bbc.co.uk Navigation

Rory Cellan-Jones

Who owns the train times - or the news?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 24 Mar 09, 15:53 GMT

Planning for a train journey, I turned to my phone and an incredibly useful application called MyRail Lite. It is "location-aware" so knows my local station - and can tell me when the next train leaves and whether it is on time. But as I was scrolling through the timetable, I came across a message. "We regret that this service will be discontinued from 31st March 2009 as our license to distribute real-time train information from National Rail Enquiries for live departure boards is not being renewed."

Passengers getting on and off a trainWhat a pity, I thought, and then I remembered that a few days ago I'd received a press release promoting another train time iPhone application from - guess who - National Rail Enquiries. At the time I'd asked the press officer how the app compared to MyRail Lite - and been promised that it was far superior.

So last night I installed it and tried it out - and it was indeed very good, enabling you not just to check departure times but to plan a whole journey. But there's one catch - it costs £4.99, whereas MyRail Lite was free.

I got back in touch with National Rail Enquiries and was informed that there'd never been a licensing agreement and it "had not been possible to reach a mutually agreeable solution."

So it seems that NRE has moved to protect its intellectual property in the form of real-time train information, in order to "monetise" that data.

From a business point of view, it makes perfect sense - but surely it is entirely against the spirit of openness, the idea that "information is free"? What's more, the move harms rail passengers who now have to pay more for information which will help them choose the train over the car.

But just as I'd come to the conclusion that data really should be free, and that any attempt to lock it up inside your own walled garden and make money from it was both foolish and misguided, I read something which made me wonder.

In a long but fascinating dissection of the death spiral of American newspapers, James DeLong ends up nudging towards an interesting conclusion - that journalists have sealed their own death warrant by their insistence that "information should be free."

The result, he argues, is that newspaper content, once fiercely guarded and the source of huge profits, is a pond that anyone - from a thousand bloggers to Google News - can dip into and profit from. But that means there's a lot less revenue to support the organisations that still create most of the online news content.

The most frightening figures in the article are those relating to the Washington Post's advertising revenues - $573m for the newspaper with around three quarters of a million subscribers, just $103m for the website which has eight million unique visitors a month. So if all those analogue readers migrate online who'll pay for the journalism?

Some journalists are already reaching the conclusion that information should not be free. Here's the editor of the New York Times:"Really good information, often extracted from reluctant sources, truth-tested, organized, and explained - that stuff wants to be paid for."

We journalists mocked the music industry for its doomed attempt to protect its content from the file-sharers - and now organisations like National Rail Enquiries can expect brickbats for putting their data behind bars. But maybe they've looked at what's happening to newspapers which decided to let their content roam free - and learned some lessons.

UPDATE

The company behind MyRail Lite, Kizoom, has been in touch to clarify matters. It says it DID have a long-running licensing arrangement to use National Rail Enquiries data in applications for various mobile phones. But the two sides seem to have fallen out over the issue of an application for the iPhone - Kizoom believed their existing agreement covered that phone, NRE did not.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    A key difference with the train times, as you point out Rory, is that surely train timetables are, essentially, an advert for a train.

    Charging people to get access to news about your service - that seems pretty stupid to me.

    Finding a way to monetise content, that's clever.

    So make the iPhone app into an easy e-purchase system, fine. Charging for access to a timetable seems blinkered.

  • Comment number 2.

    As @The_Father said, "any work of fiction is the property of the author" That surely goes for train timetables as much as what journalists write. As long as it's not fact you should be permitted to make as much money as you like from it.

  • Comment number 3.

    Rail travel info is free already... From the BBC's travel section and available for (non-commercial) use free of charge via backstage.bbc.co.uk.

    I created the Twitter service @uktrains (see http://uktrains.pbwiki.com) precisely to address National Rail's backwards attitude to data... They shouldn't attempt to profit from it because it covers failures in a service people are already paying for via ticket fares.

    Journalists are different - they create original content and deserve to be rewarded for it.

  • Comment number 4.

    Some papers already tried a paywall - it didn't work. Really good information might want to be paid for - but very few people are actually willing to pay for it.

    I think the real cause of newspaper's woes is that they're just not as good as the journalists and editors think they are. They blow their own trumpet about how professional they are and how they are the "fourth pillar of government" when most newspapers are little more than sport, entertainment, celebrity gossip, opinion and regurgitated press releases - just the sort of "news" that no one wants to pay for and can be gotten for free elsewhere. They sealed their own death warrants by being little better than blogs.

  • Comment number 5.

    Whoever regulates National Rail enquiries needs to look into this.

    I can't believe they charge £4.99 for this App! This is expensive even by the App Store standards.

    What I can't understand is that they charge for this, but the information is free on the (awful) National Rail Enquiries website and free on the official National Rail 'widget' which is available for the PC.

    It has been stated that the £4.99 pays for 'development costs' but what about development costs for the website and the 'widget' programme?

    The developer of this App - Agant Ltd. must be making a fortune.

    National Rail must not be happy enough charging the highest rail fares in Europe, they need to charge for a product that was available for free.

    I'm going to protest by the only means I have and simply not purchase it.

  • Comment number 6.

    What's wrong with the good old fashioned printed timetables posted on each station? That's what I use. Or NR website and a couple of sheets of A4 through my printer. Or are you complaining about the need for real time data? If so, what wrong with the TVs and indicator displays on the station?

    It's such a shame they stopped publishing the National Rail Timetables book (last edition cost £12). I had a colleague who never learned to drive, she had a copy on her desk that was always available for loan. Admittedly, that was in the days before NR (or their predecessor, Failtrack) had a usuable website.

    Presumably National Rail see their new iPhone app as the natural replacement for the National Timetable book. Is the £4.99 a one time charge or is there an annual subscription for the data? If it's £4.99 then it's a bargain.

  • Comment number 7.

    I rely on MyRail Lite daily - it's really sad that they can't continue with it... I'd pay for it even, so what's the issue?

    Come on!

  • Comment number 8.

    It's two different things Rory. A better analogy would be if the Record Companies started charging me to find out what new releases they have out, or to look up the current album charts. Or if Argos started charging for their catelogue.

  • Comment number 9.

    Who needs an app? You can access this information from the National Rail website on your phone's web browser for free. Sure it might not be location-aware but it is easy enough to set favourites for the stations you frequent.

  • Comment number 10.

    The key differences between train timetables and journalism are that:

    • Train timetables are raw tables of data
    • Train timetables are information relating directly to the *public transport network*, which although outsourced to private operators, is ultimately managed and regulated by a public-sector entity

    • Journalism is the distillation of that data, with added commentary and opinion; train timetables or performance data themselves wouldn't make for a newspaper column
    • "Information being free" greatly benefits journalists as well as the public (what proportion of FoI requests came from journalists?)

  • Comment number 11.

    Rory, have read Tom Watsons 'Ink-Stained Retching' http://bit.ly/oINFl Tom is in London now.

  • Comment number 12.

    A few observations.

    1) Yes, you can use the website via the Safari browser. It's a bit of a pain, but no one is stopping you.

    2) £4.99 is not really a huge amount of money. It's maybe two and a half cappucinos. Also, it's a one-off fee, not a subscription.

    3) Given the old adage - 'time is money', if your time is worth (say) £20 / hour, then by the time the app has saved you 15 minutes of fruitlessly hanging around on a train platform / dialling national rail enquiries / trying to use the standard website in Safari on the iPhone, the app has paid for itself. Your numbers will vary, but not by much.

    4) Maybe the timetable data should be free, but I suspect the time of external developers isn't. iPhone applications don't magically write themselves. Programmers need to eat.

    5) Even if the data was free, the iPhone still needs to download it from National Rail which presumably costs NR a small amount in bandwidth charges from their ISP - the running costs of this service from NR's point of view are not zero. On the website they might hope to recruit this through targeted advertising, but that option isn't open to them with the iPhone app.

    6) I think that if you compare the relatively modest outlay for this application against the ridiculous sums demanded for ringtone subscriptions, text message based services etc., it comes out looking pretty good.

  • Comment number 13.

    CompactDistance: When I'm late and running to catch the train, the last thing I want to do is fiddle around in my phone's web browser.

    With MyRail Lite (and the National Rail app), it's two taps. Plus, it does offline caching and the location aware stuff too.

    That said, this kind of data should be freely available, at least for non-commercial use.

  • Comment number 14.

    The fail is strong with this one.
    What are they thinking, trying to charge for train timetables? Surely this is only going to result in LESS people using their services? Bus, Train and Airport timetables are things which should be free, as it's a form of information / advertising for their services.
    What are they going to do next, make the arrivals and departure screens Pay-Per-View?

    As for newspapers - yes it's mostly their own fault. Or rather, it's like the Ice salesman complaining about the fridge putting him out of business. People can simply get better, more in-depth and up-to-date information on the internet.

    And the trouble is, that some journalists have too often done just that - plagiarising blogs, wikipedia, facebook and various other online sources for a story. Hardly ever a mention of their source.

  • Comment number 15.

    That is absolutely stupid. Obviously they're doing it because "they can". I guess ultimately commuters will pay for the service, be it through their iPhone or their ticket.

    It's like web sites displaying premiership results... it's a public event for goodness sake. What next councils charging for traffic jam information?

  • Comment number 16.

    #15

    "What next councils charging for traffic jam information?"

    Actually its the Highways Agency, and don't put ideas into their heads...

  • Comment number 17.

    #15

    "What next councils charging for traffic jam information?"

    Actually its the Highways Agency, and don't put ideas into their heads...

  • Comment number 18.

    Rory may I draw your attention to the following page - http://www.journeycheck.com/nationalexpresseastanglia

    As you can tell from the url it is for National Express EA but I believe there are other www.journeycheck.com pages for other rail operators, although I may be wrong on that.

    This works fine on my company issued BlackBerry, previously an 8800 and now a 8310 Curve and will work on any of the current gen BlackBerry smartphones, it also functions fine on my personal Samsung U600 on the T-Mobile network. So I am fairly certain it would also work on an iPhone and other similar PDAs/Smartphones with an adequate browser (personally I recommend Opera mini).

    And it's free, although not location aware but with a few clicks/scrolls you can select the stations that you want.

    I really cannot understand why people would pay for an app to obtain such information when it can be just as easily obtained for free.

    Of course education is everything and the "general public" is largely dumb and not prepared to look around thus they buy the marketing BS Apple are selling, i.e. that the iPhone Apps store is the only place worth looking and they end up paying for apps...

  • Comment number 19.

    Quite an amusing article, but I think a bit misguided in places.

    Newspapers haven't "sealed their own death warrant" by insisting on free news. Most newspapers have tried to charge for their news online, and most have failed - WSJ being the exception I can think of. Putting up a paywall only drives people to competitors sites where information is free (and there's no point in wishing everyone charged - other people have come up with business models that don't involve charging the reader, so can the newspapers). Also, comparing the income from a print service and an internet service is very misleading. The cost of publishing and distributing is massively different. It costs far more to print and ship newspapers around the coutry than to publish online.

    Also £4.99 is very expensive for an iphone application, most are either free or no more than about £2. Why does it cost so much? The information is already in an accessible database - as it's freely available on the NRE website. It can't cost that much to build the front end, as Kizoom have proved by releasing a free version.

    One thing you got right is that this harms the consumer. If NRE really believes that their app is better than Kizoom's, then offer theirs alongside Kizoom's app. As theirs is better, and presumably worth the extra, they should still get business. All I want to see is the live departure board, not plan out whole journeys. Doesn't sound like the NRE app will be superior for my purposes.

    I for one will go back to putting web shortcuts to my local stations on a "rail timetables" screen on my iphone, I won't be buying the NRE app and wasting my money.

  • Comment number 20.

    yet another way to get more money out of passengers, whilst still providing a shockingly awful service, with rude and unhelpful staff.

    another stupid rule: pay for a Young Person's railcard so that you can get discounts on tickets, but if you actually want to USE this discount card, at a sensible time (before 10am), they don't let you. ridiculous.

    I can't think of a single reason why getting the train is better than going by car, except for maybe the reason that you can doze off to sleep on a train.... but only if you actually get a seat, if you're not still fuming from the price of the ticket, and the other passengers aren't loud lager louts that make the experience a misery....

  • Comment number 21.

    A few thoughts:

    1) Yes - you can get this data on your mobile web browser instead. However, even over a 3G connection, it does take longer, because you're waiting for page loads all the time. A dedicated native app doesn't have to keep downloading the interface itself - only the information it needs to display. As also mentioned, browsers are not yet generally location aware, though hopefully this will change (it certainly will be on the iPhone).

    2) NRE are more than welcome to offer an app, and charge for it. What gets my goat, and what others have already mentioned, is that this should be public data. The fact that they greedily guard that data, and actually go out of their way to prevent other companies providing their own apps to display it, is just plain wrong.

    3) The comparison drawn with charging for news is bordering on ridiculous. Again, as mentioned by others, realtime train times/locations are pure data (as supposed to timetables, which someone ammusingly noted as fiction). I think this is another reason NRE want to control this - as it would be far too easy for someone else to highlight all their delays.

    4) Do yourself a favour - don't buy NREs app. Even better, write to the information commissioner to complain.

    Marcos

  • Comment number 22.

    It is hard to see how print media can continue to survive in its present form. It is equally hard to see how the BBC website will continue to survive.

    News will move online, and print news will decline. At some point, I'd guess that online news will do three things:

    1. Roughly at the same time, many sources will begin to charge for access. This will be where the economic situation reduces online advertising and Goggle has what's left.

    2. Lobby for closure of the BBC free news output as unfair competition.

    3. Press for changes in copyright fair-use law to attempt to stop blogs etc re-hashing their news output. Sure, many blogs have original output and commentary, but a substantial number exist on the back of news written in the main by the mainstream sources.

    Print media is not completely doomed until display technology gets a bit closer to the experience of holding a magazine. That is: A4-size, hi-res, thin, light, long battery life, always on a network of some kind.

  • Comment number 23.

    I can recommend a free alternative to the ludicrously priced National Rail Enquiries.
    There is a webapp (remember those?) that allows you to enter you departing and arriving stations as well as the date and time of your journey and will provide available train times including connection details.
    You can even forward this information as an email or save the journey as a bookmark that you can return to later.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    It may not be perfect, but it saves you £5 and proves that some people still believe the cost of the train service is more than covered by the price of your ticket!

  • Comment number 24.

    Boo hoo, my iPhone app doesn't work.
    [rolls eyes]

    Can I just sell public service, ie BBC programmes I've recorded off the telly then?

    That'll be a no then.

    Nice piece of hypocritical blogging here.

  • Comment number 25.

    Boo hoo, my iPhone app doesn't work.
    :rollseyes:

    Can I just sell public service, ie BBC programmes I've recorded off the telly then?

    That'll be a no then.

    Nice piece of hypocritical blogging here.

  • Comment number 26.

    Boo hoo, my iPhone app doesn't work.
    rollseyes

    Can I just sell public service, ie BBC programmes I've recorded off the telly then?

    That'll be a no then.

    Nice piece of hypocritical blogging here.

  • Comment number 27.

    wap.nationalrail.co.uk

    Free rail enquiries and journey planning. There's no guarantee it's accurate though - even from the information source - I was travelling on a train to Hastings the other day whilst National Rail was telling me it was cancelled...

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    #28: "Kizoom appealed to several watchdog and regulatory bodies including the ORR and Passenger Focus. They all thought that NRE's behaviour was restrictive of competition, but there was no will to do anything about it."

    Could that be because a complaint about anti-competitive practice has to be brought to the OFT rather than ORR or Passenger Focus [or even the Information Commissioner]?

  • Comment number 30.

    Regarding the Washington post figures, those 750,000 subscribers will receive the paper every day of the month, and will probably at least glance at every page and see the adverts on it. 750,000 people x 30 days x 80 pages = 1.8 billion page views. Given that many copies will be read by multiple people in a household, 3 billion is probably closer to the actual number of pages read.

    Those 8 million unique web visitors would have to read 375 pages each per month to generate the same exposure to adverts which they are unlikely to do - I'd imagine a fair percentage only visit a single page from a search result, so to me the comparison of advertising revenues looks reasonable.

  • Comment number 31.

    "NRE are more than welcome to offer an app, and charge for it."

    Ah, but they're not, are they? The application is being sold by the third-party developer who wrote it, not by NRE. They just have NRE's endorsement (and, one therefore presumes, permission)

    Development houses have to pay programmers and testers. Otherwise they won't program or test. See my earlier observation about iPhone applications not magically writing themselves.

    If NRE are as jealous of their data as is being suggested, contracts would have had to have been drawn up between NRE and the developer. It's a fair guess that lawyers would have been involved at some stage in this process and they're not known for being cheap.

    Finally, you're not paying for the data! NRE are not asking you to pay some kind of monthly subscription to their service and you can achieve essentially the same results using Safari (except without the location awareness). You're paying for an application that makes it simpler to access the NRE data through a more iPhone-like interface and adds some convenient location-based features. I feel that this is worth a one-off payment of £4.99.

    For the record, I have a lot of sympathy with the view that the data should be free. In an ideal world it should be easy for anyone to write an application to access it. But consider this - suppose that the Kizoom application (which, to be fair, I've not used) had been wildly popular and the resulting traffic from the app to the NRE site had meant that NRE had had to pay for new infrastructure to cope with the increased number of queries. How should this have been paid for?

    Ultimately, most people seem to forget that providing data has a cost to the provider and if the data is popular then the provider loses out, unless they can be compensated somehow. This is why many free websites have advertising on them - without the revenue, the website wouldn't be financially viable. I suspect that levying some kind of 'data tax' on net users to replace this revenue and allow free datafeeds for all would be unpopular. If anyone can suggest a better way to compensate data providers for the costs they incur, go ahead...

  • Comment number 32.

    So, as a user of an unmanned station, with no live train information boards and weak mobile signal coverage, I finally had a free, fast and easy to use way of finding out how late my train was, or whether it was coming at all. This service came via a free iPhone app that proved vital as all other methods of getting this information had dried up. The train operating company used to let you ring them up to find out what was happening, but they now only answer the phone after the commuting rush hour is over. Now the free app no-longer works, and a paid for app appears. Why should I pay for this information that isn't available via any other means from my station? MyRailLite always provided the information super fast even with the poor signal you get at my station (not good enough for web browsing that's for sure). Paying to find out if your train has been cancelled or is just late leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the commuter.

  • Comment number 33.

    I think it is absolute outrage that National Rail Enquiries charge for this application. The MyRail Lite application did the job perfectly and was free. Why on earth would National Rail get involved other than to profit from it by charging for an idea that they stole! Yes indeed you can use the website from your iPhone but this is a much more long winded approach. Given that the information is freely available on their site just proves further what a rip off the application is. OK so you could argue they charge to cover the development costs. Absolute rubbish. The developers of MyRail Lite were more than happy to develop the application free of charge. The solution was already in place - no need to monopolies on a replica. The reason I would frequently check the status of my regular train is because it is quite often delayed. If it was on time consistently I wouldn’t have to check the status. They are profiting from the delays of a poor service!

  • Comment number 34.

    The fail is indeed strong - MyRail was a great example of what a mobile app should be - lightweight, responsive & smart. I would happily have paid for it. In the week since it got closed down, I've missed it at least half a dozen times.

    Worse yet, the official, paid app isn't available world wide, so with my Australian iTunes store account, I couldn't even buy it if I wanted to!

    And for the final insult, the national rail site asks me if I want to pay for their app on every visit (whether or not I tell them 'no thanks' every time). Clicking 'Yes please' yields a 'You can't have this app, Aussie' message.

    Epic Fail, National Rail. Thanks for wrecking it.

  • Comment number 35.

    While you are thinking about the ownership of tabulated data like the railway timetables (which are, at least, data created by private companies) recall that the post code - created by the publicly-funded and (still) nationally owned Post Office - is considered by the Royal Mail to be copyright and protected information, stopping people and other organisations making full use of what is a quick and easy reference to a particular geographic area (unless you pay a fortune to the Royal Mail for the 'privilege' of having access to the data).

    Public money created the post code system, and public money created the Ordnance Survey maps of this country, yet to use either you must pay, pay and pay again.

  • Comment number 36.

    Well done Rory on bringing this story to wider attention; I was infuriated when this happened. To be frank, a public company, subsidised by several private companies who take their money from the extortionate rail fees millions of Britons are forced to pay, is looking for another way to take money from the British public.

    What you didn't mention is that NRE offers this information for free in the form of a website for mobile phones, and My Rail Lite was simply using this information, for no profit gain whatsoever - effectively doing the public duty that NRE long-since failed to do. However NRE have not only forced My Rail Lite to close and are charging for this information, but they are refusing to reformat their mobile web page for iPhone nor even promote this free mobile site to the public, so that thousands have to naively pay £5. Please help to stop them by complaining through the NRE website and on their comments page in iTunes!

  • Comment number 37.

    As far as I can see, Agant receive about £4 for each download.

    The information is freely available on the website and in a response from National Rail they stated that it is,"free for developers to use".

    Therefore, why can My Rail Lite be available as competition for this other product?

    Perhaps National Rail are so used to running monopolies that they cannot understand simple competition.

  • Comment number 38.

    Well done Rory on bringing this story to wider attention; I was infuriated when this happened. To be frank, a public company, subsidised by several private companies who take their money from the extortionate rail fees millions of Britons are forced to pay, is looking for another way to take money from the British public.

    What you didn't mention is that NRE offers this information for free in the form of a website for mobile phones, and My Rail Lite was simply using this information, for no profit gain whatsoever - effectively doing the public duty that NRE long-since failed to do. However NRE have not only forced My Rail Lite to close and are charging for this information, but they are refusing to reformat their mobile web page for iPhone nor even promote this free mobile site to the public, so that thousands have to naively pay £5. Please help to stop them by complaining through the NRE website and on their comments page in iTunes!

  • Comment number 39.

    I'm a web developer by profession and have some experience in developing for the iphone. I also rely on the railway network to get me around. An app that tells me the information freely available on the National Rail website, but with a nice fast interface is a godsend for me. I have to commute from some Railway 'stations', which are a little bit 'lively' in regards to their 'evening entertainment' (They're not the safest places to spend a dark evening waiting for a train) so this app allowed me to time my walk to the station perfectly so i'd never be hanging around waiting for the train/getting mugged.

    Apps are not free to develop, but nor are Train Time indicators at stations, nor are the websites currently displaying the information. There should be a free app. If they want to earn from it then integrate it with ticket purchases and adverts for local information (taxi companies, hotels, etc). They don't even have to pay for this data, it isn't like they're broadcasting music, the data is free.

    £4.99 is a lot of money. There is no justification for that price. If the market was open to developers nobody would buy this app. Even the most clueless of software houses would realise the app can make money outside of its purchase price.

  • Comment number 40.

    The Office of Rail Regulation appears to have picked this issue up, see http://www.rail-reg.gov.uk/server.php?show=nav.2202

 

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

BBC.co.uk