Thursday, 20 November 2014

R.I.P. Transport Direct, the most useful UK Journey Planner for ten years.

Transport Direct is no more. It's been permenantly deleted from the servers.

And I only found out AFTER the event.

To add insult to injury, they only gave us seven days notice that they were going to kill it off, too.

Transport Direct website closes on 30 September 2014
From: Department for Transport
First published: 23 September 2014
Part of: Making transport more accessible to all and Transport"


More than closing it prematurely, closing it was a travesty of good judgement: Here was a perfect example of a working, effective, USEFUL tool provided to the taxpayer at their expense, a shining example of prolonged and effective competency. And someone obviously got green with envy at this, and decided to remove this thing that offended both commercial concerns and all the ineffective and thoroughly incompetent Sir Humphreys of HM Government.

A truly sad day indeed.

It now takes on average, five times - or more - the time it used to take to plan jorneys, all because of one arguably questionable and definately damnably stupid decision.

By way of example, I tried planning a journey from the west country to south London for Boxing Day, using public transport.

Door to door wasn't possible, so a lift at one end (the south London end) from the station to the front door would be required. Luckily, at the other end, it was a five minute walk to the station. However, It just wasn't feasable by any reasonable measure.

The National Rail site said there were no available services on boxing day, and the main Traveline website petulantly froze up and did nothing. I had to use Travelines mobile web site to get any kind of result, and the journey presented was a nightmare lasting "7:34" hours. Compare this to the usual daily trip of around two and a half hours, and you get an idea of the scale of the journey problem. To be fair, there IS a shorter journey of "6:22" hours, but it's 8 legs long and involves four changes. Which is still completely bloody insane.

This was only the public transport side of things. Now I had to check the driving side of things.

For driving there and back, I do, at least, know the route I want to use. In my Land Rover, it takes about two and a half to three hours, depending on traffic and roadworks.

So, first check, a date-filtered look at No apparent problems were discovered from that source, so I guess the Motorway Coneheads were given the Christmas period off, for a change.

Onto the journey itself, and I decided to give the AA Route Planner a try. Fairly reliable, although you can't set the time and date of your trip in advance, more's the pity. Nor, unlike the now-defunct transport direct website, can you set the maximum speed for your journey - a major factor when considering older vehicles on the motorways. I stick to a maximum of fifty in my Series 3 Land Rover, for both fuel economy and wear reduction (both on the wagon AND the driver!).

Anyhow, the AA said 74.7 miles in about 1 hr 45 min. About what I expected, distance-wise, and horribly optimistic for the timescale they gave. Mind you, the London leg of the journey went through places I'd sooner avoid in an aged Land Rover, purely on the stop-start factor - I know the areas they wanted me to go through, and traffic lights breed like flies in those places. Not fun. So, new route needed.

Time to try Google. Google Maps has a useful feature,  where you can drag the route they suggest to avoid places you don't want to go,  or would prefer better than the route they suggest. It's a useful feature for people who know where the heavy traffic spots are likely to be.

After adjusting the route to follow what I knew would be a less aggravating journey,  they suggested it would be a 75.2 mile trip, taking 1 hour 41 mins. Like the AA, you couldn't set your maximum speed.

And there's the main problem with ALL the current popular offerings from the likes of Google, Bing, the RAC, the AA, and even ViaMichelin; not one of them allows you to specify what speed you would like to set as a maximum. They assume you will be doing driving along at the speed limit of all the roads you travel along. That's where Transport Direct scored points. It was light years ahead of the competition - and there's the most likely reason it got killed off.

The current Conservative Government is highly critical of government doing what the Tories think that industry can - or should - be doing. And then kills off anything it sees as competing - even if only slightly - with commerce (and don't get me started on what they're trying to do to the NHS). Even if the government offering is supplying a service to which there is no comparable commercial offering.

Transport Direct offered two things that commerce CANNOT give. Comparisons of different modes of journey at the same time, and customisation of results.

The DfT were insanely fast to kill off Transport Direct, leaving no room for appeal or question: They literally pulled the plug with hardly a word of warning to ANYONE. Their quoted reasons for doing this are dubious, to say the least. So, there were a few possible real reasons for killing off such a useful service to the tax payer.

One of the more intersting ones, is that it competed with commercial interests. I'd argue this vehemently, for the reasons noted above - if anything, it was a catalyst for commerce to pull their finger out and do something useful. Which they haven't, as yet. In addition, they're not likely to, either: The public transport companies do not share with each other, and they give their information to the government only reluctantly and under contractual obligations - for example, train and bus timetables. They'll publish their data and timetables, often in limited format, on their own websites, but share with the other kids in the playground? Not a chance.

Then there's the lack of a single source of information to compare the best journeys side by side, both public and personal - train/bus etc, versus car, versus cycle, versus walking, and so on. There is no longer a source for this kind of information, following the closure of Transport Direct.

There is, as a result of the somewhat smelly way they disposed of Transport Dircet, therefore no easy way of easily deciding which journey is best for you to undertake, without knowledge of what's availble to help you decide (not everyone is aware of the choice options, and tend to go to the easiest solution out there, even if the results are limited in the extreme). So, congratulations, Sir Humphrey. You've done as your political masters desired: Killed of something useful.

I can only say that this is possibly one of the most insideous decisions the government have made in a long time.

It should NOT have happened.

It was NOT in the public good.

It WAS arguably most likely spurred by Commercial concerns not liking the fact that government was providing a service they'd never even thought of, FOR FREE at the point of delivery.

Frankly, there will probably, eventually, be a service like Transport Direct with its' myriad options provided by some company or other. But for a fee.

And here's the thing: They shouldn't be allowed to charge a fee for something you've already paid for. Transport Direct was paid for you through your taxes, using information paid by you through your taxes, using trained programmers, computer personnel, and equipment from within the Civil Service - paid by you through your taxes. It collated information from the Highways Agency on road conditions, roadworks, and so on; it highlighted possible problems on routes, public transport, enginering works and so on, and provided options, all from information you'd paid for through your taxes. So, it wasn't technically free, as you'd paid for it already.

And they took it away.

With hardly a by your leave.

Now that's not right, is it?

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