Train in vain: buying tickets from First Great Western

Today's tale is my experience of buying train tickets from the First Great Western website. I was trying to buy a ticket from Oxford to London, returning on the following day.

I wanted to see all the return tickets available

  • What I did: chose “return” and typed in the dates of travel.
  • What I got: lots of different single ticket types, then one choice of return ticket (an off-peak return).
  • What should happen: the site should show me all the options for return tickets, including open returns. Yes, I know what date I’m returning, but I might still want the flexibility of an open return. Single ticket options should be much further down the webpage.

I still wanted to see all the return tickets available

  • What I did: tried to go back and choose an open return, to see if I could get them to show me all the return options. To get options for return tickets, you’re supposed to leave the return dates blank. The trouble is, if you’ve already filled in the return dates, the FGW site makes it very difficult to make the field blank again. It takes a lot of clicking to make the irritating pop-up calendar go away.
  • What I then got: an error message telling me than “an invalid date/time has been entered” for the return journey. I then got the option to actually select “Open Return” from a dropdown menu, which I did.
  • What should happen: If it's really necessary to force users to delete a date just to see the open returns, it should be possible to delete a date in a couple of clicks.

Note: I think the error message is generated when you leave a time selected for the journey on the deleted date. If you go to the “time” dropdown and make the field blank, you don’t get the error message. Why doesn't the "time" dropdown default to blank on deleted dates?

I wanted to tell them I've got a railcard

  • What I did: selected Network Railcard from the “Railcards and other discounts” dropdown.
  • What I got: an error message telling me that I’d selected the wrong number of railcards. I didn’t realise I had to also click on a second dropdown to specify the number of railcards. The default was zero. Perhaps some people do feel the need to specify that they have precisely zero of a given kind of railcard. I don’t know.
  • What should happen: when you specify a type of railcard, the number should default to 1. 

Note: I'm really happy to say that this is now the case; the site improved between my using it last week and looking at it again today.

I wanted to choose the best return ticket for my journey

  • What I did: finally got through to the bit where they show you the tickets. I’d specified an open return, so I was expecting to see a page of open return tickets. I quickly scanned the page, couldn’t see the word “single” anywhere and was reassured.
  • What I got: The Travelcard Off-Peak looked good. “Unlimited travel by bus, train, tube”. The pop-up notes said it allowed travel on any permitted route. So I was getting the open return ticket I wanted, plus travel within London, all for £15.20. Even with a railcard, that’s amazing value. I booked it.

Then the ticket arrived...

It came in the post today. It has the words “Day Travelcard” stamped across it. It’s not an open return at all. It’s only valid if I travel back the same day. Obviously, that’s not what I want or I wouldn’t have been searching for an open return.


The ticket came with an accompanying letter from First Great Western. “Your tickets are enclosed below […] If you have any queries about them, please call us on 0844 556 5606.” (The number is written in a red ink that must be hell for anyone with vision problems.)

I dialled it. Nothing. It’s not a valid number.

So I Googled FGW customer services. (Then I used SayNoTo0870 to find out the geographical number.) I spoke to a nice chap who said he was sorry, and of course they could refund the ticket since it was the wrong one, but he couldn’t do it personally and I would have to speak to the web team. He gave me their number: 0844 556 5605.

I couldn't find the geographical equivalent for that one, so I had to pay premium rates to be on hold for five minutes and then speak to someone in an Indian call centre. The man on the phone told me that First Great Western can’t change my booking to let me buy the thing I actually thought I was buying.

All they can do is cancel the original ticket and refund me. Then I can go through the joy of booking a new ticket. But I’ll have to post them back the original ticket. At my own expense. And they won’t refund me until they actually get the original ticket in the post. Oh, and it will cost me a £10 “administration fee”. (Obviously, I’m not going to pay £10 plus postage for a £15.20 refund that I don’t actually trust them to sort out.)  

In February 2008, the Secretary of State for Transport issued First Great Western with a breach notice. She gave them until 2011 to make various improvements to passenger compensation, rolling stock and ticket pricing. Sadly, she didn’t ask them to simplify their ticket pricing structure or improve the usability of their website.


Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 2013-06-09 11:42

Just had exactly the same thing happened to me. Really hacked off as got standard reply from Virgin Trains (must use same search engine) saying I bought day return on purpose and that I can pay £20 admin fee to change tickets which if course means it's cheaper for me to buy new tickets on top of the ones I've already spent £33 on!