Cleanweb, February 2015

Yesterday evening, I gave a talk on Open Rail Data at Cleanweb. I wished I could have stayed longer – there were plenty of discussions to be had, but after a busy Open Data Day on Saturday, the call of my bed was stronger than the call of the pub.

If you missed the presentation, or if you noticed I rattled through the last slides a little too quickly (and I always seem to need five more minutes than I have available!) and want to re-read them, I’ve uploaded them in PDF format.

If you want to continue the discussion, join the openraildata-talk mailing list and come chat.

Open Rail Data – Two Years On

After a brief, but really interesting visit to the former Bletchley PSB (or signalbox, if you’re less of a railway geek), I popped in to OpenTech 2013 to present an update to the presentation I gave two years ago.

In some ways, we’ve come a long way – in others, maybe not. Regardless, there’s scope for opening up more data to make us all more aware of what’s going on – suggestions immediately afterwards included getting data on cable theft incidents, counts of people going through ticket barriers at stations in real-time, plus passenger counts from trains.

My presentation is available if you missed it, or if you want to cut-out and keep. Exciting times :)

Opening Great Britain’s Rail Data

It’s my first time in Helsinki, and the weather is much the same as a September day in London – wet.

I finished preparing for my talk at OKFestival a little under 24 hours ago, and it went without a hitch. These things are normally OK once you’ve finished worrying about them.

Anyway, the slides and video of my presentation on Open Train Times and Opening Great Britain’s Rail Data are now online. Enjoy!

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement

Many people reading my blog are interested in Open Data – here are the three important paragraphs from the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement earlier, as they relate to Open Data:

“1.125 Making more public sector information available will help catalyse new markets and innovative products and services as well as improving standards and transparency in public services. The Government will open up access to core public datasets on transport, weather and health, including giving individuals access to their online GP records by the end of this Parliament. The Government will provide up to £10 million over five years to establish an Open Data Institute to help industry exploit the opportunities created through release of this data.”

“A.146 Open Data Institute – The Government will provide up to £10 million over five years, with match-funding from industry and academia, to establish the world’s first Open Data Institute to help business exploit the opportunities created by release of public data”

“A.140 Rail fares data – The Government will consult in early 2012, through the Fares and Ticketing Review, on providing open access to rail fares data, giving passengers and business better information and enabling them to make the most cost-effective travel choices.”

The Cabinet Office website has further details in a PDF here.

I’ll leave it at that for the moment – other people will doubtless be writing their take on it, but I’ll leave you with one word from me: positive.

Crunching rail timetables

For those of you new to this blog, I’ve been doing some work with timetable data for a few months now, and I presented my work at OpenTech with Jonathan Raper earlier this year. I’m working with some other people to bring more information about the rail network out from behind the scenes and in to the hands of the public so people can innovate and analyse the data, and ultimately to increase transparency and accountability. Importantly, I am also pro-rail and looking to improve on what we have.

So – it’s taken a while, but TSDB Explorer can now load an entire ~500Mb CIF format timetable in around an hour on an average machine. Whilst I can undoubtedly improve this, it’s a lot better than the previous three days and multi-gigabyte monstrosity I wrote previously.

Several people are interested in the format of the CIF file, and I’m going to put a set of slides together soon to explain it. Hopefully David Cameron’s recent letter on open data will help make Network Rail-source CIF timetable data more prevalent, and my “How To” guide will lower the barrier for other people to write timetable analysers, produce train frequency graphs, generate pocket timetables, etc.

Watch this space – these are very exciting times.

Making a bad situation worse

Last night’s attempted cable theft at Woking wasn’t a pleasant experience for the thousands of people trying to get home. An earlier signalling problem at Clapham Junction disrupted my journey out to Putney slightly, but it was utter chaos later.

My journey back home would have been a nightmare had it not been for the exceedingly convenient London Overground service from Clapham to Stratford, the only criticism of which I can make is that the 2015 departure from Clapham gets to Gospel Oak at the same time at the 2050 service to Barking departs. A minor problem though.

Some hours later after I’d returned home and had dinner, I had a friend of mine call me up for advice on which trains to get back to Winchester – he’d been trying to get back from Waterloo, was advised to travel via Reading, and thanks to one of my Open Source projects, TSDB Explorer, I could tell him which trains to get and from where – but not if they were running or where they were.

Hearing the story in the news this morning, my jaw dropped when I heard that some passengers forced open train doors and made a run for it down the track. That’s an exceedingly bad thing to do, for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, there’s the danger of electrocution from the conductor rail – Module DC of the Rule Book sets out the details for the technically minded. Suffice it to say that if you stepped on, or slipped over on to the conductor rail, you’re not coming out of it unscathed.
  • Second, once the driver of a train receives an alert on the train’s management system that the emergency egress handle has been used on his train, he’s going to call the electrical control room and/or signaller immediately and get the power switched off, or ‘isolated’. This can only be done in an emergency for a large area, because in an emergency, you don’t have time to work out which parts of the supply to turn off (and sometimes you just don’t have the option – imagine trying to switch off just one socket on a ring main from the consumer unit in your house). The lack of power and knowledge that there are people on the track further screws up any attempt by Network Rail and South West Trains to get trains moving, however slowly. Even if the attempted cable theft affected two out of four lines, there are still procedures that can be undertaken to move trains without the aid of normal signalling systems – they’re slow, but they exist, and they are safe. So, the result of people ‘escaping’ from trains through frustration? More trains not moving for a long time because there’s no power to any of them. Oh, and without power, the air conditioning on trains won’t work. South West Trains’ fleet doesn’t have windows that can be opened – there’s no point with air-conditioning. Everyone else gets warm and agitated.
  • Finally, trespassing on the track is just that – trespass.

So, the moral of the story? However frustrated you are, don’t take matters in to your own hands and make a difficult but manageable situation in to a potentially serious incident involving death.

Open Rail Data

Jonathan Raper and I gave presentations on Open Rail Data – Jonathan from a more political angle, and me from a decidedly technical angle.

The material went down really well – there’s plenty of scope for us to show what can be done if timetable, real-time running and fares data is made openly available. I thoroughly enjoyed delivering the presentation – I haven’t done that since Berlin in 2006, and I’d forgotten how easily I slip in to “presenter mode”.

Here is a copy of my OpenTech 2011 presentation in PDF format if you’re interested. Or, if you simply want to get in touch, peter.hicks@poggs.co.uk.

I’m celebrating this evening with a curry.

UpdateJonathan’s presentation is also available

National Fail Enquiries

Whilst I wholeheartedly support National Rail Enquiries’ aggregation of live train running data and disruption information, sometimes it can be wholly inaccurate and present a misleading picture.

Suppose I am travelling from Highbury and Islington to Shoreditch High Street today. I know these stations are on the same line, so I visit the Live Departure Boards site. I am presented with a warning saying there are no train services from this station on Sunday 3rd April.

What? But there’s a list of trains to West Croydon and Crystal Palace that all stop at Shoreditch. I visit the link in the warning and find that, actually, there are no trains between Stratford and Acton Central. The map linked to is very helpful actually, and it shows the route with the disrupted section in red. But what’s missing? The link from Dalston Junction to Highbury and Islington. So, do I need to go to Dalston Junction to take my train now?

The answer is actually quite straightforward – the website is wrong, and I know this because I’ve looked up the departures from Shoreditch High Street and seen that they’ve all departed Highbury and Islington.

What on earth is Joe Public going to do when presented with conflicting and incorrect information? It’s no wonder a number of people I know get aggravated at the quality of disruption information.