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UK rail regulator says companies making positive steps to improve passenger information little innovation evident in data use

According to report published last week by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) the rail industry is making progress to provide better passenger information, but passengers now need to start seeing consistent improvements.

ORR’s passenger information assessment comes nine months after all train companies and Network Rail agreed to ensure passengers receive appropriate, accurate and timely information.

ORR says the found:

  • Robust plans and processes across all operators for the provision of information to passengers during times of disruption, underpinned by enhanced training and technology for frontline staff. The provision of passenger information is now a core part of staff training for many operators, and smartphones are now being introduced so that staff have the latest information and no longer find themselves ‘one step behind’ passengers.
  • A drive to ensure consistency between all passenger information channels, with technology currently being rolled-out across the network to link data between station platform screens, websites and mobile phone applications.
  • Improved and innovative use of social media across train operators. Twitter, for example, is being used to provide up-to-date information, with better relationships developing between train operators and passengers, and allowing direct feedback during rail disruption.

However, despite clear industry commitment to improving passenger information, the latest National Passenger Survey showed that only one third of passengers think that delays are handled well - the lowest satisfaction score in the survey. In addition, Passenger Focus’ recently-published report into passengers’ experiences during engineering works found that less than half were satisfied with how news about works on the line is communicated, with only around a quarter satisfied with information on the progress of works. ORR’s analysis also found inconsistencies between information provided to passengers and what is happening in reality.


Free market solutions for travel data

An recent article in the Financial Times Entrepreneurs leap aboard data revolution features free market approaches to data provision, where third parties are allowed access to travel data and compete in App markets to provide travel data.

Bus Checker, a mobile app developed by Carl Partridge that uses data that it claims to provide to 300,000 UK bus stops, is reported to have and generated “six-figure” revenues for its developer.

Gareth Williams, chief executive of Skyscanner, an Edinburgh-based website that “scrapes” airline data to find cheap flights, says the government could still do more to free up the information.

Mr Partridge says any data created using public money should be opened to developers and businesses. “In future, people will demand to have public data at their fingertips. It will be seen as being as essential a public service as providing a clean water supply.”

With regards to raill data, London-based, uses data provided through partnership arrangements with some European train operators to provide indepenent rail ticketing information, and sales online at a commission.  


UK Rail Departure Data restricted

National Rail Enquiries publishes an API of its departure information but requires a licence to use the data. 

The Code of Practice, hosted on the Association of Train Operating Companies website, is "designed to provide guidance for developers wanting to apply for a license to use National Rail Enquiries data and has been written with the help of the Office of Rail Regulation."

A Wired report on the National Rail Enquiries API in 2010 found that for developers to gain access to the API, they woudl need to apply to National Rail "who'll then take each application on a "case by case basis"".


The code of conduct states: "NRE is keen to ensure that access to these systems is open to third parties who want to invest in the industry, inject new ideas and innovate with a view to expanding the range of applications available to passengers." It also says that the process of getting a license typically takes 21 days, plus one to three months.

"As for developing open access to an API, there are apparently "no plans". Unlike TfL, which is publicly owned, National Rail Enquiries is a private body that's only overseen by the Office of Rail Regulation. As a result, it doesn't have to be held accountable to anyone but its customers. If the current attitude continues, that could well mean that open access to rail data will never happen.


APIs and their Mashups

Programmable Web, a web site for "Keeping you up to date with APIs, mashups and the Web as platform" provide a directory of API publishers and developers providing services for added value of the published data.

Among rail related API publishers - rail operators and middleware companies - listed are are:

  • iRail - Belgian Rail Timetable Demo. A Luton based developer ElGoorf has combined this data with Google Maps to display suggested journeys on a map.
  • Irish Rail - Realtime Realtime Irish train data. Track this API. Irish Rail is Ireland’s national railway operator, providing passenger and freight rail services. The Irish Rail Realtime API provides realtime station and train data including estimation of train times based on current train location. This is a REST API returning XML formatted data. 
  • SilverRail Technologies - SilverRail Technologies offers a global rail platform to improve online travel planning. They consolidate passenger rail content from around the world into a single integrated technology platform to help Railways and Travel Distributors to easily connect with each other. Their API allows travel sellers to access fares and pricing, routes and schedules, payment processing, rules and ticketing information. 
  • Zugmonitor - Germain railway information service. Open Data City specializes in applications involving large data sets. Their Zugmonitor API provides users with information about the trains, status, and train delays in the German Railway system. Information provided includes stations and their characteristics, trains and their properties and mroe. The API uses RESTful calls and responses are formatted in JSON.

UK Rail data mashups recently organised a hack day Off the Rails to take the best rail data and see what can be built with it.  

Highlighted solutions included an app that tells you about what to see out of the window; a site showing live departure boards for all Dutch train stations using the API made available by the Dutch rail company, NS; an app that helps you pick a playlist tailored to the length of your train journey; the site makes sophisticated use of newly-open realtime data; data on how to to take bikes on trains in the UK; and a hack to generate some reckoning of the current state of the UK rail network by monitoring the lateness of trains.

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