In a piece this week, Global Centre of Rail Excellence Chief Executive, Simon Jones, teases out some of the wider implications of the recent £15m won by university partners through the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund to establish a new Centre for Railway Testing, Validation and Customer Experience at the GCRE site

So goes the saying: “Don’t pray for lighter burdens, but for stronger backs”. 

Every infrastructure project I have worked on feels like a quest for a stronger back!

Endless meetings, workshops and discussions seem to dominate your working week. It can feel never ending at times as one complex issue piles upon another – all of them needing attention, resource and time to think through and resolve. 

That’s why it’s important to mark significant milestones along the way. They signal back to your own team that the collective effort is worth it as well as remind a wider audience outside that tangible progress is being made in delivering the vision you’ve set out. 

I’ve been reflecting on this recently as I look at the changing shape of the ground on site and see just how much the landscape is changing. In different parts of the 700 hectare site giant mounds of mud and stone are eaten up every day by the colossal plant and machinery and flattened to make the trace needed for the rolling stock and infrastructure testing tracks that will eventually become the beating heart of the new GCRE facility.  

And it made me think of another milestone moment that came earlier this month.  

One perhaps less physically dramatic than great chunks of earth being moved, but one much more significant – the announcement that the University of Birmingham, alongside Cardiff and Swansea Universities, have been awarded £15m through the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (or UKRPIF) to establish a new Centre of Excellence for Railway Testing, Validation and Customer Experience at the GCRE site. 

That milestone was an important one to mark for a number of reasons. 

First, for the GCRE team it represents the culmination of a huge amount of work.

In establishing the Global Centre of Rail Excellence as a site for world class research testing and certification of rolling stock, infrastructure and innovative new rail technologies, it was always going to be critical to secure the high quality academic partners that we could work with on site in order to make the facility internationally significant.  

The UKRRIN network, led by the University of Birmingham in association with other leading UK universities, and now joined by Swansea and Cardiff, certainly provide those quality partners. They also give reassurance to commercial clients in the industry that GCRE really is on the road to becoming Europe’s premier site for proving rail innovation, as well as signal to private investors the industry momentum behind the GCRE idea. 

Second, for the rail industry the announcement represents another critical step towards developing what it so desperately needs – a single, integrated and purpose built site at which world class rail research and development proving can take place.  

Based here in the UK, GCRE can offer the industry the chance to speed up innovation and bring new products to market faster; support the research and testing of the creative new technologies needed for rail decarbonisation; help lower the costs of rail and be a facility at which more cost-effective rail infrastructure can be developed. As a critical piece of infrastructure the sector needs, GCRE will play an important role in helping build the rail network of tomorrow. 

But, third, for Wales and the UK the funding package that has been announced this month has wider resonance.  

‘The idea of creating ‘magnets’ of new economic growth in areas that really need it is a viable and achievable idea.’

One of the driving reasons behind the Global Centre of Rail Excellence was the work it could do to help regenerate an important part of the South Wales coalfield by bringing high quality new jobs and skills to the area.  

As has been the experience for many communities at the heads of the valleys, the last forty years have been very tough indeed for the small towns and villages around the GCRE site. Deindustrialisation and the loss of major mining employment has hit the area hard, with the geography and the topography of this part of the coalfield making it challenging to easily encourage replacement industrial activity. Structural challenges of deprivation and economic inactivity continue to significantly impact communities, health outcomes and life chances. 

It was one of the major reasons why the Welsh Government invested £50m to kick start the GCRE development in the first place and why the UK Government has also invested nearly £30m – to help GCRE become a magnet for new economic growth.  

The UK Research & Innovation funding package has continued to vindicate those important public interventions by the two governments. In part this is because of the type of investment the UKRPIF funding represents. The funding bodies that allocated it were under no pressure to do so – this was competitively won research and development funding. 

That’s significant because in a part of the UK that has struggled to attract its per-head population share of competitive R&D funding, to win this scale of funding award – with the prospect of match industry funding on top – is potentially an important moment in a wider economic development context. It highlights that a targeted effort to develop new research and innovation capabilities in areas outside of traditional strength, such as the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge, is very possible.

The idea of creating ‘magnets’ of new economic growth in areas that really need it is a viable and achievable idea. 

Of course, there is much more to do.  

The announcement of funding for the new Centre of Excellence for Railway Testing, Validation and Customer Experience is welcome, but there will be many more meetings, workshops and collective banging of heads on tables before we can proclaim GCRE a success. 

But it is perhaps the beginning of something.  

Proof that with collective effort, hard work and careful planning rail can play an important part in the national effort to make our economy fairer.  

Now that’s a milestone to mark. 

Worth the back pain. 

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