Home » I visited the railway development in Neath Port Talbot that could be bigger than Gibraltar
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I visited the railway development in Neath Port Talbot that could be bigger than Gibraltar

Lewis Smith, GCRE Tour (Pic: Lewis Smith)

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.

Grce Tour In Onllwyn (Pic: Lewis Smith)

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.

“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.

GCRE Tour In Onllwyn Part 2 (Pic: Lewis Smith)

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.

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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.

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.

Former Showers And Locker Room Used At The Mine In Onllwyn (Pic: Lewis Smith)

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.

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.”

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.”