Councillors have backed the Welsh Government's plans to build a world-leading railway testing facility in south Wales. Members of Neath Port Talbot (NPT) Council have given the government planning permission to develop a £150 million Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE) at the head of the Dulais and Tawe Valleys.
Labour councillor Arwyn Woolcock said: "The fact this investment is coming to Wales is an honour... the fact that confidence is being shown in Neath Port Talbot and Powys to deliver this project is a huge and massive bonus."
The development site consists of 1,000 hectares of land that was formerly the Nant Helen opencast mine and the Onllwyn coal washery. The site sits across two local authority catchments: Neath Port Talbot and Powys, with most of the land lying within Powys' borders.
A total of eight of Neath Port Talbot Council's special planning committee voted unanimously in favour of the plans during a meeting held on Tuesday, July 27. Powys Council is set to consider the plans on Thursday, July 29.
The Welsh Government announced its plans for the rail centre in 2018 and will provide £50 million funding. The UK Government will contribute £30 million to the project. Other funds will be derived from private investors.
The GCRE will feature electrified testing tracks, associated infrastructure and storage, and space for research and development and education facilities. Once it opens, the centre will operate 24 hours daily, testing new railway vehicles, including high-speed trains and hydrogen-powered rolling stock, as well as rail infrastructure such as signalling and points.
The centre would be the first in the world to provide integrated rail and rolling stock testing facilities.
Plaid Cymru Councillor Scott Bamsey said the project is "very exciting" and "excellent for the Dulais Valley and both counties". He said: "I just hope this is a catalyst for improvements for transport across the whole of Wales. Rail has been severely underfunded and underdeveloped for decades in Wales so I hope this will be a springboard for future improvements across the rail sector for years to come."
Welsh Government representative Simon Jones said there is nowhere in the UK with capacity to "test infrastructure and develop new solutions for infrastructure" and the government intends to keep "working closely" with local authorities and communities as the GCRE progresses. Mr Jones said railway passenger numbers have "dramatically reduced" in the UK due to the coronavirus pandemic but "there will be a need" to reduce railway costs in the UK and globally. "Innovation takes time and is really expensive in the railway industry and we think there's a great position here for the GCRE to be able to help the rail industry and its supply chain innovate new ways to be able to drive costs out in order to be able to respond to the post-Covid situation."
The scheme is expected to create 150 jobs, with hundreds more in the supply chain. Independent councillor Steve Hunt asked if local people would be "given the opportunity to retrain" in the industry. "Would these jobs be taken already by those working in the industry from across the UK?"
Planning officer Steve Ball said the scheme is "a significant economic development" and "an opportunity that has to be grasped with both hands". He said not all of the benefits of the project will be "retained locally" but "there will be opportunities... to arise from it".
Plaid Cymru councillor Rosalyn Davies said: "This is an excellent project and I personally am looking forward to it myself because it will put Wales on the map... not only the Dulais Valley."
The council sent over 660 letters to residents in and around Onllwyn and Seven Sisters notifying them about the plans for the rail centre in March. In response, four people objected to the scheme for reasons such as noise, traffic and visual impacts created by the test track. Other representations were made concerning a perceived lack of jobs created by the scheme and environmental issues.
The Welsh Government has set "noise limits" for the project and believe they will "protect the amenity of the area".
A report by NPT Council officers states the scheme will create "high-quality employment in fair, secure and sustainable jobs" and contribute to the UK becoming "a world leader in achieving carbon neutrality" and reducing carbon emissions from the rail industry.
NPT Council approved plans for earthworks on the site in July 2020, which consisted of building two landforms with drainage infrastructure and natural habitats.
The first phase of building the rail centre, expected to be complete by 2023, is a 4.5 kilometre looped track and 6.9 kilometre outer looped track, with associated infrastructure at south-east of the site.