by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
apis, apps, data, open access, uk

national rail

UK National Rail Threatens App Maker For Even Discussing His Train Time App

from the it's-better-if-people-don't-know-the-train-times dept

Last year, we had a discussion about all of the various transit authorities that had been threatening various app makers for creating rather useful train schedule apps for mobile devices. Now you might think (if you thought) that transit groups would be thrilled with such apps, which would make taking the train easier and more convenient. And, really, when you realize that others would be building these apps that get more people to take the train, without you even having to pay them as developers, it sounds absolutely great for the folks who make the trains run. If they thought. But, apparently, thinking is not a pre-requisite for some of these jobs, and many of them couldn't think beyond "those apps use our data" and freaked out. In some cases it was because the train operators wanted to license the data. In some cases it was because they were offering or building their own, competing, app.

National Rail, in the UK, seems particularly short-sighted about this, and now they're taking it even further, threatening people for even talking about their threats. Glyn Moody points us to the news that a developer, Alex Hewson, who had created a web (not mobile) app that used National Rail's open API, which was even listed in the government-run list of open data feeds that developers are encouraged to make use of, who was first told to shut down the app (a year after it had been running). The backstory here is even more ridiculous. Even with the open API, Hewson sent a note to the National Rail asking if it was okay if he turned his web app into an Android app -- and charged enough to cover the costs of development. At first he received no response, so he sent another letter, and finally got this response:
"I can confirm the National Rail Enquiries Website is for personal and non-commercial use only. Therefore, the suggestion made in your letter, to utilise the data to build an Android application is expressly prohibited. I'm sorry that we cannot be of any further assistance."
Based on that he killed the Android app idea -- even though the response is a bit odd, as it implies that any Android app is automatically a "commercial use." Either way, apparently National Rail is now working to lock up the API, and quietly put up a note saying that to use it, you would soon need to use "tokens" which you could only get with a license. Hewson only discovered this after a friend pointed it out, so Hewson sent a friendly note to National Rail asking for a token, noting that his app was purely non-commercial. He also asked if there was some mailing list he could sign up for, so he wouldn't be surprised by such things.

Instead, he got a demand that he immediately shut down his app, and a haughty claim that "there has always been a requirement for a license to use this service." Of course, as Hewson pointed out, that contradicted what the National Rail had told him earlier. The author of the note, Derek Parlour, also noted that it was "highly likely" any license would require a fee. Of course, that seems strange. That's because in response to an article from Wired criticizing National Rail's refusal to open up its data, National Rail's chief executive, Chris Scoggins, scolded Wired saying:
It isn't true that National Rail Enquiries (NRE) refuses to open up its data feeds.... We've opened up our data to a range of organisations, often free of charge, so they can provide information about trains.
That seems to to contradict Parlour's comments. That led to Hewson trying to reach Scoggins via a comment on Scoggins blog. Scoggins replied -- not by admitting to a mistake, or by fixing things and allowing this app which (again, must we remind everyone?) makes it more convenient for people to take the train, but by threatening Hewson for publishing Derek Parlour's original email, claiming that it was "confidential."

So, not only can you not use the "open" API (that Scoggins himself claims is open, despite it not being so), you also can't even discuss the contradictory and misleading statements made by National Rail employees. Hewson admits that there was a confidentiality statement on the email, but just like in another recent story about someone in the UK relying too much on a poorly written confidentiality notice, the National Rail's confidentiality notice only says you can't share it if you're not the intended recipient. Since he was the intended recipient, the confidentiality policy clearly states he is free to share it.

As it stands, it sounds like Hewson may be giving up on the app. He can't even get a direct answer to the simple question of whether or not he needs to shut down the existing app (which, yes, I'll say it again, is being used to help more people use the train) while they discuss any kind of licensing deal. No matter how you look at this, National Rail appears to be making a series of really ridiculously bad moves here. Not opening up the data is just the first mistake. Then trying to abuse confidentiality policies, along with having inconsistent overall policies, just makes the entire operation seem like a mess.

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  • identicon
    Jake, 3 Nov 2010 @ 3:07pm

    Presumably it's only a matter of time before they go after that one guy who transcribes timetables to his personal website as well, though I think that was hosted on Geocities.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    vbevan (profile), 3 Nov 2010 @ 3:07pm

    Isn't that the point of an open API?

    Why have an API if you don't want devs to make something for it? It's not like Joe Average on the street will use the API to get his train times.

    The only reason I could imagine train companies NOT wanting developers to make apps is if they have't provided an API and the devs are scraping their website or similar. They would probably prefer no app to an app that could provide wrong information etc., as most people would complain to the rail company, not knowing any better. Though obviously not the case here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2010 @ 3:22pm

    What if...

    What would they do if someone would create a timetable, not from whatever data they publish, but from their own observations? It could even be more detailed, since it could for instance note how late the train tends to be, how busy it is on each hour, how clean it is...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2010 @ 3:47pm

    Time to get down to 'buisness'

    This one way enforced confidential clause that you can put into a email without any prior discussion is a great idea. Confidential extortion emails, confidential death threats, confidential harassment, and sue em to the ground if they go to the police!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2010 @ 4:46pm

      Re: Time to get down to 'buisness'

      It is even funnier when they send email to a public mailing list with these disclaimers. Especially the ones that are automatically archived publicly.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Nov 2010 @ 4:16pm

    The U.K. is a funny place if anybody have been there, everyone can say they can smell the London area smell around the pubs it smell like pee LoL

    The same smell comes from the actions of the rail service in question.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      martyburns (profile), 4 Nov 2010 @ 5:59am


      I just walked past a pub in London on my way to lunch. Can't say as I smelt any pee, but now back at my desk it's a bit weird because the aircon seems to smell of idiot.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), 3 Nov 2010 @ 4:56pm

    Excuse me

    "What time is the next train to Fenchurch Station?"

    "Two pound fifty."

    "No, I meant... wait the ticket is only two and a half pounds?"

    "No, that's how much it'll cost you to for access to that data."


    "It's valuable info, after all."

    "Bugger off."

    "Have a nice walk."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    drew (profile), 3 Nov 2010 @ 5:02pm

    it's a business model

    "makes the entire operation seem like a mess. "
    Just like the trains then...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Vic, 3 Nov 2010 @ 5:03pm

    I wonder if it would be legal in any way to just crowdsource taking pictures of actual schedules at every railway station and putting them (pictures, not the actual data, mind you!) in one application? That way you're not actually using any proprietorial DATA...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jesse, 3 Nov 2010 @ 5:20pm

    Are confidentiality policies even enforceable?

    "CONFIDENTIALITY STATEMENT: the intended recipient of this e-mail must cluck like a chicken three times and spin in five circles counter-clockwise. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

    There are many jurisdictions where one party could, legally, surreptitiously record a phone conversation...presumably this would be no different.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    norm (profile), 4 Nov 2010 @ 12:21am


    You're all in denial.This isn't about anything except the
    English getting their pound of flesh..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Randy (profile), 4 Nov 2010 @ 4:21am

    First rule

    The first rule of train schedule apps is apparently don't talk about train schedule apps.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Austin, 4 Nov 2010 @ 9:22am

    Evrything about National Rail SUCKS!!!

    Everything about National Rail Enquiries is misleading and incompetent.

    To illustrate how bad it is, just look at the Contact us and Feedback and Complaints links at the bottom of the page.

    Is this some kind of sick joke? Who on earth would dream up such a poor system? The site is absolute rubbish the application everything.

    Fire the web designer and start designing from the users perspective.

    People are busy, stop wasting their time and money. In incompetent applications.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Nov 2010 @ 9:45am

    Reply from Customer Service


    I actually took the time to write to customer service. As a Londoner I think this move is really short-sighted. This is the official response (came quite quick!)

    Dear XXX

    Thank you for your email regarding the licence requirement for our live data feed. I’m sorry that you’re unhappy with this decision, but I’d like to explain what we’re doing and why.

    Our live feeds have always required a licence if people wanted to use them to develop their own services. From 23 November 2010, a security key will now be needed and any non-licensed services will not work. The licenses are being granted in line with a code of practice which has been agreed by the rail regulator.

    We are a private business that does not make a profit and receives no government subsidy. We therefore have to ensure our costs are tightly controlled. After reviewing the costs attached to providing the data feeds, it is unsustainable for us to provide these free and unrestricted. We have tried to keep the licence charges to an absolute minimum, but I realise that some people will be disappointed by this decision.

    Once again, thank you for getting in touch and giving us your feedback.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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