The railways are always a topic of contention within UK politics. There is a perception amongst the general public that whilst prices have increased to extortionate prices, service levels have continued to decline.
Some quarters have called for the railways to be brought back into public control in recent years to rectify the situation, but with Boris Johnson winning a significant majority in the recent general election, that debate is likely to be parked for some time.
However, the Conservative government is looking at ways to improve the performance of the railways, which are coming under increased strain.
This week Innovate UK, which is part of UK Research and Innovation, has launched a ‘first of its kind’ competition under the Small Business Research Initiative, which will make £9.4 million available to fund new tech projects that could improve the future performance of the railways.
The Department for Transport is making the money available, stating that the UK rail industry currently transports 1.7 billion passengers and 110 million tonnes of freight each year, but is facing “challenges from rapid growth and changing customer expectations”.
The number of trains has increased by 28% since 1997 and demand for rail transport is expected to increase by 58% over the next 10 years.
Innovate UK said:
Current engineering and technologies are struggling to keep pace with the demand. New technologies could help the rail industry to meet expectations, improve services for customers and open new markets for business.
Back in 2018, the government and the Rail Delivery Group, which brings together the owners of Britain’s train operating companies, released a comprehensive plan which showcased how “making practical use of the digital and data revolution could be a powerful tool to help address many of the challenges faced by the rail network”.
The competition announced this week seems to support the ideas presented in that report, focusing on a number of similar themes.
Innovate UK said that the competition aims to fund projects that demonstrate for the first time how “proven technologies”, such as automation or innovative uses of data, could be used on the railways.
Projects need to demonstrate that technology as a ‘compelling business idea’ in areas such as a railway station, rolling stock, rail infrastructure or an environment close to a railway.
Applicants much prove that:
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
Innovate UK also said that project teams should include the owner of stations, rolling stock or infrastructure, an experienced railway organisation and an organisation that could become a customer.
The areas of focus for this applying should be on 1 of 4 themes. These are:
environmental sustainability including low-carbon freight, energy generation and storage, low-emission self-powered vehicles, improved air quality, noise reduction and recyclable materials
customer experience including improving access and accessibility, optimising journey times, improved information systems, on-board and station connectivity, passenger comfort, analysis of customer feedback
railway operations including improved dwell time at stations, optimised freight planning, better recovery from disruption, better information for frontline staff, real-time decision-making assistance, use of robotics to improve safety and security
optimised and cost-effective maintenance including use of automation and robotics, automated cleaning, on-site maintenance of rolling stock, improved reporting of failures
The competition opens on 13 January 2020, and the closing date is at midday on 11 March 2020. Projects are expected to be awarded contracts between £100,000 and £400,000.