The technology that will improve post-pandemic rail journeys in the UK


On July 2, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the winners of the First of a Kind (FOAK) competition, sponsoring innovative technology that will revolutionize the rail industry.

A partnership between the UK Department for Transport and innovation agency Innovate UK, FOAK has allocated a total of £ 9million to 30 winning projects that best encompass this year’s theme – making railways cleaner , greener and more passenger-friendly after Covid-19.

“These winners will hopefully play a role in putting passengers at the center of our railways as we rebuild better from Covid-19,” Shapps commented after announcing the winners. “There are always surprises in store for competition and the ideas presented today could transform the way we travel in the future.”

Despite the progress the industry has made in minimizing the risks from the coronavirus, passengers are still quite hesitant when it comes to traveling by train. As Milestone Systems research reports, 39% of UK travelers still feel uncomfortable and more reluctant to take public transport.

“To give them ever greater confidence in rail safety and sustainability, we asked UK innovators to come up with new ideas,” added Simon Edmonds, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer of Innovate UK.

“Once again the response has been fantastic. Not only will passengers benefit from these great innovations, but the business prospects are also promising in this sector. “

Interchangeable train interiors, along with an app that connects passengers to landscapes via audiobooks, are among this year’s winners.

Geospatial visualization for real-time information

To restore passenger confidence after Covid-19, British company Signalbox Technologies is working on technology that uses geospatial visualization to gain real-time information.

Earlier this year, Trainline partnered with Signalbox Technologies to implement trip detection software on the application functionality of the international railway and coach technology platform, “Find My Train”.

With a FOAK grant of £ 96,550, Signalbox Technologies is building a system to visualize train movements across the UK network, allowing smartphones to locate their train and create a journey visualization that can be shared with others. .

“Giving passengers access to real-time maps of their trips is a useful and engaging way to support people as they travel,” said Kate Andrews, Signalbox project manager, in a statement after the announcement .

“These tools, which display platform status and updates in a more visual way – and enable live location sharing – can leverage the power of our smartphones to deliver updates. personalized journeys and improve the experience of rail passengers. ”

Passive flexibility for railway interiors

Transport design company PriestmanGoode is among this year’s FOAK winners, having received a grant of £ 399,998 to create Proteus, a flexible rail interior system that will reassure passengers after Covid-19.

According to data from Transport Focus, the areas where passengers are most anxious when it comes to traveling by train are personal space and social distancing, as well as poor hygiene on trains. In research carried out in October 2020, Transport Focus found that more than half of those polled cited lack of social distancing as one of the main reasons they avoided public transport, while two in five said it was due to mistrust of hygiene. procedures on board trains.

The pandemic has also altered passenger travel patterns, as post-coronavirus experts predict morning and evening peaks will flatten out, with commutes becoming less frequent and modes of micro-mobility, such as bicycles, more. common in trains.

To address these issues, while allowing rail operators enough room to be flexible, Priestman Goode has developed an onboard layout that incorporates the principle of “passive flexibility” to help operators put seats on and off. service depending on demand and being able to make those changes immediately or overnight in the depot – without taking the train out of service and without requiring technical support.

A new definition of personal space in cars, an easier-to-clean seat design, and an increase in storage space as a new layout.

The project – a partnership between Priestman Goode and other rail technology companies – will be developed in the coming months, with the first designs expected to be ready by spring 2022.

Connecting passengers to the landscape

Initially created in 2018, the Community Rail Content Platform is a project led by the British start-up Window Seater. The goal is to connect passengers to the landscape while traveling by train, through geo-localized audio narratives.

The company has partnered with Community Rail Network and operator Great Western Railway, and received a grant of almost £ 150,000 to develop the app. The local stories present in the app will be collected through community rail partnerships with passenger-oriented technologies used by rail organizations, enhancing the customer experience and connecting passengers to their communities.

After initially testing the technology in Thailand, the platform was then tested in 2020 in Wales, where research showed a 22% increase in the number of people saying they enjoyed their trip.

“We are excited to be working directly with the people who know the stories best along the railroad – this new technology will allow us to harness the passion and knowledge of these communities, thereby increasing the quality and scalability of our guides, ”said Marcus Allender, Business Development Director at Window Seater, following the announcement.

“Improving the customer experience, making better use of community rail partnerships and getting people back on trains are all fundamental goals of the Williams-Schapps plan for rail, to which this project fits perfectly. ”

The technology will take six months to develop, with December 2021 the expected completion date. Window Seater will begin commercial adoption in 2022, covering the entire UK long distance and rural network by the end of 2023.

Environmentally friendly locomotives

At a cost of almost £ 400,000, UK-based company Clean Air Power is working on technology that will demonstrate that hydrogen and low-emission gases can be used on twin freight locomotives, generating enough power to meet demands. operational requirements.

The technology – a first step in the low-carbon rail roadmap – will eventually enable the operation of hydrogen trains and will be demonstrated on board a Class 66 train.

“Our solution offers a path to sustainable and long-term decarbonisation and its cost benefits, which will be practical to implement and scale up.”

This initiative marks the first time that this technology, widely used in the road industry, will be applied to the rail freight sector in such an important class of locomotives. The work will take place over nine months.

Following this award, Dan Skelton, Managing Director of Clean Air Power, said: “We are delighted to receive this financial support and are now focused on delivering a low carbon, low emission Class 66 locomotive. and respectful of hydrogen. .

“Our solution offers a path to sustainable, long-term decarbonisation and its cost benefits, which will be practical to implement and scale. We have already worked successfully alongside Volvo, Mercedes, DHL, Caterpillar and Perkins, and we look forward to transferring our know-how and expertise to this exciting new market. “

Modernization of freight locomotives with hybrid electric solutions

UK hybrid vehicle developer Meteor Power has received funding of almost £ 400,000 to modernize old locomotives with a hybrid electric solution.

The program, born out of the industry’s need to accelerate its green revolution, targets freight locomotives that have been in operation for over 60 years and are either grappling with obsolete technology or needing parts that do not. are no longer in production.

Instead of demolishing them, the Meteor Power project – which will initially be tested on one Class 37 locomotive and two Class 08 locomotives – will equip them with a hybrid electric powertrain suitable for mainline freight applications.

The hybrid electric solution is not the only Meteor Power solution to secure funding for FOAK, as the company has received nearly £ 400,000 to develop an energy capture, storage and delivery system that captures energy when the train slows down, then releases it when the train starts or speeds up.

The system, according to the developers, will allow freight trains to accelerate more quickly from a stop position.

About Elaine Morales

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