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Department for Transport and Innovate UK launch competition to ‘find this century’s Brunel’

The Railway Hub

Organisations developing cutting-edge technology focused on making rail journeys faster, cleaner and greener could receive a share of £9.4 million to bring their ideas to life.

The Department for Transport is working with Innovate UK to launch the 2020 First of a Kind competition to accelerate innovation in rail. Now in its fourth year, the competition will help transform rail travel for passengers and decarbonise the network.

Former competition winner Rising Sunbeams, a project connecting solar power directly to the railway, is currently supplying power to Network Rail’s infrastructure on its line to Alton in the hope it could pave the way for the world’s first ever solar-powered train.


This month, Innovate UK are running events across the country to to speak to inventors, designers and innovators to find the latest technology to make the UK’s railways faster, cleaner and greener.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “For two centuries the UK has been at the cutting edge of rail technology. First of a Kind 2020 is part of the research and innovation melting pot that will keep us there as we enter another decade.

“To build the railway of tomorrow we have to support the inventors and innovators of today. This competition is designed to find the next Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and help them create the technology that defines our railway in the future.”


Who are the past winners?

Past winners include 4Silence’s plan to develop a noise-reducing wall that works by diffracting sound waves from passing trains upwards. This makes it as effective as a barrier 3 times its height.

Another scheme supported by the competition was Amey VTOL’s development of a drone system that could carry out track inspections from the skies. This avoids the need for people to set foot on railway infrastructure.

The University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research also received funds for its plans to undertake the first mainline testing of a hydrogen-fuelled train in the UK.


‘Committed to lead the world in transport decarbonisation’

Future of Transport Minister George Freeman said: “We have committed to lead the world in transport decarbonisation & emissions reduction through our NetZero programme.

“By investing in renewable technologies the UK benefits from both growth in the green economy and cleaner, greener transport.

“Competitions like First of a Kind are the stimulus for innovations which have the potential to revolutionise modern railways: here and worldwide. The country that invented the train, jet engine and the Harrier jump jet is now leading the green transport revolution.


“Having already supported trains that run on sunlight and hydrogen, drones to survey our tracks and technology to tackle leaves on the line, the UK is fast becoming once again a hub of global innovation in transport.”

Simon Edmonds, Chief Business Officer, Innovate UK, said: “The UK’s rail network is one of the nation’s vital economic assets. That is why we are all committed to improving it and building on its green credentials.

“We are looking for pioneering projects from great British innovators to make the railway ever more reliable and sustainable.”

The competition is open to organisations of all sizes and sectors. Entries for the fourth funding round will be accepted from 13 January to 11 March 2020.

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Sam Hewitt

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