SME Collaboration – SME Challenges


Since 2020 the Rail Forum has developed and managed a number of SME ‘Growth Through Collaboration’  challenges as part of our Rail Sector Deal support. These include:

  • Light weighting of Rolling Stock
  • Opportunities for Decarbonising Freight
  • Digitalisation and Sustainability of Depots

Brief details of these previous challenges can be found below.


On 21 July 2020 the Rail Forum  launched the first ‘SME Challenge’  as part of our Rail Sector Deal Midlands Pilots. This challenge was supported by Bombardier (now Alstom), Hitachi, Porterbrook and Siemens with other OEMs/asset managers invited to join. The challenge itself related to the need to remove weight from passenger rail vehicles – both new and existing.

The online launch event attracted some 130 companies/individuals and was followed by four separate events to look at specific aspects of the vehicle and provide time for SMEs to introduce themselves to each other and start to identify potential partners that they may wish to work with. These events focussed on: interiors, exteriors, traction and bogies and electrical/electronic equipment. SMEs were then invited to submit their ideas which were forwarded to the clients for shortlisting. Clients then took part in a series of online Dragons’ Den sessions to hear more from the SMEs prior to deciding which, if any, to take forward for more commercial discussions.


The second challenge launched on 21 October 2020, focused on Opportunities for Decarbonising Freight. The challenge was led by Tarmac, a major end customer for rail freight together with the University of Derby and several potential clients including freight operators, wagon companies and asset managers. These are all listed below against the various themes they had a specific interest in.

  • Data Management & Telematics (with interest from Tarmac, DB Cargo, ERMEWA, Freightliner, GBRF)
  • Locomotives & Wagons (with interest from ERMEWA, DB Cargo, Freightliner, GBRF, VTG)
  • Driver Management and Path Improvements (with interest from DB Cargo, Freightliner, GBRF, Network Rail)
  • Terminal Management and Improvements (with interest from VTG, ERMEWA, Freightliner, GBRF, Network Rail, Tarmac)

The challenge followed a similar process to the first; with an online launch followed by submissions and Dragons’ Den presentations. Following the Dragons’ Den sessions a number of SMEs sought First of a Kind (FOAK) Innovate UK funding with support from the clients. Four projects were successful in securing funding to develop demonstrators with other projects, that did not require funding, also going forward to more detailed discussions with clients.


Our third challenge was launched on 19 July 2021. Once again focussing on freight this time for a specific client: DB Cargo. DB Cargo operate from numerous locations; their main depot facilities are at Toton, Stoke and Crewe with smaller depots across the UK. The challenge was far reaching with the focus on working smarter not harder. Opportunities included:

  • digitally monitoring vehicle movements and work flow
  • depot emissions monitoring
  • intelligent lighting and heating
  • on-site renewable energy sources
  • asset mapping and health checks
  • increased automation within the depot processes

Following the same Dragons’ Den process as previous challenges DB Cargo selected a number of initiatives to develop further with SMEs.


The fourth challenge focused on Freight Terminals of the Future.

The project was a collaboration between a number of businesses: Tarmac, DB Cargo, Freightliner, Ermewa, GB Railfreight and supported by the University of Derby, Rail Freight Group and the Rail Forum.

The scope was far reaching with the focus on working smarter, not harder. Opportunities included, Decarbonisation, Automation and Digitalisation.