The global rolling-stock market is estimated to be worth £55 billion and growing at 4% per annum. Hence, there is a significant demand for rail test facilities – of which few have long loops that offer high-speed running, such as the Czech test facility at Velim. Moreover, most test tracks focus on rolling stock, rather than infrastructure testing.
After engaging with manufacturers wishing to build rolling stock factories in the UK, the Welsh Government became aware of the need for international-standard rail testing facilities. To develop this idea further, a mining site on a hill in South Wales was identified as an ideal site. This was the former Nant Helen opencast mining site and the Onllwyn washery at the head of the Dulais Valley, 15 miles northeast of Swansea. This has a large area that can be purchased at an affordable price at a location where testing can be done 24 hours a day. It is rail-connected and close to deep water ports.
The vision is that this testing centre will become a leading hub of research and innovation that will provide customer-specific engineering and operational test programmes as well as engineering measurement and certification services. It is also the intention to facilitate collaborative joint projects from manufacturing, research, and academic sectors. It will in fact become the Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE).
The site straddles both the local authority areas of Neath Port Talbot and Powys which are strong supporters. GCRE is expected to provide high-quality jobs, promote wider inward investment, and provide the regional economy with GVA (gross value added) benefits of up to £70 million over 10 years. However, building such a large, comprehensive facility on a disused mining site at the top of a Welsh mountain is not cheap, with the cost now estimated to be £250 million.
To progress the project, a new company – GCRE Ltd. – has been created to deliver the project for which financial commitments of £50 million and £20 million have been obtained from the Welsh and UK Governments respectively, with a further £7.4 million of R&D funding being provided through Innovate UK. Planning permission from both Councils was granted in summer 2021 and the 700-hectare site was purchased from Celtic Energy in late September. In addition to the government grants, the intention is to fund this from equity investment of more than £100 million and debt finance of around £70 million.
Simon Jones, GCRE’s chief executive, gave more information when he spoke at a recent event in Cardiff that sought innovative ideas for construction of the GCRE facility. He stressed that this was a unique UK project that will provide a site where technologies can be tested, demonstrated, and certified for safe use on the UK and international railways in a safe, offline, but realistic environment. He advised that GCRE would offer three core services: rolling stock testing; infrastructure testing; and storage and maintenance.
Simon also explained that there had been lots of commercial interest with potential users including Network Rail, Transport for Wales, passenger and freight train operators, TfL, HS2 as well as infrastructure suppliers of all sizes. GCRE’s chief commercial officer, Kelly Warburton, reinforced this point as she spoke of the strong interest she had received from many European companies when promoting GCRE at Innotrans.
Developing the site
The GCRE site has been subject to extensive surface and subsurface coal mining activities over the past century. Mining there ceased in 2021 and, as a result, it currently consists of brownfield restored land, overburden mounds, coal stocking areas, and mining facilities. The Nant Helen Open Cast mine is at the top of a hill whose summit is 335 metres above ordnance datum (AOD) and is at the head of three principal river catchments.
One of these is the Dulais valley, which has the rail line to the Onllwyn Washery Centre which is 230 metres AOD. Trains access this line by leaving the main line at Briton Ferry station and reversing at Swansea’s Burrows Sidings.
The site’s northern boundary is a kilometre from the Brecon Beacons National Park. About 116 hectares of the site is designated as common land and has several public rights of way across it. Although some of these will be extinguished, better connected routes will be created. It is anticipated that 12km of cycle paths will be created.
A detailed environmental statement produced by Arup was completed in 2020. This explains how the GCRE has been developed to mitigate environmental constraints which included: visual impact from the adjacent national park; noise and traffic impact on adjacent settlements; topography and ground conditions; and ecological sensitivities as well as water resources and drainage. The site also has features of historic interest including the 1830s Ystradgynlais tramway which is a scheduled monument. Another constraint is the 130kV and 400kV overhead transmission lines over the site.
Although the Nant Helen hilltop has the large area needed for its test tracks, it is not flat. Hence, its tracks will require cuttings up to 25 metres deep and embankments up to 35 metres high which will require three million cubic metres of earth movements. These earthworks were designed to maintain an acceptable cut and fill balance. The Nant Helen test track will be between 245 and 270 metres AOD. Rail access to the test tracks from the Onllwyn servicing area is up a rail line with a 1 in 37 gradient.
The environmental statement explains how, in September 2018, the design was developed by considering seven base loop options that varied in speeds between 80 and 125mph. The final design has a 6.9km vehicle testing loop and a 4km infrastructure testing loop. These loops will have 25kV overhead line electrification and a 3-metre-wide access track. They will be single track with twin track OLE cantilevers and a 17.5-metre-wide formation to give passive provision for double track.
The Nant Helen part of the site will have the test loops with full 5G and GSM-R coverage. Their OLE will be fed from a static frequency converter powered by a 12MW on-site solar farm and a direct connection to a 20MW wind farm. The intention is for GCRE to become Britain’s first net-zero carbon railway.
The 6.9km vehicle testing loop will be constructed to Network Rail’s Cat 1A 200 km/h TSI standard. Potentially, part of it could be built to HS2 standard. It will have 530 and 800 metre radius curves with two straights of 1,100 and 1,430 metres. Although built to 200 km/h standards, its configuration will only allow 177 km/h running. However, expert advice is being sought on whether 200 km/h might be possible. Signalling will be ETCS Level 2 with no conventional signals. However, the site could potentially also be used for Level 3 testing.
The 4km infrastructure testing loop will be constructed to typical Network Rail 120km/h standards to various track designs using recycled equipment where possible. The maximum speed on this loop would be 65km/h. It will have 220, 260, and 425 metre curves of about the same length and an 803 metre straight. The OLE on the infrastructure loop will be UK Masterseries and the vehicle loop will be Series 1. There will be a defined section to test new systems such as alternative droppers or novel piling techniques.
Signalling will be conventional signalling with track circuits and axle counters, with four-aspect signalling in one direction and two-aspect in another. A replaceable bridge deck will enable testing of structures and a section of track will be used to test switches and crossings. There will be passive provision for third and fourth rail operation.
Automatic train operation
Planning permission has been received for 24-hour-a-day operation. For infrastructure testing, the plan is to use Automatic Train Operation (ATO) to run trains 16 hours per day, five days a week, in a ten-week cycle with a two-week downtime to set up and remove experiments. In this way, every three months the loop will be loaded with 5 million gross tonnes, giving 20 million gross tonnes annually, with over 60,000 axle passes.
For train testing it will be possible to combine the loops to run in a ‘figure of eight’ to test the transitions between different systems and incorporate defects for train and infrastructure certification. There will also be a representative station platform and a few virtual stopping points.
At the Onllwyn, the coal washery site and existing sidings at the end of the Dulais valley rail line will become a multi-purpose GCRE hub with a wide range of facilities. Its sidings will hold up to 280 vehicles in warm storage and 120 vehicles in cold storage (i.e., with and without an electrical shore supply). There will be four sidings where rolling stock can await its turn on the testing loops, further storage sidings, and washing and fuelling roads including future provision for hydrogen trains. Although it is anticipated that most rolling stock will come to GCRE by rail, the centre will be able to accept trains delivered by road.
Facilities at Onllwyn will also include a multi-storey control building from where testing activities will be managed, a four-road rolling stock maintenance shed, a multi-storey staff block with overnight stay facilities, conference facilities, and a research and development centre. In an agreement signed at Innotrans, the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) will work with Welsh Universities to set up a Centre of Excellence for Railway Testing and Validation at the GCRE site. BCRRE will thus be able to support industry R&D activities at the test centre.
A range of consultants and contractors including Walters, Atkins, Fifth Studio, Arcadis, Mott MacDonald, and SLC Rail are working in an alliance to design and construct the GCRE facilities. Work started in November with the intention that the storage sidings at Onllwyn will be operational by summer 2023 to provide GCRE with its initial revenue.
Track laying is expected to start in 2024 with GCRE becoming fully operational by mid-2025. It is hoped that GCRE will be used for the testing and commissioning of the new HS2 fleet as its first trains are expected to come off the production line in 2026.
In October, GCRE acquired a fleet of three Class 360/2 EMUs. Built in 2004, these trains previously operated stopping services to Heathrow and became surplus to requirements with the introduction of Elizabeth line services. They will be used to test specific rolling stock systems such as suspension, ETCS, and novel train control. Also, when heavily loaded, unmanned continuous running of these units on the infrastructure test loop, under ATO for 16 hours per day, would provide the required cumulative track loading over a high axle count.
The Welsh Government is to be congratulated for having the vision to develop the much-needed GCRE facility at what might first seem to be an unlikely site. Although it is an expensive development, for the first time it will enable new modern trains to be tested and commissioned within the UK. This will reduce the costs and speed up the introduction of new trains. It will also do the same for new infrastructure components.
Kelly Warburton reinforces these points by noting that “GCRE will act as a technology innovator, accelerating innovation, reducing costs, improving the passenger experience, and addressing challenges of decarbonisation.”
At this challenging economic time, it is to be hoped that funding can be secured for this worthwhile investment.