Rail 741: Railways must embrace the information age


Rail passengers suffer from having too little of the wrong sort of information and not enough of the right sort. We live in a digital age and expectations about information have changed radically in just a few years but the industry has, to some extent understandably, not kept pace.

I will not dwell on the wrong sort of information, as I have mentioned numerous times in this column about the ridiculous automatic announcements both on trains and at stations. While this is blamed by the operators on Transec, the very fact that some operators, like FGW, provide an excellent information service without resorting to endless messages about safety cards and not leaving luggage unattended while others – Virgin are particularly culpable, and SouthEastern too – send out an endless stream of aural garbage that alienates passengers and, oddly, is something of a safety risk suggests that there is much discretion available to the operators. Network Rail, too is guilty of this too – do we really need to be told that skateboarding is banned at Kings Cross or that CCTV is provided for your safety and security. Transec can and needs to be challenged.

No, this column is about the information that should be provided. Here the horrible word data comes into play. Data is in reality another word for information but mostly it is a stream of information that can be used for calculation and analysis of trends. The industry generates fantastic amounts of data on train performance, delays, cancellations and so on.

In the old world this was owned and controlled by British Rail and since privatisation by the train companies. For a time, this data was jealously hoarded by the train companies. We have, however, come a long way from the days when the only source of information was a call to a phone number – I even remember it by heart as 01 928 5151 – where being answered was a bonus and getting the right information a miracle. The creation of the main platform for information, national rail enquiries was a great step forward and it was right that in the early days this was provided by the train operators as a franchise requirement. At the time no one else would have been able to make a viable business case to provide the information but now things have changed. This was originally mostly a telephone service but is now mostly provided online (with all those Indian operators now thankfully no longer required to distinguish between Gillingham in Dorset and Gillingham in Kent).

The government set up a service called Transport Direct which, too, at the time seemed innovative and necessary. However, with the opening up of data together with the development of cheap technology to process data, the nature of the game has changed. Much of that data has been forced into the public domain. I use the expression ‘forced in’ because there was reluctance on the part of operators to release data as it is potentially valuable but now most is openly available.

In these days of websites and, particularly, apps, it is much more useful to the public if the information becomes widely available for free. Apps are incredibly cheap to devise and therefore app developers can provide the data in all kinds of novel ways, ensuring the public has far better access to travel information.

There is a wealth of sources of data – which goes under names like Trust, Tyrrell, NOIS etc and I could not begin to explain the interrelationship between them in a column of this size. The key point is that in order for there to be a level playing field, then all data must be available to every player. Moreover, it is real time information that is the key. People want to know what is happening NOW. One provider of a service has complained that while information on delays is instantly available, cancellation data is not. The Association of Train Operating Companies (I cannot get used to the idea it now goes by the daft name of Rail Delivery Group) deny this and say the companies have done nothing to prevent the information being available.

The matter appears to have been resolved following my intervention but there is a major issue over the provision of information on delays which Passenger Focus has rightly been complaining about this for a long time. I was discussing this issue with Nigel Harris, my esteemed editor, a few days ago and he reported how he was on a train that had stopped and long before any information was made available by the conductor, he had found out the reason for the delay and its likely length from Twitter followers. In a way, therefore, it seems that the train operators have in many instances given up trying to be on top of this. It is not uncommon to have better information on one’s phone than is provided either by departure boards or rail staff at stations.

The train operators face a choice. They can either become far more savvy at obtaining and providing information – some have become very good at using Twitter, while others are still in the information dark ages – or they can outsource the provision of the information and go into collaboration with an external provider – or even a series of them.

There is no shortage of other ways in which the operators can become more open. Take, for example, fare information. As my colleague Barry Doe mentions frequently, big savings are available to long distance travellers who buy two tickets to cover the journey. For historic reasons, fares for popular routes are often more expensive than a combination of the fares for two legs which make up the same journey. The key, though, is knowing the location of the break point used internally by the industry. This would allow people to going from A to C, to say – a ticket from A to B, please, and then one from B to C. The industry, ever worried about losing revenue, refuses to reveal this information on the grounds it is commercially confidential. Here, though, what Nigel Harris (two mentions in one column, ed) wrote about the railways in the last issue is apt. ‘Are railways a national and regional economic asset or merely a financial investment to provide income streams for owners and investors?’ I am sure my regular readers will know my answer to that question.

Commercial confidentiality is also used to prevent passenger numbers for particular trains being released. This is completely daft and hampers the provision of information by third party providers. If the number of people on a particular train is known, then people can alter their journey time accordingly. ATOC responded by saying ‘there is a difference between data which is commercially useful and data which is useful to passengers in finding a less busy train. For example, there is already plenty of data made available by the industry that fits the latter purpose – including PIXC [passengers in excess of capacity] data on loadings, ORR station usage data and the type of info London Midland uses for its Find My Seat pages.’

I am not convinced. There is no reason why the industry needs to high usage figures and this can only have a negative effect on both the industry and passengers. I cannot see what commercial advantage can be gained from such information which, in any case, would be obtainable with sufficient effort by a rival. Indeed, the anti-HS2 campaigners have managed to get quite a lot of information about loading factors on trains coming into Euston.

There has been considerable progress on the provision of data. The Office of Rail Regulation has improved immeasurably the amount of information available to the public and made it more accessible through its National Rail Trends Data Portal although I would still like to see a single table covering every year since privatisation with franchise subsidy or premiums, track access payments, and all other data relating to individual operators. However, the ‘commercial confidentiality’ block remains a bugbear. When an industry receives more than £4bn in taxpayer subsidy annually, the public is entitled to have all the information about the companies involved – for free.



Parkway to nowhere



The lessons of HS1 and the siting of stations needs to be learnt by the promoters of HS2. A friend of mine, Gerald, who lives in the USA visited Ebbsfleet, the station which was supposed to become the heart of a new community on HS1 the other day and his views confirmed mine that this will be a white elephant for a long time. He wrote to me saying ‘there wasn’t much to see at Ebbsfleet except for about 50new houses on the way in about half mile from station. In fact it’s an unimproved and unattractive landscape in all directions.’ The station has been open for seven years now and of course was unlucky in that this was only a couple of years before the 2008 financial criss but nevertheless it is difficult to see how this will turn into the bustling hub that the planners had expected. Currently it has around 1,800 commuters on a typical day and very few Eurostar passengers – it was supposed to attract people from across the south-east – to justify the appellation ‘International’. Clearly this shows resistance to the very idea of driving to a station to take a long distance rail journey – people prefer using public transport all the way, coming into central London instead.

HS2 has several stations planned which similarly make no sense except to planners who want to change the way we live but refuse to acknowledge that people will resist being dictated to in this way. So we have  Birmingham Interchange which will be some 7 miles from the city centre and while serving the airport and the National Exhibition Centre makes little real sense even if the proposed rapid connection with the centre is built. Nor do the stations at Sheffield, tucked away at Meadowhall well away from the city centre or Totton, halfway between Nottingham and Derby. These will all require journeys by car or public transport to reach them, greatly reducing their use. Ebbsfleet – and indeed several similar little used stations on the French TGV network – offer a lesson that HS2 planners have not taken on board.

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