Proposed £100million Rail Technology Centre “could be the best in the world”

(Title Image: New Civil Engineer)

It was a project mooted last year, but yesterday the Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) updated AMs on a proposed £100million Global Rail Centre of Excellence – which would be built on a former opencast mine at Onllwyn, near Ystradgynlais on the Powys-Neath Port Talbot border.

Planning application “by 2020”

The proposal came forward due to demand from within the rail industry, as discussions on developing a rail test centre have been ongoing in the UK for at least 15 years. The Minister told AMs it has been delayed due to lack of leadership, lack of suitable sites and a complex business case. Over the last 12 months, the business case has developed to an advanced stage and the project was now “deliverable”.

Subject to detailed work, the proposals include:

“…..7 km of electrified test oval, providing a maximum line speed of 110 mph; a separate and unique infrastructure test track facility; a large, well-equipped maintenance facility; secure storage for 400 rail carriages; a decommissioning facility; and a research and development and education centre, which will include labs, office space and training facilities in a dynamic environment away from the operational network.”
– Minister for Economy & Transport, Ken Skates

The Minister said the facility – which Network Rail has taken a keen interest in – could employ up to 400 people during construction and 150 people full-time once complete; though that could be an under-estimate as a similar facility in Germany employs 500 people. He later suggested this could become one of the best rail research facilities in the world.

A formal planning application could be ready by the end of 2019 or early 2020.

The rail industry “will foot the bill”

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), was very supportive but wanted the ambition to become much broader – such as the creation of a university-level rail engineering innovation chair. As you might also expect, he asked where the money was coming from?

The Minister revealed that £1million has been spent developing the proposals and it’s anticipated that the cost of building the facility would come from the rail industry (rather than government). He also confirmed a university chair of rail engineering would be created.

While Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) argued that this could be used as leverage to secure a greater share of UK-wide rail infrastructure investment, he also wanted more financial detail:

“We are talking about a potential investment that is huge here….because we are talking about Onllwyn….where investment is greatly needed and the jobs are desperately needed. So, in terms of scrutiny….could you set out more financial detail? That is how much financial risk will the Welsh Government shoulder here?”
– Dr Dai Lloyd AM

The Minister repeated that he didn’t expect taxpayers to contribute anything towards the facility – an assessment based on soft market testing exercises.

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) highlighted the importance of building up skills in local communities to take full advantage of this and also that the facility needed to be flexible by offering different rail gauges to attract European investment after Brexit.

Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) wanted further details on who precisely was behind the proposal.

The Minister said this has been Welsh Government-driven, though Powys and Neath Port Talbot councils are now on board as well as the landowner, Celtic Energy. He also cited support from UK train operating companies and manufacturing companies like Newport-based CAF.

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