The Department for Transport (DfT) recently published its 'Joint Rail Data Action Plan' setting out a number of objectives and associated timescales, which an industry-led taskforce will work towards in order to improve the quality and openness of rail data. The plan focuses on train operating companies (TOCs) and other rail entities addressing the following five barriers to wider data sharing.

1. Data transparency

The Data Action Plan refers to a "general caution" exercised by TOCs in identifying data that is commercially sensitive, which in turn has led to the incorrect classification of datasets that, it is suggested, would "improve efficiencies across the railway" i.e. "missed opportunities" to use data for the benefit of customers.

The DfT proposes to navigate this dilemma by establishing clear guidelines on the types of data that are commercially sensitive. By introducing a Rail Information Governance Framework, the DfT proposes to create a transparent process of classifying the sensitivity of data and aims to develop an "industry agreed definition" by October 2018.

2. Data use and access

Another barrier highlighted by the DfT is the limited clarity over ownership of data. This can be exacerbated by commercial relationships because, for example, third party suppliers may sometimes reserve the right to access and share the data harvested with third parties. Therefore, it may sometimes be the case that data is not the TOC's to share.

The Data Action Plan suggests that the DfT will set out a coordinated approach towards greater data sharing generally within the industry, with the goal being that this will "reduce the need for third party contracts to access data that could already be available".

The DfT is exploring the role that franchise agreements could play in enabling greater data sharing, while the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) will be charged with creating a central list of rail datasets and their owners. Additionally, the DfT is developing a data sharing policy for the industry, which would potentially remove licensing restrictions, preventing entities from charging third parties for their data.

There is a parallel here with the UK bus industry, where bus companies are now required under the Bus Services Act 2017 to publish more data (and of greater quality) about their services (e.g. punctuality and performance statistics). The DfT has predicted that a greater availability of open data will result in an increase in bus passenger numbers.

3. Data quality and standards

The DfT draws attention to the fact that we do not have a full picture of what datasets exist, let alone have a full understanding of their true value. The Data Action Plan also briefly highlights the lack of conformity in the industry when it comes to data publishing standards. It references variations in software and inconsistencies in coding for railway stations as barriers to new entrants. The taskforce aims to combat this by developing a common standard for data and metadata.

4. Data value and principles

The Data Action Plan infers that the value of data is often underestimated, where in actuality it promotes innovation and expansion. For example, future funding is not being provided because of the costs associated with data sharing. To combat this issue, the Data Action Plan proposes that each rail organisation appoints an "open data champion" who raises awareness of the benefits of open data from within a company.

5. Rail culture and information / data skills

The Data Action Plan notes that the appetite for openness and information exploitation is limited in the rail sector. It asks for greater collaboration with "innovators", such as tech start-ups and tech partnerships like the National Skills Academy for Rail, and introduces the idea of a Rail Data Challenge which invites innovators to solve these current data barriers in the rail industry. 

What does this mean for the passenger and the wider industry?

The Data Action Plan's tagline is "addressing barriers to make better use of rail data", with the intended beneficiaries being the passengers, and the intended consequences being greater accessibility, efficiency and reliability.

For example, the DfT hopes to make data regarding fares and the "lowest-cost-route" available to technology providers to allow travel planning apps and ticketing sites to offer lower priced tickets – thereby driving competition.

Similarly, there is a "rich and comprehensive" – but undisclosed – data source that underpins the ORR's aggregated figures on the Origin-Destination Matrix. The release of this underlying data would give passengers an indication of station/route utilisation and would allow outside businesses the opportunity to judge the commercial viability of setting up a concession in or near a station.