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SBRI Competition rail demonstrations: First of a kind 2021


Organisations can apply for a share of up to £9million, inclusive of VAT, to develop demonstrators that increase customers’ confidence and enhance experience, deliver a railway that is easy to use, offer low emissions and a greener railway.

The aim of this competition is to demonstrate innovations to stakeholders and railway customers in a representative railway environment.

This is a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition funded by the Department for Transport (DfT).

This competition is part of a larger ‘first of a kind’ demonstrator initiative, on behalf of DfT, to accelerate innovation in the UK rail sector and enable technologies to be readily and efficiently integrated into the railway system. This competition is the fifth in the first of a kind portfolio.

For more information on the background and scope of the competition please register and attend the Rail Innovation Exhibition 2021. Details of the competition will be covered in the ‘Railway Innovation Exhibition Introduction’ session at 10am on 9 February 2021. A recording of the briefing will be made available.

Any adoption and implementation of a solution from this competition would be subject of a separate, possible competitive, procurement exercise. This competition does not cover the purchase of any solution.

The projects that Innovate UK fund have total eligible costs of between £50,000 and £400,000, inclusive of VAT.

Open Date:


Close Date:


The aim of this competition is to demonstrate how proven technologies can be integrated into a railway environment for the first time as ‘first of a kind’ demonstrations.

It aims to encourage innovation in the rail industry using novel technologies, for example automation and innovative uses of data. Innovate UK will help innovative suppliers to take the final step to market readiness.

Your project must create a highly interactive and innovative demonstrator. This should be in an environment where railway customers and industry representatives can witness the product as a compelling business proposition.

Example environments can include:

  • Within a railway station
  • In rolling stock
  • On railway infrastructure
  • In the environment close to the railway

This list is not exhaustive, Innovate UK may also consider demonstrators in settings highly representative of these environments.

Your project must:

  • Gather evidence about integration challenges and explain how you will de-risk the integration
  • Demonstrate to railway stakeholders and customers the commercial benefits of the solution
  • Make taking up technologies less risky and faster
  • Be pre-commercial
  • Collect customer and performance feedback
  • Provide a business case for using the solution in a commercial environment
  • Consider the priorities of current and future franchises

You must provide relevant proofs, showing your innovation can attract customers, get insurance, supply warranties, and attract financing.

The relevant proofs are:

  • The technology works as designed when integrated into larger complex systems and delivers the expected outcomes
  • The technology is accepted by and delivers benefits for customers and the broader rail industry
  • There is revenue potential for the innovation within a real commercial context
  • the financing and business models can be delivered within a complex programme and consortium structure

You must demonstrate potential benefits to passengers and customers, including:

  • Why customers would buy the product
  • How the funding will help applicants grow and result in broader economic benefits

You must describe your projects potential to be successfully exploited in a railway environment. Innovate UK encourage you to discuss regulations, policy and other requirements with potential customer organisations before you submit your application.

Innovate UK will give preference to applications which:

  • Help the innovation to be formally accepted for use on the railway, for example, through obtaining test certificates or product acceptance approvals
  • Offer innovations that can be used by multiple railway organisations

You must demonstrate a credible and practical route to market, so your application must include a plan to commercialise your results.

Specific themes

Your project must focus one of the following themes:

Theme 1: Increasing customers’ confidence and enhancing their experience

Increasing confidence in rail services, attracting back customers and welcoming new customers by providing assurance that travel by train is safe, and making it an enjoyable and productive experience.

Technology and innovation to:

  • Increase public confidence in the rail network and to encourage previous customers to return to the railway, including those with changed work patterns
  • Encourage new customers to embrace rail travel as the transport mode of choice, including an increased community of leisure travellers
  • Deliver a more productive travel experience for the business traveller and a more enjoyable experience for the leisure traveller
  • Enhance on-board voice and data connectivity for customers travelling by rail
  • Increase resilience and responsiveness to recover from single or multiple societal disruptions
  • Improve the performance of the rail freight industry and attract new customers, including utilising potential opportunities from changing patterns of passenger demand
  • Accommodate a wider range of travel patterns and customer requirements (e.g. interior design, on-board storage, maintenance scheduling, timetabling, capacity management, innovative storage for bulky items at stations)

Theme 2: Easy to use for all

Provision of information:

Making it easier for passengers to plan and manage their journey so as to reduce stress, exclusion and time lost. Personalised services and assistance, where requested, to make using rail as seamless as possible. Providing these in a way that minimises crowding and reliance on fixed information points for passengers.

Technology and innovation to:

  • Support customers withboarding services to help locate seats and to manage luggage
  • Deliver personalised, real-time information to customers based on their journey and travelling patterns, including, door-to-door travel, disruptions and alternatives
  • Understand customer movements (e.g. the use of commercial outlets in a station) to help better understand customer preferences and engagement
  • Support customers in wayfinding and making connections between services (including managing the implications of delays and supporting different languages)
  • Support the provision of real-time passenger feedback
  • Support new-to-rail customers to identify and use rail freight services for their operations.

Boarding and using services (passenger and freight)

Reduction of exclusionary barriers throughout the railway to enable more people to travel independently. Making it more convenient and less stressful for customers to use rail as part of their multimodal journey. Enhancing the travelling experience. Supporting the freight industry.

Technology and innovation to:

  • Make the railway easier to use for those with impairments, e.g.
  • Options for disabled passengers to contact train crew when needed
  • Step-free solutions
  • Level boarding between platform and train
  • Removing hazards and barriers for those with reduced mobility
  • Better integrate rail travel with other public transport, sustainable modes and active travel (e.g. station design options to support the use and security of e-bikes, e-scooters and electric vehicles)
  • Optimise passenger flow across modes where rail is a key part of a journey
  • Improve terminal operations for customers to enhance the efficiency of intermodal rail freight.

You should note that projects for ticketing and retail systems will only be considered eligible for funding if they have the express support of the Rail Delivery Group’s Retail Strategy Group. Please ensure this is made clear in your letter of support.

Theme 3: Low emissions and a greener railway

Decarbonisation and sustainability

Delivering a more sustainable, greener railway. Innovations in traction and non-traction decarbonisation, on-site decarbonisation, energy generation, noise reduction, biodiversity, light-weighting, the use of cleaner energy systems, carbon modelling, targeting specific ‘problem’ locations, reducing pollution from diesel trains and retro-fit options.

Technology and innovation to:

  • Support the in-service fleet deployment of hydrogen and battery-powered trains
  • Decarbonise diesel trains, maintenance and engineering vehicles
  • Develop power alternatives for freight (e.g. technology leading towards the deployment of hydrogen-powered or bi-mode locomotives, including retro-fit)
  • Deliver an energy-optimised timetable and real-time train speed profiles, including for off-peak operation
  • Decarbonise stations, depots, and freight terminals with lower emissions, greater energy efficiency and higher air quality
  • Deliver more efficient electrification (e.g. partial electrification and coasting, planning and route clearance, and reduced costs for infrastructure)
  • Support the delivery of new fuels (e.g. hydrogen) by rail
  • Enable sharing of hydrogen fuel by rail and non-rail vehicles
  • Support carbon fixing or energy generation
  • Deliver an energy-optimised timetable (e.g. train speed profiles optimised for off-peak operation)
  • Support reduced energy use across the rail network, including preventing power losses
  • Deliver low-cost intelligent emissions monitoring and risk mapping

Projects are expected to start by 1 July 2021, must end by 31 March 2022 and can last up to nine months. This project end date is fixed and non-negotiable.

To lead a project, you must:

  • Be an organisation of any size registered in the UK, EU, or EEA
  • Carry out your project work in the UK

Applicants are welcome from all sectors. You can work alone or with other organisations as subcontractors.

Your project must involve:

  • An owner of railway assets (for example stations, rolling stock or infrastructure)
  • An experienced railway organisation
  • A rail organisation that has the potential to become a customer

These criteria can be met by a single organisation or up to three.

You must also:

  • Include a potential integration partner
  • Have a letter of support from a potential customer organisation

Innovate UK welcome projects that include either an:

  • Innovative start-up supply company that is already delivering in another sector
  • Organisation with railway expertise, such as train operating companies, a freight operator, rolling stock manufacturers or operators and infrastructure owners

Contracts will be awarded only to a single legal entity. However, if you can justify subcontracting components of the work, you can employ specialist consultants or advisers. This work will still be the responsibility of the main contractor.

If you are awarded a contract, you will be required to exhibit your project at the 2022 Innovate UK annual rail exhibition. Innovate UK will provide the space and advise you of any technology you need to organise. You will also be able to lease equipment from the venue through Innovate UK. The date and location of the event will be announced on the KTN website in December 2021. This may be a live or on-line event.

Previously submitted applications

Organisations that have been previously funded for the same or similar innovations will not be eligible for this competition. Applications for this competition need to be materially different from previous funded activities. The decision of Innovate UK and DfT on this matter will be final.

A total of up to £9 million, inclusive of VAT, is allocated to this competition. Successful projects will be 100% funded. The funding is provided by the Department for Transport (DfT).

The total funding available for the competition can change. The funders have the right to take a portfolio approach across two project groups and all scope themes.

Innovate UK will assign your project to a group dependant on your total project costs and duration.

You must select which scope theme you are applying for. If a project covers more than one theme, choose one where most of the work is being undertaken.

Group 1 projects must:

  • Be eligible under scope themes 1 or 2 only
  • Have total project costs from £50,000 to £150,000 inclusive of VAT.
  • Have a duration of three to six months

Group 2 projects must:

  • Be eligible under scope themes 1, 2 or 3
  • Have total project costs from £50,000 to £400,000 inclusive of VAT
  • Have a duration longer than six months
  • Have a maximum duration of nine months

Research and development

Your application must have at least 50% of the contract value attributed directly and exclusively to research and development services, including solution exploration and design.

Research and development can also include prototyping and field-testing the product or service. This lets you incorporate the results of your exploration, design, and demonstrate that you can produce in quantity to acceptable quality standards.

Research and development does not include:

  • Commercial development activities such as quantity production
  • Supply to establish commercial viability or to recover R&D costs
  • Integration, customisation or incremental adaptations and improvements to existing products or processes

Innovate UK will not fund projects that:

  • Are not likely to be successfully exploited by the rail industry to deliver benefits to rail or light-rail organisations and their customers
  • Are not within a year of being ready for market
  • Do not create a significant change in the level of innovation available in the rail industry
  • Are not well-developed technology or do not have low technical risk
  • That cannot effectively deliver a demonstration within a railway environment
  • Do not deliver an immersive, innovative demonstrator in a railway context
  • Do not feature a demonstration phase, offering the customer a chance to use the innovation and give feedback
  • Have total eligible costs or project terms outside of the eligibility guidance

Note that although software (also known as applications) for mobile devices may be in scope, only a limited number of these projects will be supported.

Cresco Innovation works with companies to develop and implement innovation strategies. We help client companies identify opportunities to develop new products and services, and then create a package of support to ensure that the idea is turned into a commercial reality.

Our services include securing grants (as a team we have raised around £40million over three years), business planning, IP advice, access to finance and funders, project management and IP commercialisation support.

We regularly act as the interface with the funding bodies and help clients ensure that their projects are properly managed to ensure the best outcome for all.

Call to find out more

If you’d like to know more about this competition, please give us a call on 01509 261182 and one of our team will be delighted to help you access this funding opportunity for your business.