About a year ago I wrote a simple web application to present UK train times in a simple format for mobile phone users.
It’s best described by the instructions. The app was deliberately spartan, really just a list of upcoming trains between a collection of stations you specified in the URL. Data came from a free API which National Rail (a body representing the UK’s train companies) has run for years. Output was presented in the cleanest way possible – people on the move don’t want to be encumbered with advertising or excessive page furniture!
One neat feature was multiple start/end points. Say you live halfway between two stations (I do) and don’t care which station you travel from. The app would look up departures from both, combine and reorder them then produce a unified table of all services you could catch. When I wrote the app none of the official train timetable sites could do this and I don’t believe any can now.
Useful, huh? And all for free. I only wrote it to scratch an itch, so that rather than wading through the cluttered National Rail site I could click a bookmark on my phone and immediately know when the next train into town was. To reiterate – I built this because it was convenient and would be useful to others. Not to make a profit.
…and today National Rail killed it.
So who runs this SOAP service?
The API is supplied within a website operated by National Rail – a brand of ATOC, the grandly titled “Association of Train Operating Companies”. Their name is confusingly similar to “Network Rail”, a publicly owned organisation which owns and maintains all the infrastructure. Network Rail own the track, members of National Rail / ATOC run trains on it for a profit. Confused? Good, you’re probably supposed to be.
The Live Departure Board API has existed for a few years and I’m not the only person using it. Some kind soul even wrote a CPAN module. The API is well-documented, publicly accessible and presented as something freely usable by the public. A lot of people were doing neat things with it.
It was even listed on the London Datastore site – a state-run list of open data feeds which developers are encouraged to use to provide data to web users in new and innovative ways. There was a lot of buzz around open data like this around the time of the last election.
Edit: the page on London Datastore has now been locked. “Access Denied”. Possibly because a lot of discussion appeared on there which was critical of ATOC’s decision to extract money from users of the service. Here’s the page from before ATOC’s bombshell in Google’s cache and in case that evaporates too here’s a pdf.
After writing the web app last year I had the idea of doing an Android widget to show departure times from the user’s nearest station. It would locate a user from the phone’s GPS, look up their nearest rail station then query the LDB web service to get a list of the next handful of trains they might catch. It even got as far as a Spec for Train Time Autofinder2 – complete with mockups of the widget and definitions of its functionality. Since I’m no Android programmer it’d necessitate paying a developer and I hoped to recoup that cost by selling the app for a nominal fee. I wrote to ATOC asking whether this would be okay. A month later when they hadn’t replied I wrote again, this time by registered post. Their eventual response:
“I can confirm the National Rail Enquiries Website is for personal and non-commercial use only. Therefore, the suggestion made in your letter, to utilise the data to build an Android application is expressly prohibited. I’m sorry that we cannot be of any further assistance.”
Note this carefully. A unequivocal statement that the API exists for the public and that it is not to be used commercially. National Rail / ATOC were clearly aware that the API was being used by the public and did not say any license was required, or even that one was available. Had one been I’d have tried to arrange one for my Android widget and the damn thing would have been built!
They didn’t want to know. I gave up on the idea of an Android application and left the free “Simple UK Train Times” app running on my server.
Kaboom! “You’ve always needed a license, we just didn’t tell you they existed even when you asked”
Spin on a year. The simple app is still running on my webserver and a few people are still using it as a shortcut to find times for their train journeys. All seems good. Until…
The Google Groups thread says it all. On October 26th the following text was added to the LDB service’s documentation:
“With affect [sic] from Tuesday the 23rd of November, National Rail Enquiries will be introducing tokens in to SOAP header of the Darwin Webservice for licenced users of the system. For more information on licencing and obtaining a token, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org”
Despite the misspelling (don’t they teach English anymore?) it’s genuine.
I only discovered this because a friend pointed it out. ATOC don’t seem to have made any attempt to contact users of the service telling them about the change. Presumably they expected everyone’s apps would suddenly break on November 23rd and we’d all rush to them for licenses.
So I dutifully emailed email@example.com…
I’ve noticed the following text has appeared on your instructions page for the Live Departure Board web service:
I’d like to obtain a token for use by a web application. It’s strictly not for profit and free to users, not even ad-supported. The intention is to provide a highly simplified interface for smartphone users displaying train times in the next hour or two from local stations.
It’s only by accident I discovered this upcoming licensing change. Is there any way I can sign up to get updates and major changes to the service rather than risking missing them?
Positive, I figured. I’m doing something good for the world and want to go on doing it. Their response the following day could not have been colder:
There has always been a requirement for a licence to use this service. If you are using the service for anything at the moment can you please cease and we can enter into discussions over a licence.
It is highly likely that any licence will include a charge.
What requirement is that? I asked ATOC about the service a year ago and got that written response where they declined to offer a license and made it clear that the service was for noncommercial use only!
It seems perverse that you would try to make me pay for providing a not-for-profit service which seeks to ease and encourage rail usage. Can you confirm this really is your intention and that even knowing no profit is being made and the tool is of value to many rail users you want me to stop providing the service? Can we not come to an arrangement for non-commercial usage without disrupting it?
I’m afraid I’ll have to pick you up on one of your points. A year ago I contacted National Rail [...] about using the LDB service as a source of data for a mobile application, something which as a result of the lack of licensing options I did not build. I’ve attached a copy of my letter. In it I asked:
”I’ve checked your website’s terms and conditions but they’re unclear on whether this is a reasonable use of the service. Can you clarify National Rail’s position on third party applications using its API?”
After waiting a month and sending another copy of the letter recorded delivery I had a response from the Customer Relations Manager, Melanie Marsh:
“I can confirm the National Rail Enquiries Website is for personal and non-commercial use only. Therefore, the suggestion made in your letter, to utilise the data to build an Android application is expressly prohibited. I’m sorry that we cannot be on any further assistance.”
This indicates that your organisation has been very much aware of noncommercial uses of the data feed. Melanie did not mention the availability of licenses, and in fact she expressly told me the data could not be used for commercial purposes at all. This rather disproves your assertion that “There has always been a requirement for a licence to use this service” – I tried to use the data for commercial purposes and was told I could not!
So I’ve been told in writing that the data is solely for non-commercial use and no mention of licenses was made. This completely contradicts what you’re telling me. How do you explain this?
I sent that on the morning of 2010-10-29. No response yet. I’m really curious to see how they square “There has always been a requirement for a licence to use this service” with “is for personal and non-commercial use only” as they claimed last year.
Until National Rail deign to answer I’m left with no choice but to suspend the app. If you’re a user of the application and disagree with National Rail’s greed in trying to make money out of a data source which was hitherto free, I can only suggest you email firstname.lastname@example.org and express your concerns.
[Edit: there's a followup post about later developments here.]