Today, I paid 52.50 Euros for a 25 Euro train ride because (and that’s the story here) Deutsche Bahn (DB) don’t have their booking systems under control.
I’ll try to not make this one of the many rants about the monopolist public transport system (even though it’s tempting). Instead, the facts in short:
While working on a client project in Strasbourg, France, I’m commuting there from Karlsruhe, Germany on a daily basis for a few weeks. With my Bahncard50 it’s a return trip on the (French) TGV that takes about 40 minutes (scheduled) each way and costs 12.50 Euros each way, or 25 Euros per return trip. I usually book the ticket online and print it out the night before. The train requires a reservation, so that’s part of the ticket, too. I tried a few times to book through the DB mobile site where you can get your tickets until 10 minutes before boarding the train, but the mobile site insisted the train didn’t exist.
Today, it went somewhat different. Trying to book online as usually, the DB website informed me that my train was fully booked, no reservation possible. (On which of the trains it didn’t tell me.) To retry you have to start over the whole process, including billing information, before knowing whether a reservation worked out or not. I booked the later trains so I wouldn’t go without a ticket, but was planning on getting on the same train as usual, just without the correct reservation. (French staff had told me once that’s not a problem as long as you have a ticket.)
The conductress (is that even a word?) billed me an extra 15 Euros for a single ride to change my reservation on the train (that was supposed to be fully booked, according to the DB website, even though half the seats were empty). She also told me I could change my reservation for the train back for free at the station in Strasbourg. I asked if I could change the reservation online, she said she didn’t know: “I so rarely use the internet!” I asked about the option of booking through my mobile device, she told me she hadn’t seen this ever. She was, in other words, in this situation completely useless, and that’s the worst kind of representative on the ground for any organization. (Even though it’s hardly her fault, but that of her management.)
In Strasbourg, I explained the situation and changing was impossible since the ticket had been booked through the German DB website, so I had to buy new ticket altogether (another 12.50 Euros). A reservation for the train I had been planning on getting on wasn’t a problem – even though, again, the DB website had told me it was impossible.
Now, there’s a lot of problems in this story. One of them of course was my own fault, and that’s booking tickets only a day or two before taking the train. (I usually know which train I’ll catch in the morning, but in the evening it depends on the day’s workload, meetings etc.)
But the main problems are at Deutsche Bahn. Even taking into account that this particular train requires a cross-border booking involving (supposedly) the French and the German train operators, it’s ridiculous that the different DB booking systems aren’t able to match up the information needed to make that kind of transaction. Last time I talked to some staff about this, she explained that there were three completely independent (and largely incompatible) booking systems in place depending if you booked at the counter, on the website or at one of the vending machines. (That was two or three years ago.)
Why should I, as the customer, really care if I booked through one system or another? If I pay for a ticket, I expect to get to my destination. If I want to check a schedule, I expect that to work on every of the platforms and communication channels offered – after all, why would the offer a channel that didn’t work?
The project manager in me wants to say: Yes, a booking system of this size is a complex project. It’s a lot of historically and organically grown legacy. It’s not easy to conduct the kind of training to answer all of these niche questions. I understand all that. But. And this is a big “but”: I really couldn’t care less. It’s not like DB is a small, underfunded startup. It’s a huge organization with a huge budget. They even just raised the prices again, just a few weeks ago. Out of the last ten trains I took home in the evening in the last ten days or so, only four were on time. So no, I won’t let any of these excuses count.
So because all of this, today I paid more than twice the price of my train ride because the online reservation system didn’t work.
It’s simple: An organization of this size needs to get their technology under control, and to train their staff to know it, too. Keeping in mind that Deutsche Bahn is still planning an IPO, this should be worrying to any potential investor.
* Referring to the good old tradition of public corporate blaming.
Update: Asked for comments by email, Deutsche Bahn service staff (unsurprisingly) blamed the French online booking system for the wrong reservation information. There was no comment on the insufficiently trained and unhelpful staff on board the train.