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ODI Leeds

Why open data can save the East Coast Rail franchise

On 16th May, the DfT announced the collapse of the East Coast rail franchise. With the launch of London North Eastern Railway (LNER) it will once again be run by an arm of the UK government.

Stagecoach blamed the Government for the collapse. The Government blamed Stagecoach. Customers and taxpayers lose out again.

The facts are disputed and unclear, but our understanding is that Stagecoach overbid so significantly - and thus failed so spectacularly - in large part because their financial forecasts were based on inaccurate historic data about passenger count and yield.

With an inaccurate baseline, Stagecoach forecast that they could deliver more revenue than was ever likely. These problems were then compounded by late delivery of rail upgrades and new trains to the franchise.

Stagecoach claim that they identified very early into the franchise that their forecasts were wrong. Last weeks outcome was inevitable almost from the start. There must be a better way to do this.

Rail customer information in the UK is pretty good. The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and Train Operating Companies (TOCs) have to release standard datasets as open data (fares, timetables, schedules etc). They also have to agree to the same discounts and schemes (think railcards, season tickets, and regulated off-peak fares). They also agree to the standard retail agreements.

This delivers industry-wide data standards. It is why there is a common customer experience across TOCs. When you book Virgin Trains tickets on Grand Centrals website, thats why it works.

At ODI Leeds we dont work with the railways much. We work much more with buses, an industry generally considered to be behind rail in terms of open data. Were happy that the Bus Services Act 2017 goes some way to moving the bus industry forward. But just as buses have lots to learn from rail, there are some areas where rail could catch up. Our early work with West Yorkshire to get every bus journey taken with a free bus pass released as open data is one. We know where and when every passenger got on a bus.

We think that the rail industry - starting with LNER - could do the same and do even better. Heres how:

Open Datasets

While LNER runs East Coast trains they should release data on:

  • How many people are estimated to be on each train at each point on the network.
  • How much each person paid for their ticket.
  • Real-time train occupancy via an API.
  • Average delay minutes per train per route.

Under public control the usual reason to not publish this data, commercially sensitive, is not a concern. And once proven under public control, a condition for the next company to run the franchise to also publish this data could be included in the tender.

Open data will improve things in three areas:

  1. Open data delivers open procurement

By making sure that all bidders have access to the same data, open data will make franchise bids less risky, fairer, and less prone to corruption.

By making sure that rail experts, governments, and the public can criticise the data, open data means that inaccuracies are found and fixed.

By making sure that business and governments at all levels can understand the workings of the railway, open data means investment decisions are better informed.

  1. Open data holds franchisees to account

Companies that win franchises are held to their commitments. But without open data this is an expensive process, with expensive legal processes and negotiated trade-offs. Open data allows more stakeholders to hold both franchise holders and government franchising teams to account. Instead of a team at DfT and a team at the franchise holder regulation can be done by everyone. This means by DfT, Transport for the North, Transport Scotland, TfL, elected Mayors and local governments, passenger groups, industry bodies, unions, taxpayers, and by customers themselves.

  1. Open data provides better customer experiences

The UK has world-leading companies like Trainline.com innovating with transport data. They even create their own datasets, like crowd-sourcing train occupancy and presenting this back to users to help them plan their journeys. The state should be helping them to thrive.

Open data could help Trainline.com to help users book less busy trains, to get better deals, or to travel earlier or later to regulate demand. It could help other British travel companies like Skyscanner and Citymapper enter the market. Most importantly, it could create -- as it so often has -- new services and companies that we havent even imagined.

Conclusion

More and better open data on trains would benefit almost everyone.

The Department for Transport should include new TOC requirements for the provision of open data into all future franchise agreements. It can show that its possible by starting with LNER.