The role of the Global Centre of Rail Excellence in Europe

By Simon Fletcher, GCRE Brand Ambassador, Europe

Regardless of the different political or economic paths the UK and countries in the EU may take in the coming years, one ambition common to both will be the need to develop a stronger, more integrated, more reliable and greener railway network as part of the wider mobility agenda.

The vast majority of governments and countries across Europe have now committed to net zero by 2050. At the same time those same nations want to achieve stronger economic growth. The railways are central to achieving both of those goals and there is a powerful argument to be made that enhanced collaboration between the UK and the EU on innovation in railways would help realise the ambitions of all nations across the continent.

Perhaps the most obvious common aims are decarbonisation, system productivity and cost reduction. These presuppose the need to innovate and to improve for the good of the users of the railways and the communities through which they pass.

For the EU Member States, core programmes, such as the package of projects proposed by ERJU, are important drivers for delivering sector-wide innovation and cutting-edge processes for system integration. The direction of travel is towards technological advancement and efficient accreditation in order to drive down cost and enhance the effectiveness of the European railway network.

For the UK, the Plan For Rail (also known as the Williams-Shapps Report) published in 2021 set out a number of important aspirations for the railway sector. Faster innovation; cleaner, greener traction; bold new opportunities for rail freight and significant changes to ticketing and fares are all key objectives.

The Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE) being developed in South Wales is one of the places at which joint working could take place on those shared objectives – a world class facility for railway research, testing and innovation of rolling stock, infrastructure and cutting-edge new technologies.

When it opens, GCRE will provide a facility that will fill a major strategic gap in the current railway innovation landscape across Europe.

GCRE is one of the most creative, ambitious and strategically important propositions that the railways of Europe have seen for a long time. Whilst there are well-established test and accreditation facilities in Europe, having a purpose-built, off-the-mainline, fully integrated facility at which the railway community can undertake world class research, testing and certification, with a focus on infrastructure, is innovation in itself.  

GCRE will seek to redress the widely acknowledged slow pace of railway innovation both in the UK and across Europe. Providing a unique ‘one stop shop’, it will help the currently fragmented physical landscape of railway Research and Development (R&D) to refocus. The ability to overcome technology and integration challenges through earlier demonstration, testing and analysis in one place will bring new products to market faster, in particular supporting the development of technologies at higher Technical Readiness Levels, a major challenge faced by the sector across the continent.

Simon Fletcher (left) talking with Europe’s Rail Executive Director Giorgio Travaini at the recent Satellite4Rail conference

At a glance, GCRE will:

  • Offer European and UK train manufacturers, service providers, infrastructure managers and the diverse rail ecosystem across the continent a world class, purpose built, innovation facility to effectively test, research and certify new products, innovations and technologies
  • Support the drive towards decarbonisation of the railways through faster and more reliable innovation, in turn helping the sector meet its decarbonisation targets. GCRE itself will be a Net Zero in operation facility
  • Allow new and updated technologies to be more effectively tested earlier in their life cycle, leading to accelerated commissioning and more confident and effective operational deployment
  • Act as an R&D magnet and incubator for the creation of new rail tech start-ups and businesses
  • Provide a high-quality facility in which government, research funds and the private sector can confidently build new R&D capability and expertise
  • Work with national and regional authorities to support delivery of high quality, multi-modal, integrated, low carbon, affordable and reliable transport networks needed to support economic growth

If you are involved in the railway sector, you will have the opportunity to benefit. From large suppliers to major operators though to smaller parts of the supply chain, all will be welcome to access the capability GCRE will offer.

As an example of the kind of interest shown to date, more than 150 companies from across the continent have come together to sign an open letter endorsing the GCRE vision. Just this week Trafikverket, the Swedish Transport Administration, became the latest high-profile body to indicate its support for the Global Centre of Rail Excellence development and express its intent to discuss joint activities.

What the UK and European rail sector see is value in an enhanced focus on whole life testing and assessment. Running a heavy train 16 hours a day around the infrastructure loop will provide network operators with critical information about product degradation and failure some years before those issues will surface on the operational railway.

The ability to inform asset management plans through evidenced data will provide confidence that the expected asset life estimates are correct or allow the infrastructure manager to test remedial measures and to adjust the plans in advance of problems arising.

Of particular interest is the fact that the UK has now re-joined the Horizon Europe programme. This will be one of the important drivers for collaboration unlocking critical research and development funding to focus on high quality railway innovation.

When it opens, GCRE will provide a facility that will fill a major strategic gap in the current railway innovation landscape across Europe. It will be a facility accessible to everyone and it would make sense for governments in both the UK and Europe to take advantage of the opportunities that provides.

We would very much like to discuss partnerships with you. Please contact us via our website or at or reach out directly to if you’d like to know more about this exciting project.

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