Funding competition Planning rail capacity through automated infrastructure design

UK businesses can apply for a share of up to £300,000 for projects that develop and demonstrate tools to automatically plan rail infrastructure.

This competition is now closed.

Start new application

Competition sections


Network Rail will work with Innovate UK, as part of UK Research and Innovation, to invest up to £300,000. This will support the development and demonstration of new capability in automated design. This aligns with the objectives of Network Rail’s Whole Systems Modelling team, part of the Systems Operator, which:

  • plans future strategic infrastructure investment
  • allocates capacity on the national rail network

This competition encourages the development of products and services that enable rapid automatic design of rail infrastructure.

Your project must:

  • build on existing generative design technologies
  • develop solutions relevant to rail
  • prove your idea’s feasibility at as high a level of maturity as possible

Funding type


Project size

Your total project costs must be between £50,000 and £200,000. Projects must start by 30 April 2019 and end by 31 March 2020. Projects can last between 6 months and one year.

Who can apply

To be eligible for funding you must:

  • be a UK based business, charity, public sector organisation or research and technology organisation (RTO)
  • carry out your project work in the UK
  • intend to exploit the results from or in the UK
  • propose a project that meets our definition of industrial research or experimental development

Academic organisations are not eligible for funding.

To lead a project you must be a:

  • UK based business of any size
  • charity
  • public sector organisation
  • or research and technology organisation (RTO)

Businesses can work alone or with others. Charity, public sector organisations and RTOs must collaborate with at least one business.

Collaborating organisations can be other businesses, RTOs, public sector organisations or charities.

Projects with total costs of:

  • under £100,000 can be single or collaborative
  • £100,000 or more must be collaborative

Single applicants must claim funding. If the project is collaborative, the lead and at least one other organisation must claim funding.

Non-UK organisations can be involved in a consortium, but are not eligible for Innovate UK grant funding.

Applications are welcome both from within and outside the rail sector, however we encourage your consortium to work in partnership with organisations that have rail sector expertise. We will hold consortium-building events designed to introduce non-rail organisations to stakeholders and potential partner organisations from the rail sector.

Any UK business claiming funding must be eligible to receive state aid. If you are unsure please take legal advice. For further information please see our general guidance.

Multiple applications

Any one business can lead on one application and collaborate in a further 2 applications.

If a business is not leading an application, they can be a collaborator in up to 3 applications.

Charities, public sector organisations and RTOs can collaborate in any number of applications but can only lead on one application.

Partners with no funding

Projects can include partners that do not receive any funding (for example, non-UK businesses). Their costs will count towards the total project costs but they will not count as collaborators.

Failure to exploit

If you applied to a previous competition as the lead or sole company and were awarded funding by Innovate UK, but did not make a substantial effort to exploit that award, we will award no more funding to you, in this or any other competition. You will not be able to contest our decision. We will:

  • assess your efforts in the previous competition against your exploitation plan for that project
  • review the monitoring officers’ reports and any other relevant sources for evidence
  • document our decision, which will be made by 3 team members
  • communicate our decision to you in writing


We have allocated up to £300,000 to fund innovation projects in this competition.

We expect to fund projects in the industrial research and experimental development categories.

If your project’s total costs or duration fall outside of our eligibility criteria, you must provide justification by email to at least 10 days before the competition closes. We will decide whether to approve your request.

A single large project would be considered if it is sufficiently compelling and involves credible suppliers of related current products.

For industrial research projects, you could get funding for your eligible project costs of:

  • up to 70% if you are a micro or small business
  • up to 60% if you are a medium-sized business
  • up to 50% if you are a large business

For experimental development projects which are nearer to market, you could get funding for your eligible project costs of:

  • up to 45% if you are a micro or small business
  • up to 35% if you are a medium-sized business
  • up to 25% if you are a large business

The research organisations in your consortium can share up to 30% of the total eligible project costs. If your consortium contains more than one research organisation, this maximum will be shared between them.

Your proposal

This competition aims to encourage the development of products and services that enable the rapid automatic design of rail infrastructure. This will allow us to model the railway’s capacity for the future and stimulate further development of automated design tools.

Automatic design is important to Network Rail to:

1. Accelerate the infrastructure design process, while:

  • taking into account the complex interacting factors that affect design effectiveness
  • allowing the exploration of more suitable options

2. Quickly and easily create designs to input into simulations of long term railway performance, which will lead to better informed decisions about future capacity

Your proposal must show good use of existing technologies and capabilities in automated or generative design. You must clearly understand the factors that affect railway infrastructure design.

Your solution must produce optimal designs that could be used as candidates for implementation. It must take into account:

  • representative data (such as topography, infrastructure components and layout, or surrounding features)
  • control factors or weightings (to set priorities in the output for maintenance costs, resilience, journey times, and so on)
  • constraints (such as land availability)
  • predicted demand

The designs your solution produces must be detailed enough for modelling new infrastructure and services in Railsys and comparable industry standard simulation tools. In the long term it will ideally be suitable for linking to these tools more closely, to accelerate design and evaluation processes. It must output geographical referencing using the WGS84 and ETRS89 co-ordinate systems.

The railway is a complex system made of smaller systems, crossing many different types of terrain with differing land uses. Your generative design solutions must consider a wide range of data. The nature of the constraints and desired outputs will differ significantly from the use of automated design tools in other sectors, such as the design of mechanical components, and this must be reflected in your application.

In places, your tool may need to use a ‘heuristic’ approach, by simplifying some of the complexities. You should consider getting input from experienced infrastructure designers and accessing appropriate data sources. This will minimise the risks and costs of defining the complexities, helping to identify the constraints and handle them appropriately.

At the end of your project you must demonstrate your system prototype to Network Rail, simulating its use in a rail infrastructure design environment. You must come to the demonstration with test data prepared. Ideally this will:

  • be a historical case study for which detailed data and real outcomes are available
  • output a number of different designs based on relevant constraints, target outcomes and their weightings

Innovate UK will be responsible for funding your activity and monitoring your project. Network Rail will be available to provide guidance and support. You must invite Network Rail to project meetings. A data sharing agreement is in place between Innovate UK and Network Rail. Details of your application and progress reports will be shared with the organisation.

Innovate UK reserves the right to apply a portfolio approach in this competition. The portfolio will be spread across a range of project durations and project costs, including demonstrating value for money. The portfolio may be managed so as to fund at least one project focusing on automated track layout design.

Specific themes

Your solution must automate the design of one or more of:

  1. Track layout
  2. Overhead line electrification
  3. Traction power supply system
  4. Signalling systems
  5. Other railway infrastructure

We plan to fund at least one project that includes automated track design layout. We will select the top scoring project that is focused on automated track design first, then select other projects based on their score ranking.

In the longer term Network Rail is interested in systems that can support and automate detailed design work. Our priority in this competition is for tools that can automatically and quickly produce early stage options and plans.

Project types

We will fund industrial research projects and experimental development projects. Please see the general guidance to help you decide which category your project fits in.

Projects we will not fund

We will not fund applications that:

  • do not build on relevant existing technologies and capabilities
  • propose solutions that do not form part of an integrated modelling space where proprietary models exchange data and instructions through a logical data model
  • have low technological maturity as we are eager to fund solutions that make use of the best available technology in this area, targeting delivery to proof of concept through this project
  • cannot be exploited by the rail industry or do not have potential benefits for the rail industry

22 October 2018
Competition opens
1 November 2018
London briefing event
19 December 2018 12:00pm
Competition closes
1 February 2019 3:17pm
Applicants notified

Before you start

Please read the general guidance for applicants. It will help your chances of submitting a quality application.

When you start an application you will be prompted to create an account as the lead applicant or sign in as a representative of your organisation. You will need an account to track the progress of your application.

As the lead applicant you will be responsible for:

  • collecting the information for your application
  • representing your organisation in leading the project if your application is successful

You will be able to invite:

  • colleagues to contribute
  • other organisations to collaborate with you

What we will ask you

The application is split into 3 sections:

  1. Application details.
  2. Application questions.
  3. Finances.

1. Application details

Explain your project. This section is not scored, but we will use it to decide whether the project fits with the scope of the competition. If it does not, it will be immediately rejected.

Application details

The lead applicant must complete this section. Give your project’s title, start date and duration. Is the application a resubmission?

Project summary

Describe your project briefly, and be clear about what makes it innovative. We use this section to assign experts to assess your application. List any organisations you have named as collaborators. Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

Public description

Describe your project in detail, and in a way that you are happy to see published. Please do not include any commercially sensitive information. If we award your project funding, we will publish this description. This could happen before you start your project. Your answer can be up to 400 words long.


Describe how your project fits the scope of the competition. If your project is not in scope it will not be eligible for funding. Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

2. Application questions

Your answers to these questions will be scored by the assessors. You will receive feedback from the assessors for each question.

Your answer to each question can be up to 400 words long. Do not include any URLs in your answers unless we have explicitly requested a link to a video.

Question 1. Need or challenge

What is the business need, technological challenge or market opportunity behind your innovation?

Describe or explain:

  • the main motivation for the project
  • the business need, technological challenge or market opportunity
  • the nearest current state-of-the-art, including those near market or in development, and its limitations
  • any work you have already done to respond to this need, for example if the project is focused on developing an existing capability or building a new one
  • the wider economic, social, environmental, cultural or political challenges which are influential in creating the opportunity, such as incoming regulations. Our Horizons tool can help with this.

Question 2. Approach and innovation

What approach will you take and where will the focus of the innovation be?

Describe or explain:

  • how you will respond to the need, challenge or opportunity identified
  • how you will improve on the nearest current state-of-the-art identified
  • whether the innovation will focus on the application of existing technologies in new areas, the development of new technologies for existing areas or a totally disruptive approach
  • the freedom you have to operate
  • how this project fits with your current product, service lines or offerings
  • how it will make you more competitive
  • the nature of the outputs you expect from the project (for example, report, demonstrator, know-how, new process, product or service design) and how these will help you to target the need, challenge or opportunity identified

You can submit a single appendix as a PDF no larger than 1MB and up to 2 pages long to support your answer. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 3. Team and resources

Who is in the project team and what are their roles?

Describe or explain:

  • the roles, skills and experience of all members of the project team that are relevant to the approach you will be taking
  • the resources, equipment and facilities needed for the project and how you will access them
  • the details of any vital external parties, including sub-contractors, who you will need to work with to successfully carry out the project
  • if your project is collaborative the current relationships between project partners and how these will change as a result of the project
  • any gaps in the team that will need to be filled

You can submit a single appendix as a PDF no larger than 1MB and up to 4 pages long to support your answer. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 4. Market awareness

What does the market you are targeting look like?

Describe or explain:

  • the markets (domestic, international or both) you will be targeting in the project and any other potential markets
  • the size of the target markets for the project outcomes, backed up by references where available
  • the structure and dynamics of the target markets, including customer segmentation, together with predicted growth rates within clear timeframes
  • the target markets’ main supply or value chains and business models, and any barriers to entry that exist
  • the current UK position in targeting these markets
  • the size and main features of any other markets not already listed

If your project is highly innovative, where the market may be unexplored, describe or explain:

  • what the market’s size might to be
  • how your project will try to explore the market’s potential

Question 5. Outcomes and route to market

How are you going to grow your business and increase your productivity into the long term as a result of the project?

Describe or explain:

  • your current position in the markets and supply or value chains outlined, and whether you will be extending or establishing your market position
  • your target customers or end users, and the value to them, for example, why they would use or buy your product
  • your route to market
  • how you are going to profit from the innovation, including increased revenues or cost reduction
  • how the innovation will affect your productivity and growth, in both the short and the long term
  • how you will protect and exploit the outputs of the project, for example through know-how, patenting, designs or changes to your business model
  • your strategy for targeting the other markets you have identified during or after the project

If there is any research organisation activity in the project, describe:

  • your plans to spread the project’s research outputs over a reasonable timescale
  • how you expect to use the results generated from the project in further research activities

Question 6. Wider impacts

What impact might this project have outside the project team?

Describe, and where possible measure:

  • the economic benefits from the project to external parties, including customers, others in the supply chain, broader industry and the UK economy, such as productivity increases and import substitution
  • any expected impact on government priorities
  • any expected environmental impacts, either positive or negative
  • any expected regional impacts of the project

Describe any expected social impacts, either positive or negative on, for example:

  • quality of life
  • social inclusion or exclusion
  • jobs, such as safeguarding, creating, changing or displacing them
  • education
  • public empowerment
  • health and safety
  • regulations
  • diversity

Question 7. Project management

How will you manage the project effectively?

Describe or explain:

  • the main work packages of the project, indicating the relevant research category, the lead partner assigned to each and the total cost of each one
  • your approach to project management, identifying any major tools and mechanisms that will be used for a successful and innovative project outcome.
  • the management reporting lines
  • your project plan in enough detail to identify any links or dependencies between work packages or milestones

You can upload a project plan or Gantt chart as an appendix in PDF format no larger than 1MB and up to 2 pages long. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 8. Risks

What are the main risks for this project?

Describe or explain:

  • the main risks and uncertainties of the project, including the technical, commercial, managerial and environmental risks, providing a risk register if appropriate
  • how these risks will be mitigated
  • any project inputs that are critical to completion, such as resources, expertise, data sets
  • any output likely to be subject to regulatory requirements, certification, ethical issues and so on, and how will you manage this?

You can upload a risk register as an appendix in PDF format no larger than 1MB and up to 2 pages long. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 9. Added value

What impact would an injection of public funding have on the businesses involved?

Describe or explain:

  • if this project could go ahead in any form without public funding and if so, the difference the public funding would make, such as faster to market, more partners and reduced risk
  • the likely impact of the project on the businesses of the partners involved
  • why you are not able to wholly fund the project from your own resources or other forms of private-sector funding, and what would happen if the application is unsuccessful
  • how this project would change the nature of R&D activity the partners would undertake, and the related spend

Question 10. Costs and value for money

How much will the project cost and how does it represent value for money for the team and the taxpayer?

Describe or explain:

  • the total project cost and the grant being requested in terms of the project goals
  • how the partners will finance their contributions to the project
  • how this project represents value for money for you and the taxpayer
  • how it compares to what you would spend your money on otherwise
  • the balance of costs and grant across the project partners
  • any sub-contractor costs and why they are critical to the project

3. Finances

The finances section asks each organisation in your project to complete their own project costs, organisational details and funding details. For full details on what costs you can claim please see our project costs guidance.

Background and further information

With passenger numbers predicted to double in the next 25 years, safely and affordably expanding capacity is a major challenge for the rail industry.

Rail franchises agree outputs for up to 20 years, during which infrastructure changes often occur and their impacts cannot be adequately simulated without initial designs. They need more sophisticated ways to predict future capacity requirements.

According to HS2 initial estimating protocols, design costs typically account for 8% of the capital expenditure on railway enhancements. The Office of Rail and Road says this was £3.4 billion in 2016/17, which gives an idea of the potential savings.

Use of computers in mechanical design has advanced significantly. Increasingly code is used to automate form finding. Terminology varies, with differing groups referring to this as parametric, computational or generative design; this last term seems to best capture our intent.

Such methods allow designers to work by defining high-level goals and constraints. They can use the power of computation to automatically explore a wide design space and identify the best design options.

These technologies are beginning to impact high performance mechanical component design in the aerospace and automotive fields.

The rail industries’ needs differ from those of other industries because of the nature of the challenges faced, and because the overall systems to be designed are more dispersed. While we are not seeking a comprehensive design solution, the broad range of relevant factors must be represented to produce valid outline designs.

The railway is a system of systems, including: power systems, control systems, pedestrian flows and train services. These are overlaid on track systems and substructure, including earthworks, bridges and tunnels, within an environmental context of differing land uses ranging from dense urban to sites of special scientific interest.

While most developments occur within the existing rail corridor, in some cases adjacent land use may be necessary or desirable, and the expected costs of acquiring this land varies widely. In addition the desired outcomes can vary depending upon the part of the network being considered, with priority on capacity, journey time, performance (reliability) or cost, depending on use patterns.

Potential benefits from generative design tools include:

  • better long term prediction of railway performance, reducing risks during franchising and enabling private sector investment
  • more optimal designs for safer, higher capacity infrastructure at lower costs and better service performance
  • more efficient infrastructure design, to reduce time and cost
  • accelerated option development, aiding consultation and reducing overheads

We have 2 capability needs to be addressed by this work. We anticipate that they can both be addressed by the creation of the same solution. These are:

  • to be able to predict future railway service capability in the very long term, when we know infrastructure will change, but no designs are yet prepared,
  • to assist in the preparation of design options to save time and optimise designs by better balancing complex interacting factors

Your solution could have significant rail markets overseas. The technology could have applications in wider infrastructure and urban planning applications.

This competition is funded by Network Rail’s Whole Systems Modelling programme. The competition aims to encourage development of solutions and stimulate investment in this area, so that the organisation will be able to purchase automated design tools in the next 2 to 5 years.

Data availability

Successful applicants, subject to suitable confidentiality agreements, will have access provided by Network Rail to a wide range of data on existing assets, and to the passenger demand forecasting handbook.

The full range of Ordnance Survey’s geospatial data products is available without charge to all projects that are funded under this competition.

  • open data products are freely available to download without restriction
  • detailed premium data products can be accessed by clicking through OS’s Data Exploration Licence and completing a simple form. Against the question ‘What do you plan to do with the data?’ select ‘Other’ and type ‘Innovation project: Planning rail capacity through automated infrastructure design’ in the text box. On submission of the form, OS will make arrangements to allow you to place orders for the required data if your application proves successful
  • applicants are also welcome to sign up for a free trial of OS’s mapping and data APIs

Extra help

If you want help to find a project collaborator, contact the Knowledge Transfer Network.

If you need more information, call the competition helpline on 0300 321 4357 or email us at

Need help with this service? Contact us