Accelerating innovation in rail 5


Innovate UK, on behalf of the Department for Transport, will invest up to £7.9 million to support innovation and growth in national and international rail markets. This is a joint initiative with the rail industry, under the direction of its Technical Leadership Group, the team responsible for creating a vision for the future of the railways.

The aim of this competition is to stimulate innovation in the rail industry, using technology to create a better railway.

Projects should last between 6 months and 2 years. If your proposed project falls outside of the project funding range or duration, please contact Innovate UK before you apply.

There will be up to £1.1 million in grant funding for projects that last up to 12 months, and £6.8 million for projects of up to 24 months. Projects can focus on industrial research, experimental development or both. Projects are expected to range in size from total costs of £150,000 to £1.5 million.

Proposals must:

  • be collaborative (involving at least 2 organisations)
  • be led by a business
  • involve at least one SME

(Please check full details at the Innovate UK website, via the link below, to confirm eligibility.)


Innovate UK will fund projects that focus on 2 themes of the industry’s ‘Rail Technical Strategy Capability Delivery Plan’ 2017, which are:

  • ‘minimal disruption to train services’
  • ‘intelligent trains’

These are described in detail in the ‘Specific competition themes’ section.

Innovate UK will fund a portfolio of projects, including industrial research and experimental development. Project proposals must show significant innovation in one of these areas. They must also improve the business growth and productivity of at least one UK SME involved in the project, or offer new export opportunities.

Your proposal must show innovation and the potential for future real-world applications and potential for exploitation. The competition assessors’ scoring will be weighted to focus on these goals. Your application should provide evidence that there is a market need for the solution you propose. You must demonstrate that you have engaged with potential customers in the rail industry.

Innovate UK encourage applicants to discuss regulations and policy with potential customer organisations before you complete your submission.

Your application must address specific challenges faced by organisations in the rail and light-rail industries. These include direct suppliers to the industry and ‘challenge owners’ such as:

  • Network Rail
  • London Underground
  • HS1
  • HS2
  • Crossrail
  • train operating companies
  • rolling-stock operators
  • other rail and light-rail projects currently in the planning phase

Your proposal must show an understanding of human behaviour, so we can be confident that users (rail industry employees or passengers) will make use of the innovation. Your project must include proofs of concept and demonstrate how the technology can be applied across the network.


Specific competition themes:

There are 2 specific themes for this competition.

1. Minimal disruption to train services

Railway rolling stock and infrastructure need to meet the future needs of passenger and freight customers. The railway must therefore make these more reliable, more readily available and easier to maintain.

Innovations that fit into this theme could include:

  • establishing data-sharing principles and an information architecture that supports whole-system asset management
  • monitoring the health of assets in real time using smart, built-in sensors, or novel technology. This could include applications for vehicles and electrical systems. It could also address elements of infrastructure, such as drainage and vegetation, or structures such as tunnels, bridges or hidden structural elements
  • exploiting technology from other industries to commit to the objectives of making railway assets more reliable, more readily available and easier to maintain
  • providing better ways to monitor and visualise the status and location of infrastructure and rolling stock
  • deterring customers or the public from disrupting train services
  • developing technology that automatically delivers preventive maintenance plans and completes maintenance before a failure occurs (known as a ‘predict and prevent’ strategy)
  • automatically detecting degradation and failure (including in earthworks and line-side structures)
  • deploying modular, line-replaceable units to simplify maintenance and repair
  • making greater use of automated and robotic technology to maintain elements, including addressing track defects, maintaining switches and crossings, and reducing hazards to staff
  • supporting the timely and efficient replacement of components
  • optimising the performance of systems during adverse and extreme weather conditions

Other innovations may be considered as long as they show significant potential for innovation and real-world application.

Solutions must be economical, and can be designed to help make better use of existing assets (including the telecommunications network). It may be practical to test innovations on lightly used lines, then transfer them to more heavily congested network areas.

2. Intelligent Trains

Advances in computational power, communications, automation and sensing give the railway the potential to develop and deploy intelligent rolling stock. Intelligent trains are capable of operating in a fully autonomous mode under remote supervision. Such trains can reduce the railway’s reliance on complex and expensive infrastructure and control systems, and will improve capacity, punctuality and reliability. Intelligent trains may be able to monitor themselves and their environment, making the network more reliable and cost effective.

Innovations that fit into this theme could include:

  • tools that allow train and track to communicate, so they can operate as a single, integrated system
  • applying self-regulation and autonomous technology to a rail environment for tasks other than train control. This could include technology that advises and assists drivers, such as making sure only the doors at the platform open, or keeping the driver aware of the train’s location. This would reduce the need for drivers to possess specific ‘route knowledge’ and provide a more consistent train service
  • meeting the needs of the customer more effectively, such as delivering shorter journey times and a better on-board experience
  • developing mechatronics (combining mechanical, electronic and software systems) to deliver intelligent rail vehicles
  • providing on-board equipment that intelligently inspects the environment. For instance, tools that detect and inspect line-side features, such as fences and boundaries, vegetation, obstructions or trespassers to help trains to run safely and efficiently
  • creating intelligent train-borne monitoring tools for electrical power systems. This could include overhead line equipment, pantographs and associated systems, and would help make power supplies more resilient and reduce incidences of damage to overhead wires
  • providing systems that respond intelligently to speed restrictions, and making it possible to be more flexible in defining temporary speed restrictions
  • adopting technologies from other industries to create more intelligent trains
  • using artificial intelligence to reduce the chances and consequences of operator error

Other innovations may be considered as long as they show significant potential for innovation and real-world application.

Key Dates:

Competition opens – 18 September 2017

Briefing and consortia building events (and webcast) – various dates (19th September to 3rd October) and locations(Click here to for more details)

Competition closes – 15 November 2017 12:00pm

Applicants notified – 12 January 2018

If you are interested in this competition?

Please email the Innovation SuperNetwork team at or complete the form below so we can help you and guide you through the application process.

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Our work is only possible with the support of our local and national partners, including Innovate UK, the Knowledge Transfer Network, the North East LEP, Northumbrian WaterNorth East BICReece Innovation and ENGIE with part funding from the European Regional Development Fund.
Huge thanks go to all our partners.