Council calls in plans for £150 million rail testing centre
Elgan Hearn, local democracy reporter
Proposals for a £150 million rail testing centre near Ystradgynlais have been called in to be decided by Powys County Council’s (PCC) planning committee.
An outline planning application by the Welsh Government to build a Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE) at the Nant Helen opencast coal mine, was lodged with both Powys and Neath Port Talbot Borough Council at the end of March.
If successful the project is expected to be fully operational by 2025, bringing a possible 300 jobs to the area.
But concerns about the proposal have been aired in the area.
Powys county councillor for Cwm Tawe Uchaf, Cllr David Thomas (Labour), said: “I’d firstly like to say that I welcome the proposed investment in this project and the future ‘re-energising’ of the local economy that it offers.
“However, I am aware of concerns held by the residents impacted by these proposals which I would request the planning committee examine further to satisfy themselves that any adverse impact on these communities can be mitigated.”
Cllr Thomas also wants to see a liaison body be created in the future.
This would allow representatives from GCRE and “nominated local representatives” to discuss and share information on the project with each other.
Cllr Thomas added that he would also like “consideration” given to setting up a Community Infrastructure Fund.
This would benefit the community and improve things such as open spaces and public transport links in the area.
Cllr Thomas has indicated that he and Cllr Sarah Williams (Abercraf – Labour) want to speak on the proposal when the application appears in front of the planning committee.
Tawe Uchaf Community Council, also has concerns. about how the proposal will impact the village of Caehopkin visually, as well as noise pollution.
They are seeking assurances that both issues will be addressed through the planning process.
The GCRE is supposed to be built at Nant Helen once Celtic Energy finish its coal mining operation later this year.
Powys is part of a joint venture with Neath Port Talbot and the Welsh Government, to develop the site which straddles the local authority boundary.
Under the plans a 6.9 kilometre high-speed testing track and 4.5km low-speed high-tonnage testing track will be built at the site along with a dual platform station.
The facility will be connected to the main Brecon to Neath line, with signalling upgrades also planned as part of the project.
Plans also include a control centre, a research and development facility, maintenance sheds and staff overnight accommodation.
A planning statement prepared by Ove Arup and Partners, who are the Welsh Government’s agents, says the construction is expected to support between 53 and 163 jobs, with 298 permanent direct and indirect roles to be created when the facility is fully operational.
The current mining operation supports 170 jobs.
Arup said: “The benefits of the proposed development are clear, the Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE) would be a state-of-art facility, the kind of which does not currently exist elsewhere in the UK.
“It would not only serve to meet specific needs of the UK rail industry but also would result in transformational socio-economic impacts both at a national and local level in terms of job creation and education and training opportunities over the long term.
“GCRE has been developed collaboratively in consultation with industry experts, it is considered that it would be at the forefront of innovation to create a more sustainable, low-carbon rail network not only in the UK but internationally.
The planning application was lodged after the Welsh Government announced that it would loan £50 million to Powys for the first phase of the project.
The projects also received a £30 million pledge from the UK Government in the spring budget.