UK Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris and Innovate UK have introduced the new £9m 2021 First of a Kind (FOAK) competition to develop original technology and ideas that can improve railways.

This will be the fifth round of FOAK, with a major focus on supporting innovations that will make the rail network greener, cleaner and more passenger-friendly.

During the launch, Heaton-Harris addressed the Rail Innovation Exhibition and reaffirmed the continued efforts that are being made to improve the railway industry.

The UK’s Department for Transport (DFT) and Innovate UK have so far invested nearly £25m into the competition to facilitate the development of several rail projects.

Some of these projects include HydroFLEX, the first mainline testing of a hydrogen train; a ‘sound-bending’ wall to minimise the noise of moving trains in cities; inspection drones for assessing the safety of rail infrastructure; hydrogen-based steam turbines to drive zero-emission, low-noise rail freight and more.

Heaton-Harris said: “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 FOAK competition, we are investing today to build the railway of tomorrow.”

Innovate UK deputy executive chair and chief business officer Simon Edwards said: “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 can bid for funding until 10 March.

Last year, around 25 projects won a share of £9.4m of funding.

Past winners include HydroFLEX and Seatfrog.

HydroFLEX utilised the funding to develop the UK’s first full-size hydrogen-powered train while Seatfrog used the funding for its Train Swap project, which allows passengers to remotely update their seat reservation to an alternative service.