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First of a Kind competition offers share of £9 million prize to railway innovators


Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris has launched a new £9 million competition to find cutting-edge ideas set to transform the future of the railways.

Organised by the Department for Transport (DfT) in partnership with Innovate UK, the 2021 First of a Kind (FOAK) competition is focused on developing pioneering technology and exceptional ideas that can improve journeys for passengers and decarbonise the rail network.

Previous competitions have seen the Department for Transport and Innovate UK invest a total of around £25 million to develop projects, including;

  • HydroFLEX – the first mainline testing of a hydrogen train;
  • Inspection drones capable of rapidly assessing the safety of railway infrastructure;
  • Controlled water addition to remove the notorious problems of leaves on the line;
  • Concrete slabs that automatically heat up to prevent icy platforms and passengers slipping;
  • A ‘sound-bending’ wall to minimise the noise of passing trains in urban areas;
  • Hydrogen-based steam turbines to drive zero-emission, low-noise rail freight. 

FOAK is now entering its fifth round, and this year has a particular focus on supporting innovations which make the network cleaner, greener and more passenger friendly.

Chris Heaton-Harris, Rail Minister.

The Rail Minister launched the competition during an address to the Rail Innovation Exhibition. He reaffirmed the continued efforts that are being made to drive innovation within the rail industry and establish new technologies to build the railway of tomorrow, and added: “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 Edmonds, Innovate UK.

Simon Edmonds, deputy executive chairman and chief business officer of Innovate UK, added: “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.”

Organisations have until 10 March to bid for funding. In 2020, 25 projects received a share of £9.4 million of funding.

Past winners that have benefitted from investment include ‘HydroFLEX’, which used funding received 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 developing the first hydrogen passenger train.

Seatfrog won funding from the FOAK competition in 2020.

Another previous winner is Seatfrog for its project ‘Train Swap’, enabling passengers to quickly and remotely update their seat reservation to an alternative service, and giving train operating companies the ability to move passengers proactively, managing load across the network. This innovation could help the industry adapt to the pandemic and ensure appropriate social distancing on services.

David Clarke,
Railway Industry Association.

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), which represents the UK rail supply community, welcomed FOAK competition announcement. Technical director David Clarke said: “It is great to see a further round of funding being opened by the government to spur innovation in rail.

“Whether it’s building back better post-Coronavirus, decarbonising or improving the passenger experience, this funding will help the rail sector find new solutions that deliver a better and more effective railway, for the benefit of passengers, freight users and the wider economy.”


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