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?