Global Centre of Rail Excellence Wales plan

UK: The Global Centre of Rail Excellence at Onllwyn in south Wales will be ‘unique in Europe’ when it opens in 2025, GCRE Chief Technology Officer Andy Doherty told the Railway Industry Association Innovation Conference on April 27.

Doherty reported that work on the facility was close to a formal launch. It is being built on the site of the Nant Helen surface mine which closed last July, adjacent to Onllwyn coal washery, the last train from which is expected to run to Swansea this month. Contracts have been placed to clear the 550 ha site, with earthworks expected to formally start in August. Being built at a cost of £220m, the centre is planned to open in the first half of 2025.

Two loops

GCRE will have three core tasks: vehicle testing, infrastructure testing, and rolling stock storage and maintenance. According to Doherty, it will be the second railway test centre in the world after TTC in Pueblo, USA, where infrastructure as well as rolling stock can be evaluated.

GCRE (1)

The project was granted planning permission in August last year, shortly after mine working ceased.

Two test loops are planned, both electrified at 25 kV 50 Hz and initially built as single track rings with passing loops. The 6·9 km outer circle will skirt the perimeter of the former mine site and will be used to test vehicles. Its maximum operating speed will be 185 km/h. The 4·5 km inner ring will be the infrastructure test area, which would include a two-platform station.

The site will also include stabling sidings for vehicle storage; this work is expected to provide a baseload activity ‘to pay the bills’, Doherty explained.

The centre being developed by GCRE Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Welsh government. An early hope of the development team is that the outer loop would be built to the standards of a modern high speed railway, while the inner would be set up to reflect as far as possible the track and asset conditions found on current main lines, including realistic recreation of EMC conditions and track geometry. It is planned that both loops would be fitted with ERTMS and be able to handle UIC loading gauge vehicles, although the site would be entirely 1 435 mm gauge initially. Axleloads of up to 30 tonnes could be accommodated. There has already been interest in using the site from suppliers outside the UK, Doherty said.

However, he was keen to stress the facility would be much more than a test centre, embracing a far broader set of activities in rail innovation. This could include certification and approvals, training and development, and activities for organisations outside rail such as automotive and aerospace suppliers. Discussions are ongoing over the development of a £15m innovation hub in one corner of the site which would support the ancillary development; this would be backed by the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research & Education and by Welsh universities and research institutions.

Pushing boundaries

Doherty stressed that a key differentiator between GCRE and other test facilities such as the Rail Innovation & Development Centre at Old Dalby in Leicestershire is the aim to push vehicles and components to and beyond the standards required for use on the main line network.

‘We need to know the true limits of asset performance and push boundaries’, he said, noting that this would help address industry costs by providing an empirical basis for equipment approvals. ‘Almost all our current railway standards have been drafted through custom and practice, not empirical research.’

The Welsh Government has begun local consultation on plans to develop a Global Centre of Rail Excellence at a former open cast mine and coal washery.

Consultation on GCRE was launched by former Welsh transport minister Ken Skates in June 2018.

Standards for emerging technology such as hydrogen powertrains and some forms of digital technology ‘do not exist’, Doherty added. ‘We need them.’

A side benefit of this approach is that the running loops are intended to be highly automated, removing risk to staff from any test procedures, should for example a low-speed collision occur during testing of train control equipment. This in turn paves the way for acceleration of research into train automation, Doherty suggested.

Under the terms of the planning permission granted in August last year, GCRE will have the right to operate 24/7 given the nature of the rural location on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. For rolling stock testing, 10-week operating cycle are envisaged, with vehicles running 16 h/day, five days/week; the loops would handle around 20 million gross tonnes per annum in throughput.

Test here first

Doherty hopes that GCRE will emerge as a go-to site for trialling technology in real-world conditions without the fraught issue and cost of requesting access to the main line network.

Discussions are underway to see whether its facilities could be used to host participants in Innovate UK’s First of a Kind competition. ‘We want to offer innovators and suppliers a real-world alternative to a glossy brochure — somewhere the limits of new technology can safely be explored.’

GCRE Ltd believes Onllwyn will become home to the UK’s ‘first net zero railway’, powered in due course by solar and wind farms located on or near the site, if power management technology can be commercially deployed to offset the need to use the local utility grid.

The Welsh government is providing £50m towards the final cost of the facility, while the UK government’s £30m contribution is expected to receive final sign-off from the Treasury in the coming weeks.