£9.4 million offered by Department for Transport competition to support railway innovation

Launched in connection with Innovate UK, the First of a Kind 2020 competition is searching for “this century’s Brunel” who can develop technology to make rail travel faster, cleaner and greener.

The Department for Transport (DfT) and Innovate UK have launched a competition to accelerate innovation on the UK’s railways.

The First of a Kind 2020 (FOAK) competition is offering up a share of a £9.4 million grant to individuals or companies leading projects that “demonstrate innovations to stakeholders and railway customers”. The listing notes four themes for innovation: environmental sustainability, customer experience, optimising railway operations and cost-effective maintenance.

Mandatory criteria

There are several mandatory criteria for designers looking to apply for a share of the grant money. Projects must involve an owner of railway assets, such as station or infrastructure owners, an experienced railway organisation and a railway organisation that has the potential to become a customer. The listing notes these could all be the same organisation.

Additionally, ideas must include a potential integration partner and be able to prove interest from a potential customer organisation by way of a supporting letter, before the competition closes on 11 March.

The DfT notes that while these criteria are potentially challenging, it does expect applicants to develop their own relationships with rail companies. In support of this, it recommends prospective applicants attend the competition’s briefing events (in London, Manchester, Cardiff and also online) and also contact railway organisations like the Railway Industry Association.

Lone designers looking to join forces with others to launch their projects might also benefit from contacting the UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network.

“Well-developed innovation”

Beyond this, judges will also be looking for a “highly interactive and innovative demonstrator”. The competition posting lists railway stations, rolling stocks, railway infrastructure and areas near railways as potential environments for this to take place.

These interactive demonstrations will act as proof for designers’ “well-developed innovation” ideas. They will explain why customers would buy the product, how the funding will help the product and how the product will get to market.

Particularly of interest to designers could be projects relating to low emission self-powered vehicles, cost effective improvements to onboard passenger comfort or use of automation and robotics for maintenance and inspection.

The DfT and Innovate UK say they will not fund projects that do not create the significant change the competition is looking for. It will also not award projects more than a year off completion, with 31 March 2021 acting as a fixed and non-negotiable final date.

“The next Brunel”

The DfT and Innovate UK expect to fund projects costing between £100,000 and £400,000. These successful projects, they say, will demonstrate ability through “the use of novel technologies and innovative uses of data”.

One of the previous winners of a railway innovation grant was Riding Sunbeams – a project that connects solar power with railway infrastructure. The initiative, which piloted near Aldershot station in Hampshire, is supposedly a step toward the world’s first solar-powered train.

Other successful innovation projects in the past have included 4Silence, a noise-reducing wall to diffract sound waves from passing trains; AmeyVTOL’s drone system to carry out unmanned track inspections; and the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research’s hydrogen-fuelled trains.

Launching the competition yesterday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “For two centuries the UK has been at the cutting edge of rail technology.

“To build the railway of tomorrow we have to support the inventors and innovators of today. This competition is designed to find the next Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”


Those looking to enter the FOAK competition must register online before 4 March. It is highly recommended prospective applicants attend a briefing event beforehand. Events take place 21 January in London, 23 January in Manchester, 29 January in Cardiff and 21 January online.

Competition entries must be in before 11 March, with successful applicants being notified on 1 May.  

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