News

The strange case of the train times on your mobile phone

11 Dec 2009 by Mark Caswell

This month iTunes Europe released figures for the most popular downloads from the iTunes App store. For those not familiar with the iPhone, one of its neat features is that it can run dedicated pieces of software – called Applications, or Apps for short. Some of these Apps are free, and some are charged for.

These applications range from the useful – numerous airlines have developed them to allow you to check in for a flight using your iPhone, to the silly – the famous beer application which uses the iPhones “tilting” mechanism to make the phone appear as if it holds a glass of beer which can be drained when you hold it to your mouth.

Among those that are charged for, the National Rail Enquiries (NRE) app has recently been ranked by iTunes Europe as the fourth most popular download in the UK. The full list of most popular downloads can be read in an article from the Guardian.

It’s not hard to see why the NRE app is popular. It is an extremely impressive piece of work which, (in the words of its developer, Agant Ltd), is a “powerful journey planner for single or return journeys across the UK National Rail network, with departure platform information (where available)… if you’re searching for trains today, you’ll be told about any delays or cancellations to your chosen trains and given the option to find alternative journeys.” 

The app also has live departures and arrivals at all National Rail stations in the UK, with platform information, live train progress, and automatically finds your nearest stations to allow you to plan your journey home. For those without an iPhone, there is a demonstration of the app on YouTube or at

Nevertheless, the success of the application hasn’t been without controversy, to the extent that the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) got involved this year. The background to the ORR investigation is that prior to the launch of the NRE app, there was a free one called MyRailLite available on iTunes from software company Kizoom. As with all these applications, access to the NRE’s database of train times is necessary for them to work properly, and more particularly, the live database of how the trains are running which is known as Real Time Train Information (RTTI).

In 2008 Kizoom complained that it was experiencing difficulties in accessing the RTTI and in a letter to the ORR “alleged that ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) – of which National Rail Enquiries is a wholly-owned subsidiary – aimed to hold a monopoly over UK train movement data and, to this effect, had cancelled Kizoom’s licence to access RTTI.” This quote is taken from the ORR’s official report, accessible here.

The result was that Kizoom withdrew its MyRailLite product in December 2008 and complaints followed, particularly when in February 2009, Agant entered into an agreement with ATOC for a supply of RTTI data, and started to sell its new app, which bears NRE branding, via Apple’s iTunes App Store.

The ORR concluded its investigation last week, and concluded that any company wanting to provide live train information to passengers has no alternative but to deal with ATOC to obtain a license to publish the information. As a result, it is calling for a code of practice for access to its RTTI database “to encourage a competitive market in the provision of live train information”. It wants this in place by the end of February 2010. The ORR also stated that “As the sole controller of live passenger information, ATOC has a special responsibility to avoid distorting the market in a way that will prejudice the interests of passengers.”

So much for the iPhone, but why is this information not available on other types of phone? There are no accurate figures for how many iPhones there are in the UK, or what proportion of mobile phone users have an iPhone, but it is still a niche product. What about something for other “smartphones” or Blackberries for instance? Business Traveller asked ATOC for comment on whether there were plans to develop similar applications for the other 90 per cent of phones in the UK. An ATOC spokesperson said:

”Passengers have access via mobile phones to comprehensive rail timetables, fares and real time updates through National Rail Enquiries’ many services, those of the train operators and of a number of independent third parties. These include the availability of many websites and feeds on social networking site Twitter, all accessible from mobile phones with internet capability. Passengers can also call or text our TrainTracker service, which provides information by voice or SMS, or they can speak to helpful staff in many call centres.”

Managing Director of Agant, Dave Addey, told Business Traveller that the reason the iPhone platform was chosen by the company ahead of other platforms such as that for mobile phones using the Android system or Blackberries was twofold: firstly Agant had a background of developing Apple applications, and secondly, “Apple through its iTunes store”…. make it easy for developers to sell their applications and perhaps more importantly they make it very easy for customers to buy the apps.”

Addey also pointed out that “even though there are relatively few iPhones in the UK, those users who have one tend to use their phone a lot because they have unlimited data on the phone. There’s something about having unlimited data use (which the iPhone was the first to do), which changes the way you use the phone, because you’re not worrying about the cost. So it’s ideally set for something like our National Rail Enquiries app because of the access to the real time live departure boards and journey planner.”

Addey also said that while his company had no plans to launch a Blackberry app, he felt the Blackberry App store (which can be viewed here), was still relatively recent, and that there were significant technological challenges.

“If you are a developer, you have to consider all these different models. There isn’t a good way of creating an app across multiple platforms. The iphone platform is completely different from Blackberry which is different from Android.”

Mr Addey also said that the public perception that iPhone Applications could be developed in a weekend only applied to those that weren’t any good, stating that the National Rail Enquiries App took some eight months, and was constantly being improved, with the most recent version 1.3 being freely upgradable by users from the iTunes store. In addition, the app also worked with related Apple products such as the iTouch, although for the live running information, some form of data connection was needed.

So what of that free app for iPhones? Well earlier this month Kizoom came back to the market with a new free application, this time in conjunction with website thetrainline.com.

Although this doesn’t use live train data, it has already become one of the most popular free applications for the iPhone (hitting number two in the charts when it came out). The app, which gives rail travellers instant access to train times and journey planning functions has already hit the No.1 spot for the most popular free travel downloads and is no.2 for free downloads overall. It does not, however, have access to the RTTI.

Good news then, so long as you have an iPhone. Kizoom says that “Once clients have seen apps enjoy success on the iPhone they will move onto the devices which have come along in its wake [and] we see the Blackberry, Palm Pre and Google Android as key devices whose stores will soon take off.” Until then, for the rest of us, it may be a long wait on that platform.

For details on both apps, visit store.apple.com/uk.  Internet access is initially required to download the timetable.

Background info (provided by Kizoom)

Apps by stores (as at Sept 09):

iTunes App Store: Over 100,000
Google Android Marketplace: Over 10,000
Palm App Catalog: Hundreds
Nokia Ovi: Thousands
BlackBerry App World: Thousands (no recent number but in July there were 2000)
Windows Mobile Marketplace: Tens
PlayStation Store: Hundreds

Store launch dates:

iTunes App Store: July 10, 2008
Google Android Marketplace: October 22, 2008
Palm App Catalog: June 6, 2009 (still considered by Palm to be in beta)
Nokia Ovi: August 28, 2008
BlackBerry App World: April 1, 2009
Windows Mobile Marketplace: October 5, 2009
PlayStation Store: November 2006 (PS3), September 2007 (PC), October 2008 (PSP)

By Tom Otley

Loading comments...
Be up-to-date
Magazine Subscription
To see our latest subscription offers for Business Traveller editions worldwide, click on the Subscribe & Save link below
Polls