Councilors have called for action on the state of rail infrastructure in the Neath Port Talbot Valleys as a ‘transformational’ test facility project is set to kick off.
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 Global Center of Rail Excellence (GCRE).
The development, which NPTCBC will work on in partnership with the Welsh Government and Powys Council, will be located on the site of the Nant Helen open pit mine in Onllwyn.
Speaking at a regeneration and sustainability review committee, a number of councilors spoke of the ‘irony’ of having a world-class rail test facility in the county borough when, they said, there was room for improvement in its own railway infrastructure.
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Councilor Hugh James said: “It’s good news for us, but what else are we going to get out of it?
“This is a golden opportunity to have adequate rail infrastructure in Neath Port Talbot. This should attract freight and trade. [rail].”
The GCRE will cover an area of approximately 475 hectares and will consist of two looping test tracks – one being an electrified high-speed rolling stock track (6.9 km long) and the other being a low-speed infrastructure test (4.5 km long) .
There will also be a dual-platform test environment, operations and control offices, staff quarters, maneuvering cabins and facilities for research and development, education and training.
NPTCBC planning department head Ceri Morris, who called the project “transformational”, said it was currently in the early stages of development, with construction of one feature – the stockpile lanes – which should be completed by the end of 2022. .
Mr Morris said: ‘Clearly there are significant opportunities and benefits that could arise from this.’
The planning committee has conditionally approved a planning application for the trial rail facility at the head of the Dulais and Tawe valleys in July 2021.
It is hoped that 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 approximately £157m with the potential to create 150-200 jobs.
Cllr Nigel Hunt called the development “a significant opportunity for the Dulais Valley”.
He said: “There’s a lot of irony if this is just going to be a test track. We’d like to see the Western Valley connected. That could be the catalyst. I’d like to see us push to see some insurance. “
Cllr Jamie Evans also proposed that the council put pressure on the Welsh Government to ensure that 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’m grateful this is happening, I think there needs to be so much more work to do.
“[People] won’t be able to travel to the railway test center by train, which makes no sense.”
Councilor Steve Hunt said: “It’s an exciting project but as many members have said it really needs to be delivered to the communities. If we lose this opportunity it will be sacrilege.”
Cllr Hunt also expressed concern about the opportunities the development would bring, pointing out that there are few people in the county borough who are qualified to carry out the work that would be available once the trial installation is complete.
Responding to calls for the council to put pressure on the Welsh Government to consider improving rail links, Annette Wingrave, Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Sustainable Development, said they were “pushing forward” with the idea and “wouldn’t let go”.
She said: “We constantly ask about the miner’s track going up there and that’s part of the plan.”
In response to calls from Cllr Hunt to educate more people in the county borough for future roles, Cllr Wingrave added that communication has already been made to schools and colleges about training opportunities.
The final phase of GCRE development is expected to be completed by 2025.
A higher education-led bid for a separately funded Center of Excellence in Testing and Validation (CoETV) on the GCRE site is to be formalized and progress within the next six months.
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