Funding competition First of a Kind: demonstrating tomorrow’s trains today

Organisations can apply for a share of up to £3.5 million for first of a kind technology to demonstrate ‘tomorrow’s trains today’. This is a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition.

This competition is now closed.

Register and apply online

Competition sections


This competition will show how innovative technology can be integrated for the first time in a railway vehicle. Proposals are invited for innovations that give customers a novel, interactive and immersive experience that will improve their experience of travelling on the railway.

Innovate UK is launching this £3.5 million competition as part of a larger £14.5 million First of a Kind (FOAK) demonstration programme. First of a kind is the first deployment of an innovation in a representative destination environment, in this case within a railway vehicle. This is on behalf of the Department for Transport (DfT), which aims to accelerate innovation in the UK rail sector and enable new technology to be readily and efficiently integrated into the railway system. We plan to run future competitions with a similar budget to demonstrate how technology can be integrated into depots, stations and infrastructure.

The vision for this competition is to adapt a rail passenger vehicle to fit a range of innovations. This will give passengers an immersive experience of how trains could operate in the future. It will also give railway organisations useful lessons for how to integrate innovative technology, as well as the opportunity to collect valuable customer feedback. We encourage you to work with other projects funded through this competition to help realise these objectives. The competition briefing events will give you the opportunity to create the necessary relationships.

Funding type


Project size

Total project costs should be between £250,000 and £350,000 including VAT.

Find out if you are eligible to apply

To be eligible to lead a project you:

  • can be an organisation of any size
  • must carry out your project work in the UK
  • involve an experienced rail technology integrator and a rail asset owner or operator

Applicants are welcome both from within and outside the rail sector. Your consortium must work in partnership with organisations that have rail-sector expertise. There should be a potential customer within the consortium.

We want your project to create partnerships between innovative start-up supply companies with success in other sectors and organisations with experience in railway integration, such as train operating companies and rolling stock manufacturers.

We understand that potential bidders may have difficulty finding railway assets, and getting necessary permissions and approvals for modifications. The competition briefing and consortium-building events will help address and overcome these challenges.

If your application is unsuccessful, you can use the feedback received to apply once more using the same proposal (in other words, you can make a maximum of 2 applications in total for any proposal). This can be into another round of this competition or another competition.

Projects that we won’t fund

We will not fund applications that:

  • do not have a high probability of being successfully exploited by the rail industry
  • are not close to market (within one year)
  • do not commit to a significant change in innovation in what is available in the rail industry
  • are not at a high TRL or do not have low technical risk
  • do not have the potential to deliver benefits to rail or light-rail industries and their customers
  • do not deliver an immersive innovative demonstration in a railway vehicle that enhances the customer experience (it should offer the customer a chance to interact with the innovation)

Funding and project details

We will co-ordinate briefing events as part of this programme. This will help to introduce organisations that can contribute representative vehicles. You are encouraged to attend these to help develop the necessary relationships.

This is a single-stage competition focusing on the rail passenger vehicle. If all the funding allocated for this competition is not used, the theme ‘demonstrating tomorrow’s trains today’ may be kept open for future competitions. In that case, the proposals received will be assessed at approximately 2 month intervals until all the available funding has been allocated. We will announce more information if this happens.

As part of your application you will need to provide a business case for using your solution in a commercial environment. All activities on this programme must be pre-commercial.

For this competition we have allocated up to £3.5 million to fund demonstrations that address the challenges outlined in the scope. There are likely to be 3 subsequent rounds with a similar budget. We expect to fund 10 or more projects of up to £350,000 per competition. We may consider larger projects, but potential applicants should discuss this with us before applying by contacting the customer support helpline.

The project duration for successful proposals will be 6 to 12 months.

Projects will be 100% funded. The contract will be awarded to the lead applicant. Other organisations can be involved in the project as subcontractors. You will be able to keep any intellectual property generated through this contract.

Competition scope

‘Demonstrating tomorrow’s trains today’ is the first in a series of FOAK themes. In this theme we are looking for a range of technologies which create a highly interactive and innovative demonstration within a passenger railway vehicle or similar.

The specific objectives of the activity are a physical demonstration of innovation in the rail industry to prove:

  • the technology works as designed when integrated into larger complex systems and delivers the outcomes expected
  • the technology is accepted by, and delivers benefits for, customers and the broader rail industry
  • the revenue potential for the innovation within a real commercial context
  • the financing and business models for the innovation in a commercial project
  • the team’s delivery capability within a complex programme and consortium structure

Without these elements of proof it is difficult to sell innovation to customers, get insurance, supply warranties and attract financing.

Your application must demonstrate the potential benefits to passengers, explaining:

  • why customers would buy the product
  • how the funding will help companies in the consortium grow and result in broader economic benefits

At the end of each project we expect to see a full demonstration in an environment where railway customers and industry representatives will be able to witness the product as a compelling business proposition. Your project must include:

  • a demonstration phase
  • the collection of customer feedback
  • the definition of routes to market

Your proposal must take into consideration user feedback of the demonstration, whether from rail industry employees or passengers.

We will fund projects that demonstrate an innovation in a customer-facing situation within a passenger rail vehicle or similar. We will fund integration and the direct user testing of your innovation. Your solution must be field-tested and ready for use with a potential customer by the end of your project. A demonstration activity and collection of customer feedback should form part of your project.

Proposals will be assessed on their potential for successful exploitation in a railway environment. We encourage you to discuss potential requirements in relation to regulations, policy and requirements with potential customer organisations before finalising submissions.

We aim to enable innovative suppliers to take the final step to market readiness. You must prove that your innovation is well developed to a high Technology Readiness Level (TRL) and delivers the expected outcomes when it is integrated in complex real-world railway applications.

Specific competition themes

Your application should propose a demonstration to deliver parts of the 5 broad topics below under the topic of ‘demonstrating tomorrow’s trains today’:

  1. More space on trains. Providing greater flexibility in train interiors has the potential to improve customer experience. This will also provide opportunities to create new revenue that exploits the strength of the railways’ high frequency operations and city centre to city centre networks.
  2. Personalised customer experience. Being able "to get a seat" on a train features prominently in the feedback from customer surveys. Technology can help passengers improve their chances of finding a seat on a busy train. This can be achieved by measuring the occupancy of the carriages in real time and using information on passenger boarding patterns to determine where space will be available. This information can then be provided to customers through smart phone apps or dynamic signs. The same technology might also be used to more effectively manage how long trains spend in busy stations ('dwell times') by encouraging even boarding and alighting patterns.
  3. Efficient passenger flow through stations and onto trains. Ticket gates help to protect the railway from lost revenue by deterring customers from avoiding fares. However, barriers also have an impact on passenger throughput and make it more difficult for them to reach their trains. Advances in wireless technology, image processing and biometrics have provided the opportunity to rethink these barriers. Replacing physical barriers with ‘electronic gates’ that could determine whether a passenger had permission to travel without the need for any interaction, would have the potential to create a truly walk-up and walk-on service.
  4. More value from data. The decision by Network Rail and National Rail Enquiries to provide a range of railway data feeds to software developers is a welcome step. It has already started to deliver benefits to railway users through applications such as the ability to see ‘real time trains’. Within the industry, train operators are looking for innovative ways to yield increased value from their data. Ultimately data collection, analysis and interpretation will be automated and occur in near real-time. This will provide consistent and robust information to the railway network, which consists of several interconnected systems, and to applications, which will enable decisions to be made faster and with better information.
  5. An accessible network. More than 12 million people in Britain identify themselves as having a disability. We also have an increasing ageing population, which often goes hand in hand with disability. We need to ensure that our railway network, and how people access information and services, caters for a diverse range of needs, including physical, mental and cognitive (often ‘hidden’) impairments. Using innovation to create a truly accessible railway increases customer satisfaction, boosts revenue and creates travel opportunities for people who may otherwise find the network challenging to use.

Applicants should clearly identify the challenges that will form the focus of their demonstration. They should aim to address a range of specific challenges faced by a rail industry client or ‘problem owner', such as a train operating company, or a rolling stock owner or manufacturer. It could also potentially include Network Rail, London Underground, HS1, HS2, Crossrail or infrastructure providers, where challenges affect the customer experiences on-board trains.

Underpinning the vision for the future railway are the railway industry’s strategic goals, typically referred to as the 4Cs. Applicants to this competition must adhere to these principles. They are:

  • reducing costs by 50% or more
  • doubling capacity
  • halving carbon emissions
  • improving customer experience

All of this must be achieved while continuing to operate the railway safely.

We are looking for novel approaches to these challenges, which have a real potential for exploitation, and innovations that will deliver real benefits to the travelling public. For additional information on the prioritised challenges identified for the railway industry, refer to the links in the 'Supporting information' tab.

30 October 2017
Competition opens
7 November 2017
Applicant briefing and brokering event in London.
22 November 2017 12:00pm
Registration closes
29 November 2017 12:00pm
Competition closes
26 January 2018
Applicants notified

Before you start

To apply:

We will not accept late submissions. Your application is confidential.

External, independent experts will assess the quality your application. We will then select the projects to fund, building a portfolio of projects that:

  • are high quality
  • address the range of themes as described in the scope
  • represent the potential for return on investment for the company and the UK

Subject to meeting the quality threshold, we reserve the right to manage the portfolio to achieve the correct balance of projects and funding.

Please use Microsoft Word where possible. If you complete your application using Google Docs or any other open source software, this can be incompatible with the application form. This means that usual restrictions on page length and font size are removed. If this happens, your application will not be eligible. If you do have difficulties with your application form, please contact us.

Guidance for applicants

Background and further information

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. In addition to the mainline national network, light-rail and local transport systems in the UK’s major cities are expanding rapidly and offer enhanced transport options for citizens. This creates opportunities for UK businesses to innovate and exploit their capabilities.

Rapid growth and changing customer expectations present a challenge to the rail and light-rail industries as current and conventional engineering and operational solutions struggle to meet demand. The integration of new technologies into the railway has the potential to address these challenges and open new markets to create a sustainable rail industry that offers better services, better journeys and better value as a core part of the UK transport system.

For additional information on the prioritised challenges identified for the railway industry, please refer to these resources:

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

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

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