Advanced Materials & Manufacturing
Rail vehicle manufacturer CAF considered more than 100 locations before picking Newport for its flagship UK assembly plant. The facility is already designing a new generation of trains for the Welsh network, in an order worth more than £400million.
Before too long, when you board a train at Bangor, Aberystwyth or Cardiff Central, you may notice a few improvements in your journey. Over the coming years, the old Sprinter and Pacer trains are to be replaced by new rolling stock with generous legroom, air conditioning, real-time information screens, USB charging sockets and Wi-Fi. Seats will even be aligned with the windows so passengers can best enjoy the magnificent Welsh scenery.
Over the next few years, scores of these trains will enter service across the Wales and Borders rail franchise operated by Transport for Wales. What’s particularly gratifying is that more than 70 of them will be built in Wales, at the new CAF assembly plant at Celtic Business Park in Newport. CAF will initially be supplying 44 two-car and 26 three-car diesel multiple units, then a further seven two-car units by September 2024. The final tally will be 180 vehicles, at a cost of more than £400 million.
It’s a coup for Newport, and for Wales as a whole. Since the 1990s, Spanish-owned CAF has won many major orders in the UK, from clients including Heathrow Express, Northern Ireland Railways and the tram networks of Birmingham and Edinburgh. In 2016 the company resolved to set up a major assembly plant in the country. After a UK-wide search that considered more than 100 potential sites, Newport emerged as the clear winner.
A multi-million pound funding package from the Welsh Government’s inward investment programme was one factor in Newport’s favour. However, with every UK region offering similar incentives, it was the other advantages of the South Wales location that tipped the balance, according to CAF Rolling Stock UK’s chief programme director, Graham Taylor.
“Funding was important, but not critical,” says Taylor. “My advice to anyone looking to relocate is that if it’s not the right location, no amount of funding can make it right. What’s important is infrastructure, transport links, access to local labour, a positive attitude from government – things that will be key parts of your presence in the area well after any funding has ended.”
On this score, Newport and Wales provided everything CAF needed. “We were very pleased about the availability of suitable skilled labour,” he says. “Recruitment has gone even better than we expected, and that’s important. Now that we’re established, we’ll continue to grow and need additional staff – and the South Wales economy has engineering in its DNA.”
When recruitment is complete, CAF’s work - force at Newport will number more than 300. The company took delivery of the £30 million, 46,000sq metre plant in 2018, and production started shortly afterwards.
Good transport links were vital, including easy access to the UK’s national rail network. “Being able to deliver our product directly from the site was one of our key criteria, and the Welsh Government’s commitment to developing a new station at nearby Llanwern will give us even better access. And the removal of tolls on the Severn Bridge means people living in Bristol are more open to us as potential employees.”
CAF’s whole experience has been that Wales is investment-ready. Taylor says: “The Welsh Government have demonstrated very strongly that they have an environment that’s open, and they’ve continued to engage with us long after the champagne bubbles have died away. Now that we’re through the development phase and into operations they’re still very keen to work with us.”
The company is already looking to fill its order book beyond the Transport for Wales contract. Taylor says: “Newport is a rail vehicle assembly factory, currently set up to do standard UK gauge, so we could potentially build anything from trams or the likes of Docklands Light Railway trains, right the way up to high-speed trains for HS2.”
The 300-plus jobs at Newport could be just a small slice of the total benefit to the Welsh economy. “We’re essentially becoming a hub, and I’ve been working closely with government on how we can attract tier-one suppliers,” he says. “Gathering a supply chain around us that will provide more value into the local economy will be great for everybody – and the politicians and civil servants have been working hard to make it happen.”