Rail travel is an important part of a country’s transport network. With the ability to transport a large number of passengers at once, trains remain one of the most efficient methods of intercity and cross-country travel.
While the technicalities of the infrastructure itself are important, the accessibility of the system arguably has the greatest impact on the popularity of the system. Transit infrastructure today are built to be easily accessible by the disabled, ensuring that they are able to take advantage of the niceties offered by the network.
However, not to be forgotten are the public faces of the network. Having fancy trains/buses and good on time performance are fine and dandy, but if the public is unable to utilise the system easily it will all be for nought. This is why most major transit systems worldwide place huge importance on their branding: the design of signs, and the design of website. Websites of rail services are thus an important portal for passengers, as it is the main source of travel information and also a way to purchase tickets.
I was recently alerted to KTM’s latest redesign of their website. Having used Irish Rail’s website before, I felt a comparison was in order to show what a rail service website should be like.
***The abbreviation “IÉ” refers to Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail)
At first glance, both home pages have similar features: A tab to find journey times, and service advertisements. However, from an average passenger’s point of view, Irish Rail’s website is far easier to navigate than KTM’s. The tab to search journey times is prominently located at the top of the advertisement. On the other hand in KTM’s website, the tab is a static fixture on a slideshow, and is rather small as compared to the slideshow itself. Really, are messages for your boss that important?
Also to note is that IÉ’s “find journey times” tab clearly allows you to indicate whether you wish to buy a single or return ticket, whereas KTM’s tab seems to only allow searches for single trips.
A redeeming point of KTM’s website is that right below the huge slideshow tab, they placed 2 decently sized icons that serve as links to more information about their Komuter and Intercity/ETS services.
On the other hand, it isn’t immediately clear what services do Irish Rail offer–intercity services or commuter services. This means the function to search for journey times is a general one: It doesn’t actually say whether or not your journey is on the DART, the Commuter, or the Intercity. The only way for one to figure out which line one’s destination is on is by looking for the route map(s), the link to which is in a sidebar located under “Travel Information”.
KTM’s website does it slightly better by having a prominent “Services” tab on the top bar. Clicking on it reveals a drop down menu for links to information on their various rail services. Of course you can use the bigger picture-links below, but the location of the “Services” button is a lot more prominent given that it is at the top of the page.
Scrolling down to the bottom of the homepage, we see both KTM and IÉ placing similar information: Updates on services and various other links. What IÉ has that KTM doesn’t, however, is a live twitter feed showing the latest tweets from their account. This allows site visitors to get the latest updates on services/delays. KTM’s website, on the other hand, only features a “News & Announcement” section that basically has the latest information on their services. This section is usually used to announce line closures/station works, and is generally not the place to go for live updates. IÉ has this section on their homepage too, but it went the extra mile by providing a live twitter feed: Something which KTM doesn’t, although it actually has a very active twitter account that posts live updates on Komuter services as well as take queries from the public on next train times. This is a PR asset that KTM possesses, yet chose not to put in a more prominent position, instead relegating access to a small twitter logo in the sidebar.
Booking a ticket
The most important feature of a rail service’s website is the ticket booking ability. Having used IÉ’s online ticketing system I can say that it is quite satisfactory.
The experience is much like booking a flight ticket: Simply input your departure dates (and return dates if you wish to book a return ticket), select Departure and Arrival stations, and the system will give you a list of services available at various times. If you wish, you can limit the search results to a certain time-frame. For example, you can make the system show only services between 2pm to 8pm.
For this article, a dummy booking from Dublin Heuston to Kilkenny was made:
Clicking “search” brings you to a separate page with the list of available services, and from there you can select the service at the time you want and pay for the tickets online. Note, however, that only Intercity tickets can be bought online. Both Commuter and DART tickets have to be bought at the departing station.
Once the tickets have been paid for, they can be collected at the departing station (or any station of your choice). Simply walk up to a ticket vending machine or counter and provide your booking number. This effectively means your ticket can be collected at any time before your journey, which is a huge convenience especially if one doesn’t have much time to spare on the travel day.
Like IÉ, KTM’s website allows visitors to search travel times and purchase tickets online. Unlike IÉ, however, the whole experience is quite convoluted.
As mentioned earlier, the homepage seems to only allow searching for single journeys at any single moment, unlike IÉ’s website which allows return ticket searches.
For the purpose of this article, we shall make a dummy booking from KL Sentral to Butterworth:
Having input the required information, the search results are presented in a very odd looking pop up. That’s right: You get a pop up instead of a new page.
Scroll to the bottom of the pop up and you get a “Booking Ticket Now!” button which is self explanatory. Click and you are directed to…..
What the heck is this?? Where are my train times??
As it turns out, online purchases of KTM tickets are handled via a separate website which seems to be directly connected to KTM’s intranet system, seeing as there are tabs for staff login. Since the the trip times entered earlier is not carried over, you have to input the same information all over again.
Yeap..do it again.
After entering the information and clicking Search, you get a list of train times that is arguably more pleasant looking than the homepage’s sad pop-up. Click on the small arrows on the left and you can see ticket prices and seat availability.
Now, in order to actually buy a ticket online, you must sign up for an account on KTM’s intranet. For some weird reason you do not have the option to register an account while making the payment. Instead, you have to login to your account before you can actually select your desired train times.
This also means that if you were confused by the first re-direction from the KTM homepage, and went ahead with entering the search terms on the E-ticket’s homepage, you have to enter the same information all over again after signing up for an account on the E-ticket homepage.
Its basically a very confusing implementation as compared to IÉ’s website, which not only lets you register when making your payment, but also does not require you to register an account to book a ticket.
If you managed to figure all of the above out and logged in successfully, you get to access this page:
Simply click the “Ticket Reservation” button in the top bar and enter the same trip information again. This time, however, the information is presented slightly differently. Not only are you able to indicate your journey as a return journey, instead of tiny arrows indicating drop down menus, the train times and coach selections are displayed in different menus:
Once you’ve made your selection, you need to click the “Add” button to add passenger information. This requires you to enter your name and IC/Passport number and whatever information the website requires.
This form is also, oddly, the place where you make your seat selection. Unlike IÉ’s seat selection function, KTM’s resembles a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet more than a train, while IÉ’s is much like those found on airline websites. Also, if your ticket is a return ticket, you may make the seat selection for the return leg in the next tab.
The next Excel Spreadsheet service, calling at all office hours.
Once you’ve completed all the required details, you are then directed to the payment screen. You can either choose to make payment via Visa/MasterCard or through BSN and Maybank2u.
According to a friend who frequently uses the ETS service, upon completion of payment you are given a pdf file confirming your booking, and you simply need to present that pdf as a printout or on your smartphone to board the train. This is considerably more convenient than IÉ’s setup, though IÉ does allow you to use your booking printout as a ticket if you are unable to print the magnetic stripe ticket at the ticket machine before your journey.
While IÉ’s website has its flaws, it is considerably superior to KTM’s website. Iarnród Éireann’s services, despite the usual complaints by Irish commuters remains an important transport backbone of Ireland–serving the whole country as well as rapid transit services in the Dublin metropolitan area. Hence, it is quite essential that their website be presentable and functional.
KTM, like IÉ, plays a similarly important role in the Peninsular’s rail transport network. It runs all mainline passenger services in the Peninsular, but despite its importance, KTM’s service history has been one marred by general complacence and a lack of funds–KTM despite being privatised in the 80s-90s is still dependant on the Finance Ministry for monetary allocations to purchase new rolling stock. Also, it is only recently with the launching of the Padang Besar-Gemas ETS service has rapid intercity rail travel been made possible in Malaysia. Previously one had to take a ride on the locomotive drawn coaches running on a single track which slowed travel times as to make regular intercity rail commuting an impossibility. It is no wonder then, that prior to the full extent of the Western ETS coming online, most opted to drive up north.
Granted, KTM’s network has been slower to modernise compared to IÉ, and I’m not referring to electrification either: IÉ’s network is mostly un-electrified. For most of its existence KTM has been running services on a colonial era single track system, and it was only in the early 21st century (2003) I think that the first mainline (Intercity) electrification project ( between KL and Ipoh) was launched. On the other hand, much of IÉ’s rail network is double-tracked. The usage of diesel trains is not much of an issue: The backbone of the Intercity network is the IÉ 22000 DMU, and a ride on them was quite enjoyable.
IÉ Class 22000 DMU
KTM’s Class 91, cousins made by Hyundai ROTEM of RoK:
However, with the growing popularity of intercity train travel among West-Coast Malaysians, it is imperative that KTM start to make its website more user friendly. For train travel to compete against car and plane travel in a highly car dependant Malaya (Peninsular), it has to present itself as a serious mode of transit—one that can be trusted for regular commute, instead of just a fancy joyride on the new flashy Class 93s.
Also to note, that the website revamp was nothing more than fancy new decorations to KTM’s homepage. The E-ticketing website is the exact same website from the years before.
As so often is the case with Malaysian transit services, the infrastructure is already available, but it is the finer details that need touching up.