Funding competition SBRI Competition rail demonstrations: first of a kind 2021

Organisations can apply for a share of up to £9 million 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

This competition is now closed.

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Competition sections


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.

In applying to this competition, you are entering into a competitive process. This competition closes at 11am UK time on the date of the deadline.

Funding type


Project size

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

Who can apply

Your project

Projects are expected to start by 1 July 2021, must end by 31 March 2022 and can last up to 9 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

We 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. We 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 us. 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 2 project groups and all scope themes.

We 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 3 to 6 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 6 months
  • have a maximum duration of 9 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

Your proposal

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, we 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. 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 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 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
  • 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.

8 February 2021
Competition opens
9 February 2021
Online briefing event: watch the recording
10 March 2021 11:00am
Competition closes
28 May 2021
7 June 2021 8:56am
Applicants notified
30 June 2021
Contracts awarded

Before you start

By submitting an application, you agree to the terms of the draft contract which is available once you start your application. The final contract will include any details you have agreed with the funding authority and will be sent to you if your application is successful. The contract is binding once the contract is returned by the applicant and signed by both parties. The terms and conditions included in the draft contract should not substantially change.

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 the RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board) to help reduce duplication of funding across the rail industry and to check your demonstrator is innovative.

If we decide not to fund your application, we may share it with Network Rail and HS2. If your application is relevant to Network Rail or HS2’s business challenges and our assessors have given it a high score, these organisations may consider offering you funding. We may also ask your permission to share the public summary from your application with other related organisations that manage alternative funding opportunities.

When you start an application on the Innovation Funding Service 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 can ask colleagues from your organisation and subcontractors to contribute to the application.

What happens next

A selected panel of assessors will review and score your application and the contracts will be selected. All applicants will be provided feedback.

What we will ask you

The application is split into 3 sections:

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

1. Project details

These sections are not scored.

Application details

The lead applicant must complete this section. Give your project’s title, start date and duration.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

We collect and report on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) data to address under-representation in business innovation and ensure equality, diversity and inclusion across all our activities.

You must complete this EDI survey and type ‘EDI survey completed’ within your answer. The survey will ask you questions on your gender, age, ethnicity and disability status. You will always have the option to ‘prefer not to say’ if you do not feel comfortable sharing this information.

Who made you aware of the competition?

How long has your organisation been established for?

What is your organisation's primary area focus?

Project summary

Describe your project briefly. Be clear about what makes it innovative and how it relates to the scope of the competition. How does it tackle different aspects of the challenge and how will it provide an integrated solution?

Give details of the lead organisation. Before you submit we expect you to have discussed your application within your own organisation and any other relevant organisations.

List any organisations you have named as subcontractors.

Your answer for this section can be up to 800 words long. This section is not scored, but we will use it to decide whether the project fits the scope of the competition. If it does not, it may be rejected. The DfT will be involved in this scope review.

Public description

Describe your project in detail, and in a way that you are happy to see published. 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. We have the right to amend the description before publication if necessary but will consult you about any changes.

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

2. Application questions

The assessors will score your answers to questions 3 to 9, questions 1 and 2 are not scored.

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 – Previous applications (not scored)

You must list previous applications made over the last three years.

In terms of the project goals, describe or explain:

  • the commonality and differentiation between this application and previous applications
  • the result of previous applications, and the commercial success of these projects

Question 2 – Project theme (not scored)

Please select the theme you are applying for. If your project addresses more than one theme, please choose your primary theme.

The themes are:

Theme 1: Increasing customers’ confidence and enhancing their experience

Theme 2: Easy to use for all

Theme 3: Low emissions and a greener railway

Question 3. Proposed idea or technology (scored out of 10)

Provide a brief description of your proposed idea or technology. How does it address the outcomes described in the competition scope? Why do the railways need what you propose?


  • the current state of development or readiness of the idea
  • the main motivation for the project
  • the business need or market opportunity
  • how the railway will benefit from what you propose
  • 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 focuses 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, using our Horizons tool if appropriate

You can submit a single appendix as a PDF containing images and diagrams to support your answer. It can be no larger than 10MB and up to 2 A4 pages long. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

This question will be scored against this assessment criterion: ‘How well does the proposal meet the challenge?’

Question 4. Technical project summary (scored out of 40)

Give a short background to the main technical challenges you are looking to address. Describe or explain:

  • how you will address the challenge
  • what the innovation is and how you will apply it to the rail industry
  • the main technical deliverables
  • the research and development that will prove the scientific, environmental and commercial merit of the project
  • what might be achieved by deploying the innovation to address the selected challenge

This question will be scored against this assessment criterion: ‘How valid is the technical approach?’

Question 5. Current state of the art and intellectual property (scored out of 10)

Detail other products currently available on the market and how the innovation of your proposed project differentiates itself from them.

Include details of:

  • any existing intellectual property (IP)
  • its significance to your freedom to operate

This question will be scored against these assessment criteria: ‘How innovative is this project? How much does the project develop or employ novel concepts, approaches, methodologies, tools or technologies for this area?’

Question 6. Project plan and methodology (scored out of 10)

Describe your project plan and identify the main milestones.

The emphasis throughout should be on practicality. We are seeking evidence that the technology works, can be made into a viable product or service and can achieve the proposed benefits.

Demonstrate how your plan would support technologies to be readily and efficiently integrated into the railway system.

You should describe or explain:

  • what resources will be needed to deliver the project
  • what the main success criteria would be
  • the identified project management processes that will ensure you achieve the milestones
  • the main technical, commercial and environmental risks and what you will do to mitigate them
  • how you would handle any IP issues which might arise during the project

Please ensure that if you are working with subcontractors you explain how you will maintain freedom to operate and fulfil the IP requirements detailed in the contract.

Indicate your required payment schedule by quarter.

You must upload a project plan or Gantt chart as an appendix in PDF format no larger than 10MB and up to 2 A4 pages. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Download and complete the milestone template.

Your milestones must be:

  • clear
  • defined using SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) criteria
  • associated with the appropriate deliverables and payments

Once you have completed the milestone template it must be uploaded in a PDF format to this question. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

This question will be assessed against these assessment criteria:

  1. Does the proposal show a clear plan for establishing technical and commercial feasibility and the development of a working prototype?
  2. Is there a clear management plan?
  3. What are the main technical, commercial and environmental risks to project success?
  4. Will these be effectively managed?
  5. Are the milestones and evaluation procedures appropriate?

Question 7. Technical team and expertise (scored out of 10)

Provide a brief description of your technical team. Include the expertise of each team member or subcontractor that is relevant to your application, outlining why they are critical to the project’s success and how much of their time will be spent on the project.

Describe any roles you will need to recruit for taking into account the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the team structure.

This question will be scored against this assessment criterion: ‘Does the applicant have the skills, capabilities and experience to deliver the intended benefits?’

Question 8. Costs and value for money (scored out of 10)

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

Describe or explain:

  • the total eligible project costs, inclusive of VAT, you are requesting in terms of the project goals
  • how this project represents value for money for you and the taxpayer

You can submit a single appendix as a spreadsheet no larger than 10MB and up to 2 A4 pages long to support your answer. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Costs quoted must reflect actual costs at a “fair market value” and not include profit.

Full Economic Cost (FEC) calculations are not relevant for SBRI competitions. SBRI is a competitive process and applications will come from a variety of organisations. Whatever calculation you use to arrive at your total eligible project costs your application will be assessed against applications from other organisations. Bear this in mind when calculating your total eligible project costs. You can include overheads but remember that this is a competitive process.

Please note this is not a grant award. Successful applicants will be awarded a contract for R&D services. Total costs should be submitted to Innovate UK and include VAT, where applicable. VAT is the responsibility of the invoicing business, and applications must list total costs inclusive of VAT. You will be asked if you are VAT registered before entering your project costs.

If you are a VAT registered organisation you will not need to enter your costs inclusive of VAT as the application form will calculate the VAT for you. Please ensure the total costs inclusive of VAT detailed on the application form are within the competition limits.

If you are not VAT registered, then you can quote without VAT but you will not be able to increase invoice values to cover VAT later on.

The assessors are required to judge the application finances in terms of value for money. In other words, does the proposed cost for effort and deliverables reflect a fair market price? They will score your finances against this assessment criterion: ‘Are the budget and costs realistic, justified and appropriate for the aims and methods?

Please note information from the finances section will be used to support the assessment of this question. Proposed costs stated in this section must match those entered in the finance summary on your application.

Question 9. Commercial potential (scored out of 20)

Describe how you would realise the commercial potential of your proposal and to what timescales, including a clear plan to deliver that and a route to market, particularly if COVID-19 has changed market dynamics. Focus on your proposed customer’s needs but you may also mention the future commercial potential across the public or private sector and the international market.

How far is the challenge you are addressing shared across the public and/or private sector in the UK and further afield? Describe the competitive advantage that your proposal has over existing or alternative technologies that meet market needs.

You must submit your letter(s) of support as a single appendix. It must be a PDF, can be no larger than 10MB and up to 4 A4 pages long. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

This question will be scored against these assessment criteria:

  1. Is there a clear commercial potential for a marketable product, process or service and a clear plan to deliver that and a clear route to market?
  2. How significant is the competitive advantage of this technology over existing technologies that meet the market’s needs?

3. Finances

Enter your eligible project costs, organisation details and funding details. For full information on what costs you can claim, see our project costs guidance.

Background and further information

About Small Business Research Initiative competitions

SBRI provides innovative solutions to challenges faced by the public sector. This can lead to better public services and improved efficiency and effectiveness.

The SBRI programme:

  • supports economic growth and enables the development of innovative products and services through the public procurement of R&D
  • generates new business opportunities for companies
  • provides a route to market for their ideas
  • bridges the seed funding gap experienced by many early-stage companies

SBRI competitions are open to all organisations that can demonstrate a route to market for their solution. The SBRI scheme is particularly suited to small and medium-sized businesses, as the contracts are of relatively small value and operate on short timescales. Developments are 100% funded and focused on specific identified needs, increasing the chance of exploitation.

Suppliers for each project will be selected by an open competition process and retain the intellectual property generated from the project, with certain rights of use retained by the contracting authority. This is an excellent opportunity to establish an early customer for a new technology and to fund its development.

Broader 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 (Application Programming Interface) 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 their 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.

Ordnance Survey will make arrangements to allow you to place orders for the data you need.

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:

Data sharing

This competition is jointly operated by Innovate UK, and the Department for Transport (DfT) (each an “agency”).

Your submitted application and any other information you provide at the application stage can be submitted to each agency on an individual basis for its storage, processing and use. Any relevant information produced during the application process concerning your application can be shared by one agency with the other, for its individual storage, processing and use.

This means that any information given to or generated by Innovate UK in respect of your application may be passed on to DfT and vice versa.

Innovate UK is directly accountable to you for its holding and processing of your information, including any personal data and confidential information. It is held in accordance with its Information Management Policy.

Innovate UK and DfT are directly accountable to you for their holding and processing of your information, including any personal data and confidential information. Data is held in accordance with their own policies. Accordingly, Innovate UK, and DfT will be data controllers for personal data submitted during the application.

Innovate UK complies with the requirements of GDPR, and is committed to upholding the data protection principles, and protecting your information. The Information Commissioner’s Office also has a useful guide for organisations, which outlines the data protection principles.

Further help and information

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 help you to build your consortium we recommend you:

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

Our phone lines are open from 9am to 11:30am and 2pm to 4:30pm, Monday to Friday (excluding bank holidays).

Innovate UK is committed to making support for applicants accessible to everyone.

We can provide help for applicants who face barriers when making an application. This might be as a result of a disability, neurodiversity or anything else that makes it difficult to use our services. We can also give help and make other reasonable adjustments for you if your application is successful.

If you think you need more support, it is important that you contact our Customer Support Service as early as possible during your application process. You should aim to contact us no later than 10 working days before the competition closing date.

Need help with this service? Contact us