SBRI: FOAK 2023 – Optimised Train Operations Rail Demonstrations

Organisations can apply for a share of £5.3m to develop a prototype and undertake field testing to improve train planning, decision making and services to support effective use of capacity and service delivery.

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For theme 3 – Optimised Train Operations – your project can range in size up to total costs of £400,000, inclusive of VAT. SBRI competitions involve procurement of R&D services at a fair market value, so up to 100% of costs can be covered.



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This is a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition funded by the Department for Transport (DfT). The aim of the competition is to deliver high maturity demonstrations of innovations to the UK railways. Your project must support the overarching principle for FOAK (First of a Kind) 2023.

This competition is part of a larger ‘First of a Kind’ demonstrator initiative, on behalf of the Department for Transport (DfT) and High Speed Two (HS2) Limited. The initiative aims to accelerate innovation in the UK rail sector and enable technologies to be readily and efficiently integrated into the railway system.

The overarching principle for First of a Kind 2023 is cost efficiency and increasing value for money with the following priority themes:

  • Theme 1 – Customer Experience
  • Theme 2 – Reliable and Easy to Maintain Assets
  • Theme 3 – Optimised Train Operations (this competition)
  • To lead a project, you must:

    • be an organisation of any size
    • work alone or with others from business, research organisations, research and technology organisations or the third sector as subcontractors
    • carry out your project work and demonstration in the UK

    Applicants are welcome from all sectors. You can work alone or with other organisations as subcontractor.

    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 separate organisations.

    You must also:

    • include a potential integration partner
    • have a letter of support signed by a senior individual, from a railway organisation with a potential to become a customer

    We recommend you approach your potential integration partners as early as possible during the application process. This to ensure your industry relationships are well established before the competition closing date, so you are able to have their support from the beginning of the project.

    You must include an organisation with railway expertise, such as train operating companies, a freight operator, rolling stock manufacturers or operators and infrastructure owners.

    We welcome projects that include an innovative start-up supply company that is already delivering in another sector.

  • Projects must:

    • start by 1 October 2023
    • end by 30 September 2024
    • last up to 12 months

    Proposals into this competition must already be high maturity at Rail Industry Readiness level 5 or above. You must show evidence of this as part of your application.

    We expect to fund between 10 and 20 projects across the 3 themes. For theme 3 – Optimised Train Operations (this competition) – your project can range in size up to total costs of £400,000, inclusive of VAT.

    All awarded projects must spend 50% of the funding by 31 March 2024 and remaining 50% of the funding must be spent by 30 September 2024. This must be reflected in the eligible project cost breakdown and your milestones.

  • The aim of the competition is to deliver high maturity demonstrations of innovations to the UK railways. Your project must support the overarching principle for FOAK 2023: cost efficiency and increasing value for money.

    Your project, regardless of priority theme, must demonstrate how you will improve value for money through increasing revenue or reducing costs whilst delivering positive outcomes related to this competition’s theme which is: optimised train operations.

    Your proposal must also provide robust evidence supported by a rail partner.

    You must demonstrate how proven technologies can be integrated into a railway environment for the first time as ‘First of a Kind’ demonstrations. This competition aims to support innovative suppliers in preparation for market readiness.

  • In this competition your project must focus on:

    Theme 3 – Optimised Train Operations

    In this theme we are seeking projects which will help improve train planning, decision making and services to support effective use of capacity and support train service delivery.

    Possible examples include:

    • development and validation of new simulation tools to reflect the complexity of the railway and allow the outcomes of different optimisations to be compared and understood
    • innovation to prevent and help mitigate disruptions or aid service recovery after incidents – including new technology, such as drones
    • innovation to deliver integrated or shared data systems and connect disparate data sources to improve real-time operation and decision making across key functions
    • reduced disruption during signalling failures
    • innovation to allow Automation Train Regulation (ATR) to provide an enhanced regularly spaced service
    • innovation to improve system operation, including through improving the effectiveness of timetabling

    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.

  • You must describe your project’s 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.

    Your project must:

    • show how the technology delivers cost efficiency and increasing value for money to the railway industry and UK taxpayers
    • gather evidence about the 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
    • include an evaluation phase, collecting data to support the cost benefit assessment of your proposed solution

    You must provide evidence, showing your innovation can attract customers, get insurance, supply warranties, and attract financing.

    Your evidence must show:

    • 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

    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 also include an evaluation activity to identify the cost and benefits of your deliverables, and to support commercial uptake of your product.

    You must present at an industry briefing event to highlight the benefits you can bring to the railways.

    You must complete an evaluation activity at the end of the project, measuring data to anticipate the commercial impact that adoption of the innovation will have on the railway network.

  • Your project must create a highly interactive and innovative demonstrator in a railway environment which will enable the most effective demonstration of the technology.

    The most appropriate environment for this must be agreed with your rail industry partners. In their role as potential future customers, they will be well-placed to propose an appropriately representative railway environment.

    This must be a railway environment where railway customers and industry representatives can witness the product as a compelling business proposition and must be as close to a live railway environment as possible.

    The demonstration of your innovation is a key deliverable and must be included as part of your milestones.

    You must work with your railway partners to achieve this, obtaining all required permissions and approvals. This must take the form of a launch event at, for example, a railway station or depot, attended by a range of industry stakeholders with potential interest in your product.

    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, however, and others may be more appropriate to demonstrate certain types of technology.

    Where required, the event may be online to access a wider selection of stakeholders. However, in this case the events must be augmented by evidence of your deployment in a railway environment.

    You should de-risk all aspects of this before bidding into this competition to ensure that it can be delivered to the requirements of DfT and Innovate UK.

  • Innovate UK KTN hosted a briefing for the event on 14th June: click here to watch the recording.

    If you want help to find an organisation to work with:, contact Innovate UK KTN’s Transport team.


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