A national train information line is giving "inaccurate, incomplete or irrelevant" advice, a survey has found.
Travellers were given misleading information about ticket prices
National Rail Enquiries staff answered only five out of 20 questions about routes and prices correctly in a poll by consumer magazine Which?.
However, there were good exceptions and staff were "consistently patient, friendly and polite", Which? said.
The Association of Train Operating Companies, which runs the service, said the poll did not give a true picture.
The magazine claimed one operator was confused about where Cambridge was and "spent much of the time almost silent, muttering 'Cambridge, Cambridge' and, bizarrely, occasionally 'Birmingham'."
Another staff member was asked how close Cheltenham station was to the centre of the town.
"After offering the names of 'the next few stations close to that' and quizzing our researcher as to what county it was in, he tapped away on his computer for some time trying to locate an elusive Cheltenham before giving up," the magazine said.
The investigation also found callers were given misleading information about ticket prices.
One was told a late morning fare from Manchester to London would cost £182 when, according to Which?, the researcher should have been offered a ticket for £52.
The results are worse than last year, when staff got eight out of 20 questions right, but are a slight improvement on 2002, when the figure was three out of 20.
The Association of Train Operating Companies, which is responsible for the service, said it took any criticism seriously and prided itself on quality and accuracy.
Its statement added: "The Which? report is based on only 20 calls, which does not give a true picture, but we are following these up to identify where any problems lie.
"National Rail Enquiries is independently measured by the world's leading mystery shopping company which conducts 8,000 test calls a year and we consistently score extremely highly with an accuracy score of 97%."
The service handles 50 million calls a year, making it Britain's busiest phone number.
What is your worst call centre experience?
I called National Rail Enquiries whilst standing at the station in Lostwithiel to enquire about the next train, only to be told the station didn't exist, then that it was for freight only and no passenger trains stopped there, even after I told them I caught the train there every day and lived next to the line. In the end the person had to fetch their manager to find the station, but by that time the train had arrived.
Becky Hughes, St Austell, UK
I couldn't agree more about outsourcing. The latest trend of having call centres in India is hardly likely to help with accurate geographical information when the operators have, most likely, never even visited the UK. But then with the fall in education standards in this country I don't suppose a UK centre would be any better!
The fact is that companies nowadays put directors' salaries/bonuses first, shareholders dividends second and customer services come way down the list.
Alan, Ashford, Middx
I have called several times to the national rail and they have given me the right route and train times. But there were occasions were wrong times were given but this is due to inexperienced members of staff, in this case more training should be provided. The best option is to check on the web site, which gives you the right time and route.
The last time I rang about a late train, I was advised to make alternative plans as the train was extremely late, and as I ended the call the train pulled into the station! However, having worked in call-centres, I know that they invest as little as possible into training and systems which then affects operatives performance, which then leads to a drop in morale; ending up with high staff turnover. They really are horrid places to work.
Max Richards, Wales
I recently wanted to travel from Banbury to Kensington Olympia - a straightforward direct journey in mid-morning that takes 1hr 35mins. National Rail Enquiries had no clue, telling me it would take 3 hours with 3 changes (the phone operator had never heard of Kensington, and kept referring to it as "Kingston Olympia"), and even Virgin Trains, who run the service, used NRE's info on their website and claimed there were no direct trains. It's really come to something when the best, most accurate and most flexible websites for train enquiries in the UK are Dutch Railways and German Rail - both include details of every train between any two points in the UK, and can show things like intermediate stops that are impossible with National Rail Enquiries. I don't bother with NRE anymore.
Matthew, Banbury, Oxfordshire
Twenty enquiries is nothing like enough to provide a statistical basis with any kind of confidence. Thorough and professional research would require at least a thousand samples. I use NRES a few times a month and never known them be wrong about anything, nor did they have any trouble finding Lochluichart, never mind Cambridge.
Under BR you used to ring your local station which only worked during opening hours and which would refer you to another station somewhere else if you wanted information about another region. We now have a central service available everywhere 24 hours.
Yet another biased and poorly researched report by self-professed experts aimed at bringing a useful public service into disrepute. Which? Won't even let me read it unless I hand over my credit card details.
Martin Bucknall, Glasgow, Scotland
For years, National Rail Enquiries has been giving out incorrect information, which has often been in direct conflict with the information available to the staff issuing tickets. I've had numerous arguments with ticket staff while trying to buy a ticket that NRE assured me was available. They claimed to get the latest information from ATOC, just like any ticket office. Yet the ticket office would claim that NRE "don't know what they're talking about". Glad to see nothing has changed over the years.
Gavan Fantom, Watford, UK
My Senior Citizen's travel pass from Luton Borough Council entitles me to half-price rail travel to most Thameslink stations between Bedford and Hertfordshire, but staff at St Albans station repeatedly told me I must pay full price, as they had not heard about this concession. I paid up, and later e-mailed complaints to Thameslink, twice, but received no reply. The issue was then taken up by an organisation that looks after the interests of Luton's older people. Only then did I receive a written apology from Thameslink, who said I should have been sold half-price tickets in accordance with an agreement between the train company and the council.
Ron Loft, Luton, Beds, England
I have frequently been advised by National Rail Enquiries to travel via Essex - when trying to go from deepest darkest Hampshire to London! At least their website gives times of trains that do exist (as long as there is no engineering work etc).
Just shows how stupid outsourcing is. When BR did enquiries inhouse, they were answered by staff who had an interest in and experience of railways. If you asked where Cheltenham station was they would know because chances are they would have either worked there or passed through as a passenger because they were given cheap travel passes for the whole network.
Tim, Bath, England
NRE so far has always been very helpful for me. Their operators were very helpful when I tried to get to London from Portsmouth on a day that I was not planning on travelling, and didn't have the schedules on me. As for Paul Hewson's incident, I think the fault lies with GWR for not notifying NRE of service changes. I know about the service alterations between Paddington and Cardiff via Bristol Parkway because it was listed on BBC News' website as a news item.
Stefan P., London, UK
I am travelling to Cardiff this Sunday. I rang National Railway Enquiries & they gave me the times for trains including one on GWR from Bristol
I then rang GWR to reserve a seat & they said that the service was not running due to engineering works. I rang National Railway Enquiries & they said "Is it, we didn't know that"
Please bring back British Rail
Paul Hewson, Manchester, England
3G mobile has to be the worst.
I got conflicting dates when asked how much notice they needed to terminate my mobile phone contract. I asked for a statement showing my payments, the only answer I could get was that he would need to check, as a matter of fact that was the stock answer to all my queries. I gave up.
John Sim, Livingston, West Lothian