abandoned uk railway tracks

Hunt is on to find ‘this century’s Brunel’ in government railway competition

Image credit: Dreamstime

The Department for Transport and industrial innovation agency Innovate UK have launched the '2020 First of a Kind' competition to drive innovation on British railways.

This is the fourth year of the competition, which aims to stimulate the development of new technology which could make rail journeys faster, cleaner and more environmentally friendly. This year, £9.4m is available in prize money (up from £7.8m last year) to help bring successful submissions to the market.

“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,” said Grant Shapps, transport secretary. “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.”

The launch of the competition was marked with a visit by future of transport minister George Freeman to former winner Riding Sunbeams: a Hampshire-based project connecting solar directly to the railway in a small step towards decarbonisation of the network. The project supplies power to the Aldershot-Alton line and could eventually lead to the first solar-powered train.

Other previous winners include 4Silence’s project to create a noise-reducing wall which diffracts sound from passing trains upwards (working as effectively as a conventional barrier three times its height); the University of Birmingham’s project to test a hydrogen-fuelled train on a mainline track, and Amey VTOL’s plans for railway inspections conducted by drones.

Freeman commented: “We have committed to lead the world in transport decarbonisation and 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. The country that invented the train, jet engine and the Harrier jump jet is now leading the green transport revolution.”

Despite these claims, the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledges to decarbonise transport in the UK were among the least ambitious on offer in the run-up to December’s general election. The Conservatives pledged to fund some electrification of public transport in cities, including in electric buses.

By comparison, the Labour Party had pledged a full rolling programme of rail electrification; the Liberal Democrats had pledged to convert the entire rail network to ultra-low emission by 2035, and the Green Party had pledged to electrify all railway lines connecting cities.

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