An exhibition highlighting innovative companies in the UK rail industry has portrayed a healthy picture of innovation in the sector but highlighted difficulties in connecting smaller companies with new ideas to those with the power to move them forward, such as big operators and Network Rail.

The 2023 Rail Innovation Exhibition (RIE), organised by Innovate UK, Innovate UK KTN and the Department for Transport, saw more than 600 registered delegates and 70 exhibitors take part in the one-day event, covering themes such as sustainability, data and passenger experience.

Ben Cullen, the knowledge transfer manager for rail at Innovate UK KTN, spoke to Railway Technology to highlight the importance of the event to facilitate connections between the companies that have received government funding through Innovate UK, and those that could benefit from their products and services.

Cullen said: “We’ve had lots of people meeting, connecting and effectively devising the future together. And that’s what this is all about—innovating and having Innovate UK KTN being that link.”

However, while many attendees saw the importance of these events to network with possible clients, there was also a feeling that more could be done to help innovative companies overcome the “valley of death” period between their initial funding and signing contracts with companies.

Some also expressed concern over the favouritism of Network Rail when it comes to innovation-focused funding and said the network owner could be doing more to engage with smaller companies at events like the RIE, where Network Rail did have a presence.

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David Stewart, CEO of passenger assistance and data company Esoterix, discussed with Railway Technology the difficulty in bridging the gap between the end of an innovation project and getting a permanent contract with Network Rail or an operator: “To make that easier, we’d like to see more centralised procurement portals, which would make the adoption of technology a bit easier.

“Easing some of the necessary restrictions around tendering will make it much easier to compare solutions in the market and justly shortcut that process and allow operators and/or Network Rail to quickly adopt, trial and develop or move on from new ideas.”

The issue was echoed by Scott Heath, Innovation Lead at Thales GTS, another RIE exhibitor, which is trying to launch an ecosystem of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to increase engagement between smaller innovative companies and those that could use their products.

Heath explained that while the UK Government and Network Rail want innovative companies to engage more with SMEs, larger companies aren’t necessarily making that easy to do: “We have complex contracts and they often change for each opportunity, so as a small business, you have to go to a lawyer, get them to look through that proposal and say what’s changed, what’s different and what liabilities you have, which is a pain.

“You then also have payment terms that can be 90 days after the work, so then you’ve got to wait quite a while and your cash flow could be an issue. So, all of that just makes it very difficult to find opportunities and get to work in the railway [industry].”