THIS month civil engineering contractor Walters Group is due to begin major earthworks on a 700ha site northeast of Swansea formerly occupied by Nant Helen, one of the last opencast coal mines in Wales, and its associated processing plant at nearby Onllwyn. In place of fossil fuel extraction will be Britain’s first net-zero railway powered entirely from renewable resources, a testing and innovation centre that is being built by Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE).

Completing the earthworks on the former opencast site will be a significant undertaking that GCRE chief executive, Mr Simon Jones, expects will take up to 18 months to complete. Meanwhile, outline design of the railway component of the project, including two test tracks, has been completed by Arcadis and in spring this year GCRE aims to tender a design and build contract for this work. Construction is expected to take between nine and 12 months to complete, as GCRE hopes to have its new testing facility operational in mid-2025.

“We are keeping to the schedule,” Jones says. “It is a very aggressive programme we have set for ourselves as we don’t have any revenue funding and we need income.” This income will be provided by opening the first facilities for rolling stock storage this summer, and GCRE eventually plans to have sufficient siding capacity for the warm storage of up to 800 rail vehicles of around 20m in length. For rolling stock movements to the site, the branch to Onllwyn from Neath on the main line between Swansea and Cardiff is still in place, having been used to remove the last coal from the site in summer 2022.

But GCRE’s main purpose will be to test rolling stock and - with the exception of Transportation Technology Center (TTC) in Pueblo, Colorado, owned by the US Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) - to provide what Jones says will be the only test track in the world capable of putting railway infrastructure components and systems through their paces. This will be conducted on the smaller of GCRE’s two test tracks, a 4km loop designed for operation at up to 65km/h, where sleepers and other track components can be subjected to loads of 5 million tonnes over a 10-week testing period, four times a year. “There is nowhere that offers that service outside the US,” Jones says.

Rolling stock testing

Rolling stock testing will be concentrated on the outer loop at GCRE, 6.9km in length and designed for a maximum speed of 177km/h, although Jones reports that work is underway to determine if operating at up to 200km/h for short periods of up to 10 seconds would be possible. On a secure site away from the operating railway and passenger traffic, GCRE will provide a testing facility unlike any other in Britain, having secured planning consent to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and offering an uninterrupted circuit similar to those at the Siemens facility in Wildenrath, Germany, or the VUZ test centre at Velim in the Czech Republic.

Access to this loop will be offered to clients in eight-hour blocks, with 21 available per week. To support rolling stock testing, there will be an on-site depot and commissioning sheds, which could be expanded to provide long-term maintenance facilities, Jones says. To accommodate client staff working at the GCRE site, a 100-bed hotel is planned as part of the development.

Both test loops will be electrified at the British network standard of 25kV 50Hz ac, but other electrification systems used elsewhere might be installed if there is sufficient demand.

“It is a very aggressive programme we have set for ourselves as we don’t have any revenue funding and we need income.”

Simon Jones, Global Centre of Rail Excellence chief executive

Design of the earthworks for both loops has made passive provision for the addition of a second track. “We could put a second parallel track down with a third and fourth rail if the client is there, but not from day one,” Jones says. Both loops will be fitted with ETCS Level 2, and the inner loop will also be equipped with conventional lineside signalling to the standards of British infrastructure manager Network Rail (NR), including axle-counters and the Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS).

Connections between the two loops would enable rolling stock to be tested as it transitions between ETCS and conventional signalling. Jones notes the difficulties that the Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail) in London has experienced at the interfaces between CBTC on its central core and NR legacy signalling, and points to similar issues that will face the High Speed 2 project when high-speed trains leave or join the conventional network. GCRE could help overcome this “potential headache” for systems integrators and scheme sponsors.

It is expected that equipping the test tracks will form part of the GCRE railway works contract, but Jones suggests that manufacturers might use the opportunity presented by the new test centre to showcase their products, undertaking a reference installation that they would be able to demonstrate in action to potential clients. This could apply to almost any aspect of rail infrastructure, from low-carbon construction techniques to new sleepers and modular footbridges. “We are building a whole railway and if someone has a product they want to put in, we are offering them the opportunity to do so,” Jones says.

Aiming to establish itself as a rail innovation centre as well as a testing facility, GCRE also has future traction technology clearly in mind and will provide facilities for charging traction batteries and refuelling hydrogen-powered trains as well as diesel refuelling facilities. There might also be the opportunity to produce green hydrogen on the site. “It would be a bit strange if people didn’t want to test hydrogen at our site,” Jones says, given the potential of this fuel to replace diesel in Britain where only 38.1% of the national network was electrified as of March 31 2022. “It would be very curious if we didn’t offer that.”

Beyond rolling stock and infrastructure testing, the GCRE project includes a technology park that Jones hopes will become an innovation centre for Britain’s rail industry, similar to the clusters that have grown around research facilities for other domestic industries such as automotive and telecommunications.

In the academic sector, GCRE has signed an agreement to partner with the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) on research, development and innovation. Birmingham is the lead university of the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN), and subject to a successful grant application, it is hoped that 50 to 60 full-time research staff will be based at GCRE, drawn from universities including Cardiff and Swansea in Wales.

“Our clients will benefit from some of Britain’s leading research minds,” Jones says. “Having a substantial UKRRIN testing and validation team permanently based at GCRE immediately boosts our credentials and is a powerful indicator of how we want GCRE to develop for the benefit of Britain’s rail industry.”

Alliances are also being forged with other partners from the global rail industry. GCRE has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to cooperate with MxV Rail, which will operate the American Association of Railroads’ (AAR) new test facility in Pueblo, and with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) of Singapore (p38), which is building its own Integrated Train Testing Centre (ITTC). Jones hopes that GCRE will benefit from the experience of its partners, both the well-established MxV Rail and LTA, which is making good progress with ITTC. He says that MxV Rail has been “fantastically helpful” and that GCRE can learn a great amount from the company, particularly on engineering consultancy in the testing field and “how we might offer that service to our clients.”

Strategic investor

The total investment cost of the GCRE project is £400m, including initial property development and £250m to build the new test tracks. GCRE is at present wholly owned by the Welsh government which has made a capital commitment of £50m, alongside £20m from the British government and £7.4m provided through national research and development agency Innovate UK. To raise the remaining funding it needs, GCRE is now seeking a strategic investor that would take a majority and controlling shareholding in the company.

“Our plan has always been to work with private-sector partners to seek their investment and their knowledge and skills in key areas such as rail and energy,” Jones says. On December 7 2022 GCRE held an event in London for potential private investors, and Jones says he was “very encouraged” by the interest shown, with 60 people in attendance and “huge amounts of support” from a cross-section of the industry. Video messages were sent by speakers including Britain’s rail minister, Mr Huw Merriman, and NR chair, Lord Peter Hendy.

As well as those with an interest in the rail element of the project, including operators, manufacturers and leasing companies, Jones reports that GCRE has attracted the attention of potential investors in the production and storage of renewable energy. “We want this to be Britain’s first net-zero railway,” he says, pointing out that GCRE aims to meet all its electricity needs from locally-produced wind and solar

GCRE aims to complete the process of finding its new funding partner by the early autumn of this year. The exact amount of investment provided and whether it will be debt or equity will be a matter for negotiation with the partner “and how the investor wants it to sit on their books,” Jones says. “The industry clearly sees there is a need for this,” he says. “We are confident that we will get that investment.”