Open data: Time to publish your bus timetables


Open data is here to stay, with new legislation compelling bus operators to publish timetables from 2020, followed by their fares. Here’s what you need to know

The government is pushing to make bus timetable and fares data more widely available to the public.

As part of the Bus Services Act 2017, new legislation means all bus operators in England, with the exception of Section 19 and 22 operators, will be required to publish their route and timetable data from January 2020.

Fares and tickets data will also be required in due course, starting from January 2021 for basic fares and location data, and January 2023 for complex fares.

The data is expected to be “high quality, accurate and open”, provided in the TransXchange (TXC) format.

It must be submitted to the Department for Transport (DfT)’s newly-created Bus Open Data digital service (BODDS).

Varied service

The government has recognised that bus timetable, route and fares information available to would-be bus travellers varies considerably across the country.

Several large bus operators already offer their own sophisticated journey planning apps.

But forcing all operators to publish this information will allow freedom for web developers to create journey-planning apps and websites that give a full picture of what’s available across operators and geographical locations.

Passengers will have a better idea of when a bus will arrive and how much it will cost, anywhere in England – the same level of service that bus users expect in London.

The DfT hopes that this will encourage more people to give the bus a try.

The process

The process for submitting data should be simple enough for those operators that are already digital-savvy.

Currently, bus operators submit their route and timetable registration data to two sources: The Traffic Commissioner (TC)’s Office in Leeds, and whichever local authority (LA) the route applies to.

This can be done on paper, with copies of the form sent to the two sources, at which point the local authority will input the data onto a computer to go into the Traveline National Dataset.

Most operators now register bus services digitally, inputting their data into the rigidly specified TXC format, which saves a lot of time all round.

For those that do register services digitally, it should be a simple matter of submitting the same data to the BODDS.

For those who still register services on paper, whether they will have to make the switch depends on the attitude of the LA. If the LA is helpful, they can act as an intermediary in inputting the data electronically. Otherwise, the government has promised an ‘open source tool’ to be provided free of charge allowing operators to create TXC files as easily as possible.

When it comes to submitting fares and location data in 2021, the same principles will apply. As operators will be used to submitting their timetable information by then, it should be a simple matter to upload fares information too. Fare changes will probably not need as much notice as timetable changes, to give more flexibility to operators.

The DfT will publish guidance at the time for operators to meet the new requirements.

Larger operators will be expected to host their own data, with a centralised index allowing developers to easily find the data.

For the smallest operators, the DfT intends to do some of the hosting itself.

‘Call to arms’

Several operators have already published open data. Nottingham City Transport (NCT), Yellow Buses, Courtney Buses, Blackpool Transport and Brighton and Hove, all of which are customers of ticketing software specialist Passenger, have made their data available through a portal designed by Passenger.

The new regulation only applies in England, although Cardiff Bus in Wales and Borders Buses in Scotland have also chosen to make their data available.

Mark Fowles, NCT’s MD at NCT and also Chairman of Traveline, says: “Many bus companies in the industry are still unaware of the full implications of the Bus Services Act. By publishing accurate data openly on our website, as well as into the national open datasets, I hope this step will act as a call to arms for industry colleagues and continue to underline the importance of open data.”

The DfT has worked with several industry bodies to implement the new rule, including the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT).

Steven Salmon, the CPT’s Director of Policy Development, tells routeone: “A lot of thought has gone into not making it time consuming, and making as much use as possible of the systems operators have already got.

“We support the government in getting better information to members of the public without imposing a bigger burden on operators.

“We feel very positive about it. It should lead to better information for passengers and it should lead to more people travelling by bus. It will hopefully be a win-win all round.”

routeone comment

For smaller operators who still submit registrations on paper, this should be encouragement to abandon the practice and do it digitally. For a start, it removes a degree of human error. You have more control over the data that will be seen by the public.

Research consistently finds that the biggest barriers to more people using buses is uncertainty about when the bus will arrive and how much it will cost. Giving passengers more confidence in these areas will likely result in an upswing in patronage, especially as more people become environmentally conscious. It’s a win-win.