Trin timetable. Easy? Photo by rouadec on Flickr. Some rights reserved
Developers are protesting over the decision of National Rail Enquiries (NRE), a subsidiary of the private - but publicly-subsidised - Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) to turn off its live departure board web service, and to insist on licences for access to its data and payments for use.
But government ministers are to press NRE to provide better - and even free - access to the data on the basis of that it receives a subsidy, which brings the information into the public purview.
In a notice posted on its site, NRE said that it will introduce developer tokens - issued to individuals or organisations and uniquely identifying services built by them - for "licensed" users.
But it is also introducing a charging scheme, in which developers who write apps for the web or smartphones will be required to pay £1 per app sale to provide access to NRE's live departure boards, and £1.50 per app that offer access to NRE's live departure boards and journey planning systems.
And for developers writing apps that use a subscription-based model, NRE has said that it "may look for a minimum monthly fee" - but has declined to specify what that would be.
NRE is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ATOC,
whose members have revenues of around £6bn - of which £1bn comes from government subsidy. The issue of access to NRE's timetable details has become a thorny political point this year: in March, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that "Public transport timetables and real-time running information is currently owned by the operating companies. But we will work to free it up - and from today we will make it a condition of future franchises that this data will be made freely available." The next franchise is awarded in 2011.
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, told the Guardian that he wants to bring the NRE data into the general category of free public data. "I know it's presently private, but we are looking to change that," he said. "My presumption is in favour [of making it free]. But there may be reasons for commercial confidentiality about some of the data."
Developers argue that making NRE's data available for free, rather than charging for it, would bring clear benefits because it would allow more sites and apps to be built which could inform people about rail journeys - and thus lead to more trips, and so more revenue for ATOC's members.
Malcolm Barclay, who has developed a number of travel apps, says NRE's position on charging is impossible to work with: "How can I possibly base any business model off that? So [NRE] just make up a number at some point if [they] feel like it and post an invoice?"
Another developer, Alex Hewson, says that NRE has declined to provide him with a licence because he has been publicly critical of its practices in licensing. In a number of posts on his blog he has detailed how NRE first denied him access to its online feed, which he used to provide a free web app.
NRE said that Hewson should have had a licence - which Hewson says he was never notified about - and now has been told by Derek Parlour, in charge of NRE's data system, that he would not be granted a licence because his posts have generated negative publicity about NRE's actions.
Hewson has now written to Chris Scoggins, chief executive of NRE, asking for an explanation of NRE's "childish" actions. "Is it in fact the case that 'promoting the [rail] industry means licensees are not permitted any freedom of speech about NRE and its conduct, and that those who publicly criticize you will be denied access to the data feeds?"
Hewson has set up a web page to record who has asked for a data licence from NRE and whether they have received it or been turned down.
Jonathan Raper, who has also developed web services and mobile apps which use Transport for London data, told The Guardian: "NRE have erected a Kafka-esque licensing system to protect themselves and their chosen business partners from competition by independent developers as Malcolm Barclay has shown in his explosive blog posting today. This really has no place in the new world of Open data when the benefits of releases to developers have already been comprehensively demonstrated by the inspirational uses shown in London DataStore. It is simply not good enough for ATOC (NRE's owner) to claim that they are in the private sector and they can make their own rules when the entire business revenue of most train operating companies comes from the taxpayer or the passenger. The Office for Rail Regulation and the Secretary for State must modify the licence conditions under which train operating companies work, or legislate in the forthcoming Public Data Corporation bill to release this fundamentally public information.
"Perhaps then we will avoid the irresponsible behaviour we see today when NRE are publishing apparently live train running information that is a complete fiction. Many, many people will have gone to stations today on the basis of this to find out that their journey was wasted (I witnessed this today at my own local station in South London). More pairs of eyes on the underlying data will help improve this service and shake it out of the complacency and restrictions of the current situation."
NRE says that it needs to charge and use identifiers for developer access because providing the data is not a trivial process: "On a normal day, NRE will deal with up to a million enquiries for real time information through the journey planners and live departure boards,"said a spokesman. "Demand can far exceed this on a particularly busy day. The real time information is complex and comes from numerous sources of information from the industry.
The NRE spokesman added: "There is a presumption that a feed will be made available to organisations that undertake through the licence to use the data correctly. When we say 'correctly' we mean that it is important that information about services is provided impartially and doesn't favour one train company over another. We also want to ensure that licensees will reflect accurately the information that we provide for them and that it won't be changed in any way."
However NRE and ATOC have come in for growing criticism over their treatment of developers and their approach to data. David Rowan, the editor of Wired UK, criticised NRE in September, saying "ome dinosaurs flatly refuse to serve the public good. Chief among them is National Rail Enquiries, owned by the Association of Train Operating Companies, which continues to reject calls to open up its feeds -- despite collecting huge taxpayer subsidies. When I asked why, a press officer said 'it just isn't practical to make [services] entirely open to developers' as data was constantly being updated and the system would face 'extra strain'. Nonsense: it's simply an excuse to maximise revenues by charging for data that should be freely available."
Scoggins responded the next month that "it isn't true that National Rail Enquiries refuses to open up its data feeds" and said that "we've opened up our data to a range of organisations, often free of charge, so that they can provide information about trains."
But that approach now looks confused, given the decision to start charging. Barclays points out that the licence provided by NRE is one-sided, allowing it to change terms without any comeback, while distancing itself from any intellectual property issues that might arise from an app.
Barclays says that this is a "failure of policy" following an investigation by the Office of the Rail Regulator: "The ORR effectively endorses ATOC to pass unqualified judgements on whether or not you are a suitable developer. And if you don't like the outcome of your request, guess whom you complain to? Chris Scoggins, Chief Executive, National Rail Enquiries."
He concludes: "Ultimately this a failure of policy. Numerous applications of enormous benefit for all (including ATOC's) could be delivered competitively if the data were freely accessible. ATOC's recent actions under the guise of 'security updates' is about protecting and controlling information and has nothing to do with security – it's about charging. This is an alarming development that will have and has already had severe consequences for the future of mobile applications & the traveling public in the UK.
"I am calling on the government & the Office of Rail Regulation to put a stop to this once & for all. No more word-smithed voluntary guides of emptiness. Pass a law that mandates open electronic access to critical rail information for all."
Updated to clarify that it is ATOC's members, not ATOC itself, receiving the public subsidy amid revenues of about £6bn.