Tracks to the Future

This week’s GCRE blog is authored by Simon Jones – Chief Executive at the Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE)

It was a big moment for the Global Centre of Rail Excellence team on site this week. On a small corner of the Washery site in Onllwyn we laid our first piece of rail track!

Now, before anybody gets too excited and thinks about coming along with their digital camera, this wasn’t a section of the two testing loops we will have at the facility when we open in 2025. Neither was it a piece of the connecting infrastructure from the Neath branch line.

The new track we laid was the start of a small section of straight line we are building, just near the entrance to GCRE, where we hope to locate a refurbished train carriage that we will use as part of the visitor experience for those coming to site.

But the image got me thinking – it’s funny what a few bits of rusty steel and ancient wooden sleeper laid down on the ground can represent.

On the surface those new segments of track are just materials – tiny fragments of the vast, complex infrastructure we’ve got to install right across the 700 hectare site over the next two years. A site that, when finished, will become a facility for cutting edge European rail innovation – a home to emerging technologies and products in some ways, much more impressive than the ones we laid this week.

But on the other hand – particularly when I first saw the small section of new track we’d laid – I had a more emotional response. To me these tracks represented something much bigger and more profound. They symbolised what we’ve been trying to achieve with GCRE over these last six years. In partnership with the Welsh and UK Government, who have provided significant funding, technical and moral support, we’ve been trying to develop what will be a significant piece of new infrastructure for the UK and European rail network.

And then it dawned on me – quite suddenly the development of our facility had entered a new phase.

At a site I’d visited now dozens of times, while there was always earth, coal and broken up concrete all around me, this was the first, tangible sign of new infrastructure. The tracks themselves felt like a neat metaphor.

For those working inside GCRE it was a moment to savour. I quickly emailed the picture around our small team when I got back to the office and you could sense from their reaction the feeling of pride. We had – in a small way – hit a new milestone.

Pride because for everyone that has come to work as part of the GCRE team, building this facility has become more than just a job. If you talk to any one of those working of the inside of the project, they have their own story of what GCRE means to them, and often its rooted in the impact our new facility will have beyond the services we’ll provide on the old Washery.

For those on the technical and rail engineering side, a site akin to GCRE is something many in the industry have been designing in their heads, or on scraps of paper for many years. Our facility will be the culmination of years of working, thinking and planning to construct a dedicated rail innovation facility that the UK and Europe has lacked. We’ve now got the chance to build a centre that makes possible all those hopes and dreams of radically improving the innovation journey in rail – with huge benefits for the way we do major projects and rail transport in this country and beyond.

For others in the team, the facility has a unique social justice component. At the top of the Swansea and Dulais valley in south Wales, an area with a rich industrial history, GCRE represents the coming not only of high quality jobs and skills to the area, but the chance for renewal, regeneration and new opportunities for this and future generations. To an area impacted severely by more than four decades of deindustrialisation, economic hard times and the loss of significant social infrastructure locally, GCRE will have a sustainable, lasting and positive impact on the area, its communities and its economy.

And what unites everyone at GCRE is the passion. Its no coincidence we refer to it as ‘our’ project. We feel ownership of it. Passionate about it. Pride in bringing this exciting vision to reality, with the fantastic help of both the Welsh and UK Government, two very supportive host local authorities in Neath and Powys and countless other supportive voices, friends and colleagues in the industry.

And I suppose that’s what I reacted to when I saw the first tracks last Thursday. Yes, there is a long way to go. Yes, there will be many more endless meetings; many more times I’ll want to bang my head on the table in sheer frustration.

But for this moment I felt a sense of pride.

Something industry, the local community and increasingly private investors are all getting excited about – Europe’s first, purpose built, integrated site for world class research, testing and certification of rolling stock, infrastructure and innovative new rail technologies is finally getting built – and here was one of the first pieces.

30 feet of track down, only another 30km to go!

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