I rarely book train tickets. For all I know what follows may be a normal experience, but for me it was more than a bit over the top.
I wanted to book tickets for a trip in the early summer. One from Lewes to Alnmouth, returning a few days later, and one for Kings Cross to Alnmouth for the same days and times. I spent a couple of hours on various websites yesterday checking different options and prices, and seeing if I could book seats to travel together. It might have been possible for a more intrepid traveller, but I, being definitely trepid, decided to go to the station and get them to make the bookings on my behalf. It seemed like a sensible idea at the time.
I spent an hour - you heard it - an hour at Lewes station while the ticket clerk valiantly tried to get me the trains I wanted. Getting to Alnmouth was not a problem, though even that took ten minutes and various tries before the programme condescended to do what the clerk wanted. I noticed that she was working on single ticket prices all the time, not even bothering to try a return ticket. I saw yesterday that the return prices were in every case a lot more than twice a single. If someone could explain the logic of that one to me, I would be grateful.
Anyway she found the train I wanted for the return journey, and spent a while printing out the details. Then she tried to book seats and that where we really came unravelled. After a few tries the programme told her that there was only one bookable seat left on an 11 a.m. midweek train from Alnmouth to Kings Cross. I find that hard to believe, but it wouldn't budge. So the clerk tried alternative trains but the programme refused to find two tickets for the same train (and we hadn't even got to the seat booking stage at that point). The best it could do after several tries was one ticket going via York and one going via Wakefield.
I really didn't want a later train as that would dump the passengers back in London just in time for the rush hour. But there didn't seem to be an alternative. So she found a train an hour later, and found two places on it. The price for the ticket back to Kings Cross was cut by half. The price for the ticket through to Lewes stayed the same. Logic: by this time I expected none.
Now for seat booking. We are given strong advice to book seats, so I tried. Of course, being together, the two passengers would like to sit together. When I looked on websites yesterday it seemed possible to stipulate various types of seat - window, aisle, facing forward, facing backward, in a quiet carriage, etc. But when it comes to actually booking seats it seemed the options weren't available, and seats were randomly chucked out on the Kings Cross to Newcastle, and then the Newcastle to Alnmouth stretches. Several different tries produced no better results. For one stretch the seats are in the same carriage and might possibly be in the same block. for the other, and for the return journey, they're three carriages apart (assuming the alphabet works).
One of the justifications we're given for privatising things is that the private sector is so much more efficient than the public sector. If this is an efficient private sector operation, I'd hate to see an inefficient one.