Research on Open Data and Transparency

Slow Train Coming? FOI and Network Rail

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As of yesterday, Network Rail became a public body and the government has indicated that it will come under the scope of the Freedom of information Act following its redesignation. Simon Hughes tweeted that ‘newtwork rail will now be subject to Freedom of information’. Network Rail is the body that ‘runs, maintains and develops Britain’s rail tracks, signalling, bridges, tunnels, level crossings, viaducts and 19 key stations’ and is made up of a Board and a group of 30 to 50 ‘Members’ who Act as shareholders-see here. It holds quite a few datasets and is already committed to answer FOI requests as ‘if they were covered’-as these requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow seem to show.

But what difference will it make? When the Scottish government looked into extending its own FOISA to new bodies in 2010, with a mind to private prisons and housing assocations, one of the reasons it decided not to was because it felt there would be little public interest.

I’m not sure that lack of interest will be the problem with Network Rail-see this article yesterday that is packed with all sorts of FOI-able angles. Despite not being covered by FOI, railway operators themselves have already been ‘opened up’ by FOI requests on salaries-despite all but one of the companies pointing out they weren’t covered.

So we can expect more stories about ‘fat cats’ mixed in with comment about ‘rail fare hikes’ and commuter ‘misery’. But underneath this, we’ll probably find lots of individual requests-the WhatDoTheyKnow requests seem to be about hedges and disabled access at particular stations. As ever with FOI, we’ll get the ‘big bang’ headlines and the ‘personal’ mixed together.

I’ve found one country where FOI (or in this case Right to Information-RTI) covers the railways and has made an impact-India. It is often said that the Indian State Railway is the world’s second biggest employer, after the Army of the People’s Republic of China. This isn’t quite true (it’s the eighth with 1.6 million employees behind McDonald’s and Walmart). However, its coverage by India’s Act has led to controversy. The railways appear to be one of the biggest RTI ‘avoiders’ in India-with this case rather shocking. It has also had some embarrassing exposures- this RTI led to widespread anger when it revealed that there was on average one train derailment every five days between 2007 and 2012.

So Network Rail’s coverage is significant, though its designation may take time. Interestingly, it’s not the only private body that campaigners have their eye on. This Private Members’ Bill from Grahame Morris MP is now on its first reading yesterday and will have its second reading in December. His ‘Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2014-15’ seeks to ‘amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to apply its provisions to private healthcare companies and other bodies seeking health service contracts; and for connected purposes.’

So FOI, as ever, keeps moving. Are we now seeing it close the ‘privatisation gap’ and creep into new areas?

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