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Railway innovators invited to bid on £9m FOAK fund

Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, has announced the fifth round of the First of a Kind (FOAK) competition, inviting cutting-edge ideas that will improve passenger experience and decarbonise our rail network.

The £9 million competition this year is focusing on supporting innovations that make the network cleaner, greener and more passenger-friendly. 

To date, the competition has seen the Department for Transport (DfT) and Innovate UK invest around £25 million to develop projects including:

  • HydroFLEX, the first mainline testing of a hydrogen train
  • Inspection drones that can rapidly assess the safely of rail infrastructure
  • Controlled water addition to remove the notorious problems caused by leaves on the line
  • Concrete slabs that automatically heat up to prevent icy platforms and passenger slipping
  • A sound-bending wall to minimise the noise of passenger trains in urban areas
  • Hydrogen-based steam turbines to drive zero-emission, low-noise rail freight

Organisations have until 10 March 2021 to bid for funding. Last year, 25 projects received a share of £9.4 million of funding.

Past winners HydroFLEX, who used the funding from FOAK in both 2019 and 2020 to develop the UK’s first full-size hydrogen-powered train to be run on the mainline railway. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps visited the site in September 2020 to see the project, which is now developed the first hydrogen-powered passenger train.

Another previous winner is Seatfrog for their project, ‘Train Swap.’ This allowed passengers to quickly and remotely update their sear reservation to an alternative service and giving train operating companies the ability to move passengers proactively, managing load across the network. This innovation could hugely benefit the industry when it comes to social distancing and building back from the pandemic.

Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris said: “This country pioneered the railway, and that spirit of innovation and ingenuity has never been more vital as we look to build back better from this pandemic.

“Our railways will underpin this country’s economic recovery and help realise our ambitions of a carbon-neutral future. Through initiatives like the First of a Kind competition, we are investing today to build the railway of tomorrow.”

Simon Edwards, Deputy Executive Chair and Chief Business Officer at Innovate UK, said: “A greener railway, easier for everyone, with a better experience for users, is the aim of this competition.

“Delivered by Innovate UK on behalf of the DfT and through the Small Business Research Initiative, it seeks the best and brightest ideas.

“Innovative companies all over the UK have proved their mettle in previous rounds of this scheme. Now we call again for even more fresh thinking to help deliver a better and greener railway that delivers for passengers and freight users.”

Dr Stuart Hillmansen, HydroFLEX’s Technical Lead, said: “It is fantastic to see our early fundamental research on the application of fuel cells in the railway sector being implemented and delivering real benefits for today’s railway.”

James Eyton, Seatfrog’s Chief Financial Officer, said: “The DfT and Innovate UK are incredible supporters of technology start-ups and scale-ups in the UK, providing funding to drive innovation that enhances the passenger experience.

“At Seatfrog, this funding has enabled us to fast-track our product development of Train Swap, delivering the fastest and easiest way to change your train in the UK.”

Image: Network Rail 

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