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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 December, 2004, 17:01 GMT
Rail ticket home 'bit of a gamble'
By Clare Babbidge
BBC News

A train platform
Booking a train seat at Christmas may take a few phone calls

Stress on the line is a problem facing many rail passengers calling to secure their seat on the train home to see loved ones this Christmas.

The publication of train timetables has been delayed as Network Rail has not given companies enough notice about engineering works over Christmas.

But during my spot check calls to several firms which offer the cheaper Apex tickets for advance bookings, nobody gave that as the exact reason for the problems.

Some even offered glimmers of hope as they were able to confirm train times for the festive journeys I had requested.

At this point, my visions of being required to stand, laden with bags, near a train's toilet were diminished.

However, the problems came when I tried to book and pay for my ticket.

'A gamble'

A Virgins Trains ticket adviser helpfully took me through my plan to go to Glasgow from London on Christmas Eve, returning on 2 January.

The dates and times were all fine it seemed, but I would have to pay the standard fare of 87.10 as I had missed earlier deals.
It is important to remember the context that we are carrying out three times as much engineering works as was being done five years ago
Network Rail spokesman

But when I came to make my definite booking, she told me to call back as a seat could not be guaranteed.

"And you will need one for such a long journey, " she said.

"There has been a delay for some reason, from Network Rail.

"We are advising customers not to book now but to call back to ensure they get a seat. We are hoping next week, by 6 December."

But if I had called before, wouldn't I have got a cheaper deal? She said no, as all customers had been told this.

It suddenly seemed like a lot of competition to get a guaranteed seat to Glasgow on Christmas Eve.

"It is a gamble, it definitely is a gamble," she said.

There was slightly more joy from First Great Western. It could book my trip from Plymouth to Reading on 23 December but my plan to return on 28 December proved a problem.

"We can only book up until 24 December," said a telesales adviser.

"Call back this afternoon and we should have some more dates by then."

She said I could get a "flexible return" but this would be more costly than an Apex.

The ticket saleswoman explained that dates were being released every week.

Call back

There was a similar "call back" request from South West Trains.

My requested journey to Weymouth from London on Christmas Eve sounded so good I almost decided to go for real - and the Apex discount was still available.

But when I tried to book I was told to call back on Friday. I told the adviser I was worried the phone lines would be jammed.

"You will have to take your chance, I am afraid, " he said.

The Rail Passengers Council and Committees (RPC), which acts as a voice for rail passengers, found a similar story through random weekly spot checks to five companies which offer Apex tickets.

RPC policy manager Mike Hewitson said: "People who buy these tickets often don't have loads of money.

"It is students and people who will only be buying this type of ticket a couple of times a year.

"I think it gives them a tremendously bad impression."

He said the RPC accepts the Christmas holidays are a good time for track repairs as fewer people will be using the lines.

"But it comes down to communication, to telling people in advance so they can make their plans".

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