Funding competition SBRI rail demonstrations: first of a kind 2020

Businesses from the UK, EU or EEA can apply for a share of up to £9.4 million, including VAT, to develop demonstrators for sustainability, customer experience, operations or maintenance.

This competition is now closed.

Register and apply online

Competition sections


This is a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition and is open to organisations of all sizes from the UK, EU, or EEA.

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

This competition has 4 themes:

  • environmental sustainability
  • customer experience
  • optimised railway operations
  • optimised and cost-effective maintenance

The assessors will consider fair value in making their evaluation. The contract will be awarded to the lead applicant. Other organisations can only be involved in the project as subcontractors.

Funding type


Project size

We expect to fund projects with total eligible costs between £100,000 and £400,000, including VAT.

Who can apply

We expect to fund projects with total eligible costs between £100,000 and £400,000, including VAT.

Projects must plan to start by 1 July 2020 and can last no more than 9 months. All work must be completed by 31 March 2021. This completion date is fixed and non-negotiable.

If your project’s total costs 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.

You will be required to exhibit your project at the 2021 Innovate UK annual rail exhibition. We will provide the space and advise you of any technology you need to organise, but you will be able to lease equipment from the venue through us. The date and location of the event will be announced on the KTN website in December 2020. (Text update 5 February 2020: added additional eligibility criteria)

Lead applicant

You can work alone or collaborate with others as subcontractors.

To lead a project you:

  • can be an organisation of any size
  • must carry out your demonstration work in the UK
  • be based in the UK, EU, or EEA (Text update 16 January 2020: added additional eligibility requirements to keep consistent with summary section)
  • work alone or with others as subcontractors (Text update 16 January 2020: added additional eligibility requirements to keep consistent with summary section)
Project team

Applicants are welcome from all sectors. Your project:

  • must involve an owner of railway assets (such as stations, rolling stock or infrastructure), an experienced railway organisation and a rail organisation that has the potential to become a customer (this can be the same organisation or 3 separate organisations)
  • must include a potential integration partner
  • must have a letter of support from a potential customer organisation
  • will ideally include an innovative start-up supply company that is already delivering in another sector
  • will ideally include an organisation with railway expertise, such as train operating companies, a freight operator, rolling stock manufacturers or operators and infrastructure owners

We understand it may be a challenge to access railway assets and get permission to make modifications. We expect you to develop your own relationships with railway asset owners.

To aid you in building your consortium we recommend you:


We have allocated up to £9.4 million, including VAT, to fund innovation projects in this competition.

Successful projects will be 100% funded. The funding is provided by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the competition process is managed by Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation.

Applications must have at least 50% of the contract value attributed directly and exclusively for research and development (R&D) services. For this competition, your application should focus on prototyping and field-testing your product or service in a representative railway environment.

For this competition R&D 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

Your proposal

The aim of this competition is to demonstrate how proven technologies can be integrated into a railway environment for the first time (‘first of a kind’ demonstrations). It aims to encourage innovation in the rail industry through the use of novel technologies (for example automation) and innovative uses of data. We will help innovative suppliers 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, for instance:

  • within a railway station
  • in rolling stock
  • on railway infrastructure
  • in the environment close to the railway

We may also consider demonstrators in settings highly representative of these environments.

You must prove you have a well-developed innovation that delivers the expected outcomes when integrated in complex real-world railway applications. We will fund integration and direct user testing. Your solution must be field-tested and ready for use with an end customer by the end of your project.

Your application must demonstrate potential benefits to passengers and customers, including:

  • why customers would buy the product
  • how the funding will help companies in the consortium grow and result in broader economic benefits
  • how you will obtain a clear route to market

We will assess your proposal for its potential to be successfully exploited in a railway environment. We encourage you to discuss regulations, policy and other requirements with potential customer organisations before you submit your application.

We will give preference to applications which:

  • help the innovation be formally accepted for use on the railway, such as through obtaining test certificates or product acceptance approvals
  • offer innovations that can be used by multiple railway organisations

We will apply a portfolio approach to maximise the benefit of the investment of public funding. The portfolio approach will be split across the 4 themes detailed in specific themes which also demonstrate value for money.

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
  • provide relevant proofs, so 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 will keep all rights to your intellectual property (IP). However, if you create significant capability but do not choose to exploit it, we reserve the right to do so under licence.

Specific themes

You must focus on one of these 4 themes. These lists are not exhaustive and we will consider other topics within each theme.

Theme 1: environmental sustainability

This can include:

  • low-carbon freight
  • energy generation and storage solutions
  • low emission self-powered vehicles
  • sustainable non-traction energy solutions for stations and depots
  • improved air quality in enclosed spaces
  • sustainable and recyclable materials that reduce the whole-life carbon footprint
  • reduction of noise from diesel engines and wheels

Theme 2: customer experience

This can include:

  • improved access from stations to trains, considering the platform or train interface
  • optimising overall journey time within the railway environment, for example station access, parking facilities or ticket machines and interchange with other transport modes
  • improved travel accessibility for visible and non-visible disabilities
  • access to information for those without modern technology devices such as smart phones
  • good quality and predictable on-board and station connectivity
  • cost-effective and easy to implement improvements to passenger comfort on-board trains
  • analysing large volumes of customer feedback to drive improvements

Theme 3: optimised railway operations

This can include:

  • improved dwell time at stations
  • optimised freight planning
  • improved disruption recovery
  • timely and accurate information for front-line staff
  • technology to improve responses in the case of system failure
  • reduction of minor operational issues which can escalate into significant disruption
  • real-time decision-making assistance
  • using robotics to improve safety and security on the railway

Theme 4: optimised and cost-effective maintenance

This can include:

  • use of automation and robotics for maintenance and inspection decision-making or tasks
  • automated cleaning of railway assets, for example stations, trains or car parks
  • enabling on-site or local maintenance to rolling stock, rather than having to return to maintenance depots for faults arising during service
  • use of pattern-recognition technologies to automate inspections
  • improved reporting of failures and/or issues

Projects we will not fund

We 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
  • have collaborations 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

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.

13 January 2020
Competition opens
21 January 2020
London briefing event
21 January 2020
Online briefing event
23 January 2020
Manchester briefing event
29 January 2020
Cardiff briefing event
4 March 2020 12:00pm
Registration closes
11 March 2020 12:00pm
Competition closes
1 May 2020
Applicants notified

How to apply

You must read the guidance on applying for a document-based competition before you start.

To apply:

We will not accept late submissions. Your application is confidential. Innovate UK may share details of your application with the Department for Transport (DfT), in keeping with our privacy notice. DfT will also see your project’s progress reports and will expect to be invited to the quarterly progress meetings.

Your application may also be shared with RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board) to help reduce duplication of funding across the rail industry and to check your demonstrator is innovative.

A selected panel of experts will assess the quality of your application. You must use the unique application form sent to you and complete it in Microsoft Word or your application will be ineligible. Be aware that opening the document using other software will make your application ineligible. Subject to meeting the quality threshold, we reserve the right to manage the portfolio to achieve the correct balance of projects and funding.

If we decide not to fund your application we may share it with Network Rail. If your application is relevant to Network Rail’s business challenges and our assessors have given it a high score, Network Rail may consider offering you funding. (Text added 05 February 2020: added information sharing statement)

Background and further information

The stakeholders for this competition include:

  • Network Rail
  • Transport for London
  • HS1
  • HS2
  • Crossrail
  • rolling stock operating companies
  • freight operators
  • train operating companies
  • infrastructure providers
  • owning groups

Representatives from these organisations will be invited to the competition briefing events to discuss their priorities.

Data you can use

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

You are welcome to sign up to the beta version of the OS Data Hub for free API access to detailed OS mapping and download access to OS’s open data products.

Additionally, OS’s premium data products can be downloaded by signing up to OS’s data exploration licence. Against the question ‘What do you plan to do with the data?’, select ‘Other’ and type ‘Rail Innovation: First of a Kind 2020’ in the text box. OS will make arrangements to allow you to place orders for the required data.

About SBRI competitions

SBRI provides innovative solutions to challenges faced by the public sector. This can lead to better public services and improved efficiency and effectiveness. SBRI supports economic growth and enables the development of innovative products and services. It does this through the public procurement of research and development (R&D). SBRI generates new business opportunities for companies and provides a route to market for their ideas. It also bridges the seed funding gap experienced by many early-stage companies.

First of a Kind initiative

Innovate UK is launching this £9.4 million competition as part of a larger ‘first of a kind’ demonstrator initiative. This is on behalf of the Department for Transport (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 fourth in the first of a kind portfolio.

Rail industry

The UK rail industry transports 1.7 billion passengers and 110 million tonnes of freight each year. Since 1997/98 the number of trains has increased by 28% and the demand for rail transport is projected to increase by 58% over the next 10 years. Light rail and local transport systems in the UK’s major cities are expanding quickly, offering enhanced transport options and creating opportunities for UK businesses.

Rapid growth and changing customer expectations present a challenge to the rail and light-rail industries. Current and conventional engineering and operational solutions are struggling to meet demand. New technologies can help with these challenges and open new markets. This can create a sustainable rail industry that offers better services, better journeys and better value.

For more information on the railway industry’s priorities, please refer to:

Further help and information

You can find information on how to enter this competition in the invitation to tender document, which is available for download on our secure site after registration.

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

If you need more information, email us at or call the competition helpline on 0300 321 4357 between 9am and 5:30pm, Monday to Friday.

Help from Enterprise Europe Network

Upon award you will be contacted by your local Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) Innovation Adviser, acting on behalf of Innovate UK, who will discuss the growth opportunities for your business and offer bespoke business support services to help you maximise your project and business potential.

This service forms part of your Innovate UK offer under our commitment to help UK SMEs to grow and scale. It is only available to SMEs. Please engage positively with your EEN contact so that, working together, you can determine the most appropriate form of growth support for your business.

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