Access to train departure information
Users of the London DataStore will have noticed that there is no train departure information available as open data, and the issue generates a lot of questions from developers. This blog post attempts to explain why this is so and to let you know what the London DataStore has being doing about this in the meantime.
The short answer to the question is that the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), the only current player with a public-facing train departure information service and API, is a private sector body that does not release open data. ATOC’s National Rail Enquiries offers an API to its Live Departure Boards on a commercial basis and this is available to developers who meet their criteria and who are willing to pay for access. ATOC have granted some free licences to those not making any revenue from their service e.g. LiveTrains, so it may be worth applying to them if you fall into this category. There are also lots of commercial apps licensing data from ATOC, for example, myTrains for iPhone.
However, given that the UK taxpayer subsidises the rail industry to the tune of £5bn a year, there are many open data campaigners who would like get access to a genuinely free source of train departure information. If this applies to you, and you’d like to read the whole story, make a cup of tea, draw up a comfy chair, and read on for the full story.
Train departure information, simplified
Information on train departures in Britain is largely generated by Network Rail (the rail infrastructure owner) from a variety of signalling apparatus and train reporting services. This train departure information is then currently exclusively sub-licenced to ATOC for their National Rail Enquiries (NRE) service on phone and web for users outside the rail industry. NRE charges app developers or website owners for use of this data from Network Rail and imposes its own licence conditions under a code of practice approved by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR). The net effect of this regime is that developers have to charge relatively high fees for apps using this data, up to £5 per app in the cases of UK Train times. The NRE licence conditions also prohibit developers from being critical of the rail industry or having an adverse effect on TOCs. Paragraph 2 of the licence says “Applications which in NRE’s reasonable opinion are of demonstrable benefit to passengers will be granted unless outweighed by a material adverse impact on TOCs (whether financially, strategically, operationally or in regards to their reputation or the reputation of the industry as a whole).” (Para 2).
Although there are regulators like the ORR and Passenger Focus that do valuable work, currently these bodies see the rail industry as solving the passenger information problem within the industry. Recently the ORR published a Passenger Information Consultation
(PDF) that is open until 20th June for those that would like to put their own views across.
Many developers would like the opportunity to innovate with train departure data to create apps and web sites that provide alternative views on this data, for example, local public transport aggregation sites, novel visualisations, delay monitors or cheapest fare finders. Developers believe that these kind of services are a powerful voice for the consumer. So why can’t developers produce these free apps? It’s all down to the post-privatisation structure of the rail industry.
Who owns information about rail services in Britain?
The taxpayer does not own this information directly despite the public funding. Network Rail (not ‘National Rail’… that is an ATOC brand for train services) is a private company limited by guarantee that carries out publicly regulated tasks i.e. running the railway. It is a private company that can make profits… but since taxpayers are providing much of the income and also the financial guarantee, there is some public confusion about whether Network Rail belongs in the Public sector. So, for example, the National Audit Office thinks it is a public body. The Information Commissioner has ruled that Network Rail is covered by the Environmental Information Regulations for public bodies (PDF) as it has a public task. Network Rail is also licenced and regulated by a statutory body, the Office for Rail Regulation. And Network Rail gets much of its money from two public sources 1. the ‘Network grant’ (around £5bn annually from the taxpayer) and from 2. Train Operating Companies who get public subsidies of £450m per year (PDF)) (see the Network Rail company report and accounts, note 3). So, Network Rail is a private body carrying out a regulated public task. It could suddenly become a public body if it defaulted on its debts as its predecessor ‘Railtrack’ did in 2002).
As a private body Network Rail does not have to follow the rules of the public sector regarding transparency in data, despite its public task. The government does not exercise its right to appoint a Director of Network Rail. Network Rail does not have to answer Freedom of Information requests (PDF). It is being left out of the Protection of Freedoms Bill and the Public Data Corporation in legislation this year. Public input to Network Rail is via the 100 ‘Members’ drawn from the public and the rail industry who act as stakeholders in holding the Board of Directors to account, rather like governors at a school. Although the appointment of members is, in principle, independent, the Board of Network Rail “will not, in particular, appoint individuals whom it feels wish to pursue concerns or objectives which are inconsistent with the overall purpose of the company.” Ultimately, therefore, Network Rail is able to follow its commercial interests when deciding how to license train departure information collected with public support. Note that Network Rail is required by its licence from ORR to improve reliability and efficiency, but not transparency.
How the public becomes private
At present Network Rail exclusively licences train departure information outside the rail industry to the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) for their National Train Enquiries (NRE) service based around a database called Darwin. NRE integrate several sources of data from Network Rail and some from train operating companies to produce the Live Departure Boards web site and data feeds for apps (developers can read more below on how this is done). This is a non-trivial task, but not impossible for others to replicate, as for example, Rockshore do for Network Rail. ATOC make charges for access to these data feeds and limit how they can be used with specific licence conditions. So, in effect, information that has been substantially funded by the public is now mixed with intellectual property from a fully private company ATOC, a situation that bodies such as the Open Rights Group have been concerned about in the public sector as a whole.
Going back in history, until February 2009 ATOC licensed train departure information under commercial terms to a very small number of organisations, mostly within the rail industry. Kizoom published the only smartphone app at that time, the free MyRailLite for iPhone. Then a dispute arose between ATOC and Kizoom, and ATOC withdrew Kizoom’s licence to use the train departure information. Kizoom complained to the ORR, who conducted an investigation (PDF) into whether ATOC had abused a dominant position under competition law. ORR decided that ATOC did have a dominant position in the supply of train departure information, but they “found no evidence that ATOC’s conduct in granting access to Darwin had prevented a new product from coming to market or hampered the emergence of new technology” in November 2009. When the free MyRailLite from Kizoom was taken off the market, it was immediately replaced by a £5 iPhone app from Agant which was marketed under the National Rail Enquiries brand.
After the Kizoom case, to regulate the dominant position of ATOC in this respect, the ORR asked ATOC to produce a Code of Practice on data licensing, and this was introduced in April 2010. Despite this Code, disputes over the licensing of train departure information are still occurring as independent developer Alex Hewson recently found out. He asked for a free licence and then published the text of the refusal, to find himself banned from getting a licence even if he paid, as he was publicly critical of ATOC and NRE, and they deemed this a prima facie breach of the Code.
The current situation… and where next?
What we see in the current situation is public funding going into the creation of train departure information at the level of Network Rail infrastructure and in the public subsidies to the Train Operating Companies. However, as two private bodies have responsibility for the public task of running the railways and communicating to passengers, this information is encumbered by private intellectual property rights. However, it would serve the transparency and accountability agenda if the raw feeds could be released as open data. The way forward might be to open access to Network Rail’s TDNet through their External Services Gateway (ESG), allowing independent developers and system integrators to add value to raw data and make apps to communicate with the rail traveller (see developer section below). This would allow developers the choice of paying ATOC for access to NRE or accessing raw data via TDNet and building their own services.
This issue needs urgent attention at the time that the Public Data Corporation is being designed and ORR are consulting on a Passenger Information Consultation. Train departure information is key national dataset and a way needs to be found to make it available to developers to produce apps for the public and accountability for the regulators. If we need an example of good practice to motivate this, we should look at the example of the non-profit national bus departures aggregator Traveline who have announced that after a small connection fee, access to their national Nextbuses API is now free for developers to use to create free apps (like UK TravelOptions) up to a negotiated hit limit. This has created a situation where train departures are charged for and bus departures are free, even though both industries have a public/ private structure.
In summary then, developers looking for access to open data on train departures must put their faith in Network Rail and the Office for Rail Regulation to enlarge the scope their vision for passenger information dissemination. Users of the London DataStore could play an important role in publishing passenger information, and we would like to see existing channels by which the rail industry publishes data internally (e.g. TD.Net through ESG) be opened up to external developers.
Even more details… for developers
Network Rail and ATOC have both developed sophisticated back office systems to handle train departure information. Comprehensive details are given in a report entitled ‘Integrated Passenger Information: Delivering the Rail “End to End” Journey’ by Aecom commissioned by Department for Transport Rail Group. The Stage 3 technical Annex (PDF) is 80 pages of detail about internal Network Rail systems for the serious geek.
In summary, train departure information from timetables (Train Service Database – TSDB) and train describer information are aggregated into an internal Network Rail system called Control Centre of the Future (CCF). Note that some sections of line do not have train describers and need lower level systems to provide train locations, so there is not complete uniformity across the network. Train delays are recorded into a system called TRUST to ensure that train or freight operating companies (TOCs/FOCs) get charged if they are the cause of any delays. Data from CCF and TRUST are available to users in the rail industry through the Network Rail messaging service known as TD.Net via Network Rail’s External Services Gateway (ESG). Train Operating Companies have their own Customer Information Systems that integrate data from their operations, notably a messaging service on day-to-day operations (e.g. cancellations) called Tyrell and information on the formation of trains from a rolling stock system called GEMINI. Any developer building train departure services would need to look at what they could build just with access to TD.net. It remains to be seen what information on cancellations and train formation TOC’s might make available to independent developers.
Network Rail is now investing in some new systems to improve this complex set of legacy technologies including GSM (R) for communication with trains and GPS for train positioning which will be integrated into its Intelligent Traffic Management (ITM) strategy. As the AECOM report points out “ITM could provide train location information to a far greater granularity, improving the accuracy of train running information for passenger information systems. This information could then be accessed by 3rd party systems.” (p13). As passengers already use smartphones with location services to report delays through crowd-sourcing services like @UKtrains using Twitter, in future passenger information from the industry will have to meet higher specifications to meet passenger expectations. This is a further driver to add to the expectations of openness for taxpayer funded public tasks.