Street train station we parked up, purchased the required parking ticket and gathered all of the 'essentials' required for mum's journey. First challenge was to get to the ticket booth to collect our ticket, printed confirmation in hand, so manoeuvring around the crowds and strategically picking the queue that looked to be moving more quickly than the others, we eagerly awaited our turn to be served.
The expected, welcoming "Good morning madam how may I help you?" (with a smile) was conveyed in the way of an early morning smirk, grunt and nod, followed by a more expressive and enthusiastic shake of the head, growl and pushing back of the paper we had offered and slid expectantly under the protection glass. In an apologetic, slightly panicked response (impending train departure and three further connections at the forefront of our minds) we then asked, indeed pleaded that he read our printed piece of paper in the hope of further guidance. Reluctantly and with further mutterings, said 'train ticket booth guy' told us to 'use the machines they're much quicker than me', once again pushing back our printed piece of paper. At risk of further inconveniencing the increasingly vocal and hostile travellers in the queue behind, once again re-presenting the now rather crumpled booking confirmation email with payment details, train details, passenger details and seat number, and stating that we would like his help to provide us with instructions as to what we need to do next, a reasonable request we thought not least because of our lack of confidence in our own abilities at using the recommended machine (although now agreeing with him that it would probably have been considerably quicker). I have to admit that this is now the point at which my usual very calm and considered approach to life's little challenges started to wobble. Having now glanced at the printed offering, progress we thought, said 'train ticket booth guy' stated with some finality that it was the 'wrong' piece of paper and that there was nothing he could do apart from sell us a new ticket. Speechless for a couple of seconds and panic rising considerably, we were now clearly unsatisfied with the service being provided to us. The previous statement was reiterated - Do you want a new ticket or not? Our request now changed to demand - that he advise us how we go about finding a solution to our problem. Now fed up with our demands on his time, and in the process of clearing his desk, we were told that he now refused to serve us in any way and in fact, would not now sell us a new ticket. He then walked away. Had we had more time, it is clear that this is the moment that any fee paying passenger would have called for the manager however, time was not on our side. Mum now upset and no other option, we conceded to try out the pre-paid ticket machine only to find that the booking reference provided in the printed confirmation was one too many digits for the machine to accept. We now had only one option - to purchase a new ticket (now £45.00 for same journey). I'd like to say that this was the end of this particular journey's problems... Having settled mum onto the train and left her in her original ticket booking's seat (assuming this had already been paid for first time around), we said our goodbyes and waved as the train departed. Mum telephoned a short while later to say that the Virgin Train's ticket man now demanded that she pay an additional £10 for the seat that she had taken (and paid for) because the ticket that she was travelling with didn't allow her to sit in that seat. She tried to show him the original booking details, with the seat number listed only to be presented with the now familiar refusal to look at this now completely valueless piece of paper and respond with "You must pay or move". At this stage extremely stressed and upset, to avoid having to change seat on a moving train, with all of the baggage, mum decided to pay the additional £10.00 and looked forward to putting an end to this particular part of the journey, also vowing never to use trains again in the future.
I telephoned Virgin Trains customer relations department (tel. 0845 000 80005) to ask them about issues surrounding the 'incorrect train booking ticket'. I was advised that another email should have been sent, the booking confirmation with all of the relevant information was not good enough to present for the journey. Even though Virgin Trains did not send the 'correct' email (I checked and double checked both my inbox and junk items folder) and I was led to believe that the booking confirmation that had in fact arrived via email was the document that was required to be printed, they were completely unwilling to concede that this was their problem.
The moral of this sorry tale is to all Virgin Train users (unless you are a seasoned traveller and you know exactly what to present or indeed, query if you are not sent the relevant documentation). Expect to pay again and again - your proof of payment, proof of booking, confirmation of journey details counts of nothing. If like us, you are infrequent train users - don't if you can help it.
Virgin Trains are clearly not interested in delivering on their "Get where you want to be... for less" promise. A £35.00 Birmingham to London journey cost my mum £90.00 in the end - she could have got a Ryan Air flight to France for that. Virgin have refused to refund any of the journey, stating that it was our error to present the incorrect travel documentation.
As for the absolute plonker in booth 6 at Birmingham New Street Station (apx 10am on Saturday 20th November) maybe this level of service was because our request for help was out of his list of job responsibilities as 'the train ticket booth guy' - perhaps we should have asked the little old guy pushing the mop??
Incidentally, the continuing train journeys into France went without problem although I hasten to say that by this stage neither Birmingham New Street or Virgin Trains staff were involved.
Summary: Don't use Virgin Trains or Birmingham New Street Train Station if you can help it.
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