“Open” UK Rail Data: Media Coverage & Broken Appeals Process

Since my last piece on the saga of National Rail Enquiries shutting off public access to their data feed the problem has gained coverage in the Guardian and elsewhere in the press.  On Thursday I went on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme to bring more attention to NRE’s attempts to make money out of commuters.

Radio 4 Coverage

On Thursday I went on Radio 4’s “You and Yours” to bring more attention to the issue.  Right now the programme is still on iPlayer – listen to it here.

File from Wikimedia Commons
A dinosaur

TfL (who are a shining example of the right way to do open data) produced an excellent illustration of the benefits to the public.  Later the editor of Wired magazine drew a parallel between National Rail Enquiries and the dinosaurs.

NRE’s spokesman Edward Welsh reiterated their line that it was unintentional that they made the data available for unlicensed use prior to October 2010, and that they won’t negotiate with me because I said nasty things about them “when opening up discussions”.  That isn’t entirely true: discussions had already taken place and I didn’t go public until told by NRE that a free license was unlikely.  You can see that because, uhhh, it’s what the original blog post was all about!

License Appeal

A month after my appeal arrived at National Rail Enquiries and four hours after Radio 4 broadcast their programme, NRE responded.  While the Code of Practice says appeals should be addressed in writing to NRE it appears one must embarrass them on national radio to elicit a response.

I was emailed the letter from Mr Scoggins in a pdf.  In it he says:

  • My application for a license is still rejected.
  • Even if I had a license the critical remarks I have made about ATOC/NRE would place me in breach of it.  [So the NRE license says you may not criticise NRE?]
  • Former use of NRE’s Live Departure Boards feed [even though that feed was freely accessible and documented on the Internet by NRE themselves] was illegal.
  • I had not engaged with NRE constructively to gain a license.
  • My blog posts are intended to give NRE a poor reputation.
  • I am therefore not a reputable or reliable partner for them share the data with.

These are National Rail Enquiries’ official reasons why I cannot use the feed of train times data.  Let’s take them apart one at a time.

“Illegal” usage of the data

While my web app was completely free, contained no adverts, existed solely as a public service to commuters and was written carefully to follow NRE’s instructions on querying their service, National Rail Enquiries assert I was using the data illegally.

This is despite the fact that NRE were providing the data feed and documentation  for using it freely on their website – and a licensing requirement was not prominently displayed.  In fact until October 2010 it was even listed as an open data feed on the London Datastore website.  Programmers had been using the feed for a variety of public-spirited endeavours for a long time before and I find it hard to believe NRE were unaware of this.

Presumably in NRE’s eyes the army of other developers who had come up with novel uses for the information were also breaking the law.

Here we see NRE’s real attitude to the live departure information.  By presenting it to the public without their approval one is breaking the law.  One could hardly describe this attitude as “open”.

No constructive engagement / not a reputable partner

If we look back to the dialogue documented in my original post from October it’s obvious that I made several attempts to engage with National Rail Enquiries before publicly criticising them.

  • In late 2009 I wrote asking for a commercial license and had no response at all.
  • I tried again a month later, this time by registered post, and was told that absolutely no commercial usage of the data was permitted.  NRE now say this was in error.
  • When NRE announced in October 2010 that license keys would be required I emailed Derek Parlour straight away to ask for one.  Judge for yourself whether that email was constructive; I think it was as sweet as pie.
  • When ordered to shutdown my web application I continued to attempt a constructive engagement with NRE asking whether the app could be kept going while we negotiated.

Unconstructive?  Hardly.  I did my utmost to engage in a positive and reasonable manner to gain a license to use the data.

Only when NRE ordered me to take down my little application and made it clear that they were intent on charging a fee did I take the issue out into the open.

Related to this: Chris says that even if I had a license the things I’ve said about National Rail Enquiries would be a breach of its terms.  Let’s examine that again – to get a license to use the rail data from NRE you must agree not to say anything critical of them.

Sweet Jesus, what is a contract term like that doing in a fair and civilised society?  Is it even valid under English law?

Blog posts intended to damage NRE’s reputation

It is unfortunate if the Chief Executive of National Rail Enquiries feels my blog posts have damaged his organisation’s reputation.  However all I’m doing is reporting their actions and statements – if NRE’s reputation is suffering it can only be as a result of their own deeds.

If National Rail Enquiries want a better reputation their Chief Executive should resign and make way for someone who isn’t trying to exploit the traveling public for financial gain.

So What are the Licensing Rules?

NRE have not told us what the rules are for granting licenses.  However I’ve tried to catalogue NRE’s responses to license applications (get in touch if you want your attempt listed) and it looks like their decision is split along a simple line.

  • If you’re applying to use the data for a nonprofit website a license is offered on fairly reasonable terms.
  • However if you intend to make a mobile phone application – even if you’re not making a penny – you’ll be met with licensing terms so draconian you can’t possibly go ahead.  You can’t afford to pay a four-figure license sum if you’re a small-time hacker building a free iPhone app.
  • Of course if you’ve criticised them in the media you can get lost.

National Rail Enquiries told one applicant that as a private company they are “not in a position” to supply the data for free.  For two reasons this is an outrageous statement:

  1. It flies in the face of the current government’s open data policies.  I can only hope that when future franchises are awarded live train data must be published on a fair and open basis and not withheld from developers as a punitive measure.
  2. Until late November National Rail Enquiries were supplying the data for free so they’re clearly capable of doing so.  On the Radio 4 programme NRE’s spokesman went on record as saying that they are supplying the data for free to at least one developer – so telling other developers they are not in a position to supply data for free is an outright lie.

National Rail Enquiries real intention, I believe, is to profit from passengers increasing usage of live train data on mobile devices.  Somebody high up in NRE has decided to ignore the public and state pressure for open data and instead try to “maximise shareholder value” by exploiting the monopoly they have on Live Departure Boards data to make money from anyone who wants to access it from an iPhone or Android app.

Still not convinced?  Go to www.nationalrail.co.uk and search for a train journey.  At the time of writing the results page bombards you with adverts.  I counted four, three of them for NRE’s own 0871-rate “TrainTracker” phone service.  Doesn’t it look like they’re doing their damnedest to claw money out of you?

Need more convincing?  See this Guardian article from June 2009 when NRE were investigated for threatening mobile app developers.

What Next?

Are National Rail Enquiries going to pursue legal action against me for “illegal” usage of the data prior to October 2010?  I hope not.  Gee, all I was trying to do was help commuters get to work quicker.

In any case it’s clear by now I’m not going to gain any traction with the staff of NRE/ATOC.  I’m not aware of a single free Android or iPhone application they’ve given a workable license for (please correct me if I’m wrong) and since it would reduce their revenue from paid applications I reckon they’ll make just about any excuse to avoid granting one.

In the coming days I’ll make a complaint about NRE’s abuse of its monopoly on live departure information directly to the Office of Rail Regulation.   I’ll also try to open a dialogue with the Secretary of State for Transport; while he has no direct control of National Rail Enquiries (it is indeed a private organisation) it would be very much in the public interest if all future franchises included a requirement for open data in their contracts.

This isn’t going to blow over anytime soon.  The attitude to data within the Association of Train Operating Companies is the antithesis of openness and it’ll take nothing less than direct government intervention or pressure slowly applied as new franchises are awarded to change this dinosaur mentality.  For now I fear we’re stuck with them and anybody who wants an app for live train times on their phone will end up paying the Scoggins Tax.

18 thoughts on ““Open” UK Rail Data: Media Coverage & Broken Appeals Process

  1. “to get a license to use the rail data from NRE you must agree not to say anything critical of them.”

    This might sound tremendously ridiculously pompous, but I suspect that infringes the Human Rights Act – viz. the right to free expression. You’re not an employee of NRE through the licence, and their obligations to you are only to supply data, so by including something in the licence (if it is in the licence) which curtails your human rights, they could have created an unenforceable contract. (Contracts containing clauses which are unreasonable or a priori break the law – eg demanding you kill your granny if you fail to fulfil the contract – are unenforceable.)

    Doesn’t get you any closer to a licence, but you could challenge it if you knew a friendly lawyer. Get their opinion, and a copy of the licence, first obviously.

    BTW Francis Maude (Cabinet Office) is aware of this issue too.

    1. Indeed, if ever I get to the stage where I’ve a license to use the data feed it’s certainly a term worth challenging. That NRE genuinely seem to believe they can silence people with such onerous license terms beggars belief.

      I wonder how many of the existing licensees have things they’d like to say but can’t for fear of losing access?

  2. “If you’re applying to use the data for a nonprofit website a license is offered on fairly reasonable terms.”

    So how about making a mobile HTML site :)

  3. The NRE website is bound to want to be viewed by travellers using poor data rate mobile connections: the presence of big flash adverts makes their site slow and battery-draining- another example of thoughtless behaviour from this lot.

  4. We are currently working integrating another source of realtime train information. However this information comes directly from internal industry records before NRE gets its grubby hands on it. I think that Thales or ATOS Origin ‘own’ the public data at that point.

    1. That’s great to hear! Anything which breaks NRE’s monopoly over the data will be good for the public. Have you any plans to make it queryable as live web service like NRE’s is/was?

  5. I’ve wonder if highlighting cancelled and delayed trains through this data would be considered as criticism.

    I’ve recently filled in the “Delay / Repay” form by Southern Railway and they have the cheek to ask me the details of the delayed and cancelled trains!

    How about they tell me? Surely they already have the data…

  6. Looking on android market there are two apps using the API:

    The first is from Thales and costs £3.49
    The second is from croworc.co.uk and costs £3.49

    Does the license contain a requirement that you do not undercut NRE/Thales?

  7. Why not cut out the middle man and try and get the source date direct from Network Rail? NR, after all, provides the live train feed data for free to NRE and is a quasi-public body.

  8. Listened to the show and was so annoyed with ATOC spokesman that I had to write to the BBC to complain.

    I’ve spoken with BBC since my email and they may take the issue further if they can find more disgruntled small developers who have been cut of by the actions of ATOC/NRE.

  9. I’d be surprised if the BBC ran too far with it, after all they seem to be doing exactly the same thing with iplayer stuff, blocking Android apps, getting apps taken out and preserving a monopoly on download bits for a couple of other devices.

  10. There is one free Android tool that does it btw. It’s the DB one, owned by Deutsche Bahn who of course own several franchises….

    Doesn’t handle all the stuff you’d want in full, and you need to speak some German. But there we are providing you are German you can have free UK train information on a nicely optimised mobile app. Tell that to a few Tory MPs !

  11. Have you tried getting in touch with the chap from traintimes.org.uk (] know his website works differently, using screen scraping)
    He used to, and probably still does, work for MySociety who are responsible for theyworkforyou.com and they number 10 petitions website (i think)

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