In a significant step towards enhancing accessibility for hard-of-hearing train passengers, the government has announced a £5.3 million funding competition to support the development of ground-breaking AI-powered technology.
This initiative is just one of the 17 projects – six of which are focused on accessibility, in the latest round of the First of a Kind (FOAK) funding program, which aims to foster innovation and modernize the UK's rail network.
"We're spending more than £5 million on modernizing train journeys, improving the experience for some of the most vulnerable passengers and using cutting-edge technology to do so," stated Rail minister Huw Merriman. "The projects announced today have the potential to make a huge difference to passengers, whether that's being able to read important announcements or locate accessible facilities."
At the forefront of this technological advancement is the integration of AI into train station displays, enabling the real-time translation of live staff announcements into sign language. This feature will ensure that hard-of-hearing passengers are kept informed of critical updates, including platform changes, delays, and cancellations.
"This new investment in accessibility improvements is a welcome move to help rail passengers with disabilities travel freely and with greater confidence," remarked Anthony Smith, chief executive of independent watchdog Transport Focus.
"It is important that people with disabilities have full access to trains and station facilities. Improving information and new innovative solutions will help staff give all passengers the support they need."
Alongside the AI-powered signage, the FOAK funding competition has also selected several other projects aimed at enhancing accessibility across the rail network. These include:
- Strategically placed QR codes: Train managers can directly input important information on platform changes and service alterations, serving as a database for accessible information.
- Online journey planner: Passengers can access up-to-date information on key facilities, such as the location and availability of accessible toilets, ensuring informed travel decisions.
- Kiosk systems on platforms: Particularly beneficial for passengers with mobility needs, these systems allow users to signal approaching trains, similar to requesting a bus stop.
"The innovations receiving support through this competition are set to foster a more accessible, inclusive railway system within the UK," commented Mike Biddle, executive director for Net Zero at Innovate UK.
"We aim to endorse a wider array of innovations that focus on enhancing railway accessibility for all passengers, ensuring a more equitable travel experience while creating easy-to-maintain assets and optimizing train operations."
The Department for Transport recently announced an extra £350 million as part of its Network North initiative to improve accessibility at up to 100 stations.