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 30 September 2009

Train timetable information

Posted in: Transport              

214 Supporters so far - add your name

Posted by: Andrew Bissell

Public Sector Information Holder: Network Rail and/or National Rail Enquiries

Information Asset: Timetable, Journey Planning and Real-Time Train Running Time Information

The problem

Free and low-priced WebApps and Apps were available on the iPhone via the built-in browser and the AppStore until National Rail Enquiries decided in Spring 2009 to kill them off by denying them the use of the rail timetabling and other information they needed to work.

Simultaneously National Rail Enquiries introduced its own App on the AppStore at a price of £4.99. While that may seem low, it is both high compared to other Apps (that were either free or low priced) and against the fact that Network Rail's information is still free of charge to the end user via the National Rail Enquiries website.

National Rail Enquiries seems to object to third party applications and websites reformatting its data. Yet many users complain that the new National Rail Enquiries App is less functional than the applications like MyRail Lite and UK Train Times that it replaces.

To summarise:
- National Rail Enquiries insists that 3rd parties can't repackage its data on train timetables
- Thereby it kills off several competitors
- Simulateneously it releases its own £4.99 product
- There is no other source (all competitors have been killed off)
- National Rail Enquiries acquires a monopoly position on provision of mobile data on train times and related information

Note: I am not a developer of iPhone Apps or webapps. I don't have a direct affiliation with any of these entities. I am a frustrated individual who wants train times on my iPhone but isn't willing to pay National Rail Enquiries for a more limited App than the free ones they quashed, especially as to buy it would be to reward them for making unavailable data that was formerly freely available for re-packaging.

References:
- Reviews of National Rail Enquiries App on the Apple AppStore
- http://moconews.net/article/419-uk-train-authority-banning-unofficial-mobile-apps/
- http://moconews.net/article/419-uk-train-agency-investigated-for-threatening-mobile-developers/

My ideal solution

1. Determine whether this is public data or not.

a. It seems on the face of it that the information required to allow the public to be at the station at the right time to catch a train, and to know where it is going, belongs in and to the public realm, and people should have choice how they access it.
b. It seems that National Rail Enquiries only exists because of the Public Sector licensing of Rail Franchises to the Train Operators who, through ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies). Therefore the Franchise system may oblige them (or could be amended to oblige them) to release this information freely.
c. ATOC can only run their trains on the tracks of Network Rail. For operational reasons one assumes that Network Rail must be informed of the planned and actual operational schedule of every train on the network. Network Rail is in public ownership. Does Network Rail constitute a viable second source of this information free of the restrictions ATOC/National Rail Enquiries wishes to impose? Can Network Rail be imposed upon to deliver this data to the public realm?

2. If the data is public, arrange for Network Rail or National Rail Enquiries to make it available again to 3rd parties by:
a. Rescinding its former notifications to developers of competing apps and webapps
b. Publicly stating its access policy is open
c. Publishing APIs for access better than "screen scraping"

3. If the data is determined to be not public under any formulation of current legislation (per 1 a, b c suggestions, or other), ask legislators to re-consider whether it should be.

Other examples of very useful categories that amount to web-mediated / app-mediated re-formulations of information include:
- Price comparison websites (Kelkoo.com, Pricerunner.com, Comparethemarket.com, uSwitch, ...)
- Travel information sites for air travel (Skyscanner.net)

Do we want companies to be able to say "aha - I see that ATOC managed to successfully block access to the data that allows consumers to make choices - now they can make money charging for that information - or when they want they can deny it completely (witness National Rail Enquiries App doesn't offer any way to comparison shop ticket prices)" The net result is likely to be a massive weakening of consumer power, massive increase in power to dominant suppliers leading to monopoly.

4. Persuade ATOC/National Rail Enquiries at the highest level that they are in the business of selling seats on trains, and that reducing access to information about them is against their best interests.

Making £4.99 per app download surely doesn't compare with the volume of seats they sell.

I have no doubt they will claim that they have to charge for their app to cover their development costs. This of course ignores that:
a. 3rd parties were prepared to offer the same apps free of charge
b. National Rail Enquiries offers the same information free of charge on its own website - as long as you have it "their way"

So they need never have developed their own app - they just need to allow the eco-system of apps surrounding the timetable and journey information to thrive. This would be in their best interests as a way to encourage more journeys by train.

What I would do

Notify the developers of MyRail Lite and similar applications that they can recommence offering their service to the community of travellers.

I would also encourage Skyscanner.Net to include train times as alternatives to flight times on their service. This might have a significant carbon reduction impact.

Posted at Wednesday, 30 September 2009 08:26:32 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  Comments [3] #