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I visited the railway development in Wales that could be bigger than Gibraltar

16 Mar 2024 6 minute read
Lewis Smith on his tour of the Global Centre of Rail Excellence

Lewis Smith, local democracy reporter 

On the mountains of Neath Port Talbot there’s a unique and large-scale development starting to take shape that could have a massive impact on the area.

It will eventually feature miles of railway tracks and station platforms, but no real passengers will likely ever travel on it, or stand at the station waiting for a train.

Located on 700 hectares of land near the village of Onllwyn, 17 miles north of Neath, and straddling the neighbouring borough of Powys, a new £400 million rail testing centre named The Global Centre of Rail Excellence, is currently being developed.

It will see the creation of a unique testing site that features electrified testing tracks, as well as space for research and development, and education facilities based on the former Nant Helen opencast site and Onllwyn Washery.

High-speed trains

Expected to be fully operational by 2027, the centre will run for 24 hours a day when completed, testing new railway vehicles such as high-speed trains and hydrogen-powered rolling stock, on two seven kilometre looped tracks that will be operating at the site.

It is a development that could be unique to the rail industry once completed, with reports saying the centre “plugs a significant gap in European rail by providing a purpose-built, single site for world class research,” adding that it, “allows products to be tested to the highest technology readiness levels, in a live environment, with no risk to the mainline.”

The GCRE would also be the UK’s first ever net zero railway, and could bring in much needed investment and employment into the borough, with the potential creation of up to 1,000 jobs coming as welcome news in the wake of of 3,000 announced job losses at Port Talbot’s Tata Steel plant earlier this year. You can read more about that here.

However, despite this loss of local jobs and a current cost-of-living crisis, the mood seems to be high among GRCE staff today, as we climb the coal-blackened slopes of Onllwyn, for a Land Rover tour of the area which developers say could eventually be bigger than Gibraltar.

Immense scale

“If you can test trains or technology systems that work up here, they should be able to work anywhere,” one worker says as we begin the hour long tour, with the drive out now beginning to reveal the immense scale of the development.

Work is starting to take shape on the site

While most of the expected views are blocked by fog today, the amount of work required really does becomes clear – not only in transforming the landscape for the facility, but in raising the hundreds of millions of pounds needed from private investors, to go with more than £90 million worth of Welsh and UK Government funding, for the site to reach its full potential.

Along the route we get to see the early stages of works to clear the path for the loop tracks, as well as the early sections of track being laid at the former mining facility – which workers say previously saw more than 2 million tonnes of coal taken out of it.

Mining

We also pass the old shower and locker facilities, still left standing from the area’s mining days, complete with hi-vis jackets and helmets, almost as if a group of workers had just come off a shift earlier that day.

Officers say this rich mining and industrial history is something they are eager to maintain and celebrate as the development continues, with this section ear-marked to be kept, to become part of a new technology park and office space under the plans.

Speaking after the tour, chief executive of the GCRE, Simon Jones, said the project was a huge undertaking, adding that once completed it would allow rail companies to test and bring all elements of their railway together before putting them out to the public.

Former showers and locker room used at the mine in Onllwyn

Innovations

He said: “I don’t think these kinds of projects come around very often, particularly projects like this which have got Government support from both the UK and Welsh Government.

“What it means for the people here is that we’ll be creating a site where the railway industry across the UK and Europe will come here to carry out testing for their innovations in a way that they just can’t do anywhere else.

“We’ve got 170 companies now from across Europe who’ve pledged their support for what we’re doing and who want to be able to use this place, so that’s just going to create jobs and opportunities for people.”

He added: “There are some sites elsewhere in the UK and there are some sites in Europe, but none of them do what we are planning to do so we are unique. There is nowhere in the UK where people can do high speed testing of trains on a looped track, and that sounds insignificant but actually being able to just drive continuously round without having to reverse the train every time you do a test is a huge time saving.

“We’ve got planning consent to operate this place 24 hours a day so if our clients want to run tests for 24 hours they can. There are other loop test sites in Europe but they have really long waiting lists and they’re a long way away in places like the Czech Republic or Poland.

“These are also set up for testing trains and not infrastructure, things like the tracks, the sleepers and the ballasts, the drainage and electrification systems, telecommunications and increasingly the signalling systems. This facility uniquely allows our clients to be able to bring together all of their railway.”

Unique 

Speaking after a previous visit to the site, Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething said: “The facility will be truly unique in Europe. It will put Wales on the map as the go-to country for UK and international train manufacturers, network operators, the wider industry, supply chain and academia, to research, test and develop innovative new technologies that underpin de-carbonisation and development for the global rail industry.

“It will also be a magnet project for further new opportunities, bringing more quality jobs and investment to our communities. We welcome the recent interest from the UK Government in this made in Wales project, and are delighted they have now seen its transformative potential.”

A report by Neath Port Talbot Council officers also stated that the scheme would create “high-quality employment in fair, secure and sustainable jobs” and contribute to the UK becoming “a world leader in achieving carbon neutrality.”


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Nigel
Nigel
27 days ago

Sounds good but just wondering how any rolling stock will actually be transported there especially from Europe

jim
jim
27 days ago
Reply to  Nigel

This is a very good point. European rolling stock is too big to travel on UK railways. And the volume of new UK rolling stock is unlikely to suffice. They must have thought of this, surely?

hdavies15
hdavies15
26 days ago
Reply to  jim

Joined up thinking is a rare beast in Wales. Government just says “whoops, we never thought of that” and spends more money to patch up.

Dafydd Huw
Dafydd Huw
27 days ago

There is an element of irony in this centre being located in Wales considering the lack of investment in modernising the rail network here

James
James
26 days ago

Where I hope this idea blossoms, a big part of me thinks that this is another crazy, corrupt, and doomed to fail labour idea. Like the ebbw vale race track. Or the purchase of cardiff Airport. Or the purchase of that farm in Abergavenny, or the purchase of all the land for m4 relief road. If I get chance I will go and have look at this for myself, to see how much actions going on!

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
26 days ago
Reply to  James

This will improve as and when Wales does take more control of its own affairs and England becomes just another neighbouring country.

The problems with Cardiff airport is that there is still no high-speed rail link with the city centre. Most capital cities in Europe have a high-speed rail links between their capital city centre and their airports – It is needed.
Instead, again we are constrained by the current UK central control system and that is the cause of most of our problems and is holding Wales as a backward country.

Glwyo
Glwyo
26 days ago

I’d argue that the airport is lacking a rail link completely. Lugging your bags 30 minutes along narrow hilly rural footpaths is disincentive enough for me to to elsewhere. Not having a meaningful rail connection to the airport from day 1 was a colossal oversight. But hey, at least I can dump a car in a convenient location for peanuts right?

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