People won’t be able to get to Global Centre of Rail Excellence by rail, says councillor
Ted Peskett, local democracy reporter
A councillor has said people won’t be able to get to a Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE) by rail.
Cllr Jamie Evans has called for action on the state of railway infrastructure in the Neath Port Talbot valleys as a “transformational” testing facility project is set to get underway.
At a meeting on Friday, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council (NPTCBC) presented an update on plans for a world-class rail testing facility.
The development, which NPTCBC will be working on in a partnership with the Welsh Government and Powys Council, will be located on the site of the Nant Helen opencast mine in Onllwyn.
Speaking at a Regeneration and Sustainable Development Scrutiny Committee, a number of councillors talked of the “irony” of having a world-class rail testing facility in the county borough when, they said, there was room for improvement in its own rail infrastructure.
Councillor Hugh James said: “It is good news for us, but what are we going to get out of it even further?
“This is a golden opportunity to have proper railway infrastructure in Neath Port Talbot. It should attract freight and commercial [rail].”
Cllr Jamie Evans proposed that the council lobby the Welsh Government to ensure the future development of the rail network in the Valleys is “on their agenda”.
He said: “We want to get people out of their communities and [improve] public transport.
“[Whilst] I am grateful that it is happening, I think there just needs to be so much more work done to it.
“[People] won’t be able to get to the rail testing centre by rail, which makes no sense at all.”
Councillor Steve Hunt said: “It is an exciting project, but as a lot of members have said, it really needs to be delivered for communities. If we lose this opportunity, it will be sacrilege.”
Cllr Hunt also expressed concern over the opportunities the development would bring, highlighting there are few people in the county borough who are qualified to carry out the jobs that would be available once the testing facility was complete.
The GCRE will cover an area of about 475 hectares and will consist of two looped test tracks – one being an electrified high-speed rolling stock track (6.9km long) and the other being a low-speed infrastructure test track (4.5km long).
There will also be a dual platform test environment, operations and control offices, staff accommodation, shunter cabins and facilities for research and development, education and training.
Head of the planning department at NPTCBC, Ceri Morris, who called the project “transformational”, said it is currently in the early stages of development, with the construction of one element – the storage sidings – set to be complete by the end of 2022.
Mr Morris said: “It is clear there are significant opportunities and benefits that could come from this.”
The planning committee conditionally approved a planning application for the rail testing facility at the head of the Dulais and Tawe Valleys in July 2021.
It is hoped the GCRE will provide a unique capability in the UK and Europe to support innovation in the UK and international rail industry, including the testing of cutting-edge, green technologies.
The project represents a capital investment of around £157m with the possibility of the creation of 150 to 200 jobs.
Cllr Nigel Hunt called the development a “significant opportunity for the Dulais Valley”.
He said: “There is a lot of irony if this is only going to be a test track. We would love to see the Western Valley connected. This could be the catalyst. I would love to see us pushing to see assurances.”
In response to calls for the council to lobby the Welsh Government to consider improving railway connections, Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Sustainable Development, Annette Wingrave said they are “pushing forward” with the idea and “won’t let it go”.
She said: “We do constantly ask about the miner track that goes up there and it is part of the plan.”
In response to Cllr Hunt’s calls to educate more people in the county borough in preparation for future roles, Cllr Wingrave added that communication has already been made to schools and colleges about training opportunities.
The final phase of the GCRE’s development is expected to be completed by 2025.
A higher education-led bid for separately funded Centre of Excellence in Testing and Validation (CoETV) at the GCRE site to be formalised and progressed within next six months.
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