Where’s my train?

What next?

So, a challenge is laid:

I assert that train operators know where their assets are: it would be irresponsible if they didn’t. And that this information is held within their internal systems.

Wheresmytrain has one objective: making this information openly available so that:

a) there is a definitive, raw source of real-time information available (rather than the current confused mixture of messages); and

b) others may reuse it in ways which may be better than those which train and infrastructure operators have achieved to date

What’s needed in such a feed?this is very much a first stab – please contribute to the specification by commenting

– Real-time positions (lat/long or other standard mapping identifier) of all passenger rolling stock in operation, with the following information attributes:

– Final destination (standard Rail Enquiries short code will do) – if this is not yet determined due to live replanning of routes, then marking it as Unknown is required.

– Planned stopping stations (ditto)

Nice to haves

– Predicted arrival and departure times for each stop (but when crisis hits this becomes much less predictable, and might even be less useful than just the station stops. It may be more sensible to set a “threshold of chaos” beyond which attempts to describe anything other than station stops are abandoned.)

Number of coaches making up the train.

Commercial issues?

Is live-running information commercially valuable? Quite probably. Like any other useful information asset, using it well and attracting traffic generates potential revenue streams. As would building saleable applications e.g. for an iPhone. But is the uncertainty over who might profit from it enough to stop any reuse of this information? I think not.

Do you think this information is important and useful enough to be made publicly available for unconstrained reuse?

Other issues

Routes can change; so even with the best information in the world, a train at Formby indicated as stopping at all stations to Southport may be stopped at Birkdale when it gets there. Permanently. That means some previous predictions will be wrong and passengers will need to recheck when they realise something’s gone wrong. We need to accept that.

But overall, this is a simple request. What makes it a little different (I hope) from other cries for data that have gone out recently is that I will keep pursuing this specific issue (with help from others!) with all train operating companies, and keep updating on progress. The first train operator that does implement such a feed will clearly experience some great benefits; reputational, and possibly operational too. Maybe one of them already has? If so, let me know and I’ll happily revise my scope.

I’m bringing together a couple of previous ideas in doing this: firstly that although it is great to go out and gather new ideas for information reuse, sometimes you just need to pick on a particular area and follow through the progress (or lack of it) towards real solutions with bloody-minded persistence.

Secondly, as with the idea I submitted to the government competition Show Us A Better Way last year, there is great benefit to be had simply in exposing what information does or does not actually exist. If we conclude that no train operator actually does have a reliable source of information on the location of its own assets – then that itself is a valuable outcome. One from which other conclusions and lessons may be drawn 😉

If we reach other conclusions: that a lack of management capability, or authority, or will, or franchise terms, or technical capacity, or time, or resource (or anything else) are given as reasons not to proceed, then we get to see that publicly too. Let’s see how tenable such reasons continue to be, as public interest in them mounts.

One thing I want to get straight at the start is to acknowledge that train operators already think very hard about these issues. They are not stupid; they run competitive businesses and many have already made some steps towards presenting live running information. There’s an example here. But it’s not reusable, and it’s only in one place. It can’t be shaped, made relevant to an individual, localised, or offered on different platforms.

I’m not suggesting that current efforts are without merit, just that train operators should approach this in a different way.

This could be a very exciting exercise: one that actually leads directly to useful applications that help all of us. On our mobiles, in our homes, at our desks, on our platforms.

Provided that we don’t forget all about it once this snow melts and we get back to our usual sort-of-normality.

Provided that we continue to care, and to believe that we can actually release the Power of Information and change something.

On this one, I truly believe we can.

Who’s in?


  1. It being Christmas Eve, and Lord knows we all need a break I will throw in a quicky:

    Several feeds needed to build a proper train information system:

    planned schedules

    route status (eg Birmingham-Manchester running fine, delays expected)

    real-time location of individual services

    station information and status (eg station has disabled access, everything running fine, escalators out of action)

    passenger levels (eg normal peak hour crush, crowded)

    planned events (eg football game scheduled for 3pm – heavy crowds expected all afternoon)

    Would say the first four are needed, last couple nice-to-haves.

  2. The nice to haves are really nice, but some of the must haves are baked into the National rail app for the iphone. The “live progress” was remarkably helpful over the last week of snow and cancelled trains, certainly on my Southern trains route from Victoria.

    Perhaps they could think about porting this more widely, making it bullet proof for accuracy and then adding some nice to haves in due course. But I am not convinced they need to start from scratch….so don’t let them off the hook! 🙂

  3. I’m in. This kind of information is very valuable. I think in the long run it will serve train operators very well to release this data publicly.

    I’ve left my email and i’ll keep watching to see what needs to be done next!

  4. I take a lot of trains around almost the whole of the UK (daily commute and longer business/leisure travel) and feel that there has been an improvement in the availability of information over the past ten years. not that things couldn’t be improved further of course, but so long as a train station is manned, there is generally a source of information somewhere at hand (Willesden Junction rail station a notable exception).

    My personal beef is with the lack of information about where tube trains are. Take the Hammersmith and City line. If you want to take this from Liverpool street or Kings Cross to the west of London you can be standing on the platform for up to 45 minutes without any information about when the next train will arrive. Meanwhile, fairly accurate information about the Circle line will be displayed. Occasionally a H&C train will flicker on the board, but the arrival time is wrong 9 times out of ten, and often the train will mysteriously vanish from the board. Having real time information about the position and movements of the nearest train would do a lot to assuage passenger frustration and to aid planning (should I nip over to the Central line instead?) Of course, underground, mobile phone apps are not so useful, but if real time information exists for tube trains (and I assume *someone* knows where they are) there must be ways of transmitting this to the platform (and I don’t mean over the tannoy, which can seldom be heard over the din). How about making those wonderful tube maps on every platform more *alive*, by showing each train as a moving light? That’d be a lovely Xmas present for next year. (dream on, methinks)

  5. This is a very much needed advancement, given that the data is out there.

    I’m wondering exactly what technology is currently used to track them. GPS? RFID?

    I would be interested to know if the current “Train Due in x Minutes” is triggered by an exact knowledge of its physical location, an estimate based on an automated trigger set off when arriving/departing at the previous station, or if this info has to be manually “radioed” in by the driver.

    But I agree, Paul – they *must* know where their trains are. It’s a case of convincing them to relinquish the data. Especially if they see potential revenue in it…

  6. There’s a tube app called Tube Boards (there are both lite and paid-for versions) that does the following:

    – Shows the next 3 trains, with their ETA
    – Shows where said trains are on the network (i.e. “Just left Edgware Road”)

    9 times out of 10, the information on the app is better than the information on the platform boards, particularly in the case of the subsurface lines (District, H&C, Circle etc.), which is fortunate, because those are the only platforms on which it’ll work!

    I was having this very discussion the other day (“they must know where their stock is”) and we came to roughly the same assertion as you made at the start of your post.

    I agree with the comments above – they must have it, but getting them to relinquish it is where the rub lies, I think. Various concerns from security to PR will undoubtedly be brought to bear, e.g. if TfL ever actually define what they mean by a “good” service, using this API, one could easily set up a system to determine what percentage of their trains meet this obligation – I know I’d strongly consider crafting it. Perhaps a decent UI could be strapped on it to the point where TfL could be convinced to “outsource” their data interpretation to the community…? An infinite number of coders and all that.

    I suppose it’s the traditional issue of opening something up increases the number of eyes on it, and whether those releasing the data are comfortable (both competitively and culturally) with having such a large number of eyes on their internal information. Bloody-minded persistence, as you mention above, may be the way forward.

    I’m optimistic – the Tube Board app shows that someone, somehow, has managed to tap into this info, so that’s a foot in the door. I’m passionate about giving people the information they need when they need it, and the information doled out about public transport has ample room for improvement and interesting uses.

  7. This has all the makings of a viable project. Were I in the UK I would love to be part of this!

    On a whimsical note here is an extract from today’s First Capital Connect board:
    “18:32 Sevenoaks to Kentish Town due 19:50
    This train is running on time.This is due to an earlier broken down train.”

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