The Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre (VLRNIC) has been declared ‘open for business’ by Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO) CEO Neil Fulton, with several major clients now making use of the £32 million facility.

The VLRNIC, which is located on the site of the former British Rail station at Dudley, is being used to help shape and accelerate the development of lower-cost and more environmentally friendly solutions across the whole of the rail industry. These solutions range from traditional heavy rail right through to emerging Very Light Rail (VLR) tram systems, such as the first-of-a-kind Coventry VLR system which is being developed by Coventry City Council and its partners and is being tested at the centre. 

VLR systems are designed to be much cheaper and easier to install than conventional ‘light rail’ tram systems which are normally only economically viable for large cities. It is hoped that this new, UK-developed, transport system can be used to strengthen public transport connections in rural and suburban locations as well as being an option for smaller cities and large towns that typically cannot afford to install a tram network.

The new centre is part of a wider regeneration plan for the Black Country region. The facility boasts a number of unique features, including a 2.2km test track, a 15-metre radius loop that can be used to assess the handling of tight turns, an 870m curved tunnel and a bespoke overhead electric charging system, commissioned to recharge the Coventry VLR vehicle in under four minutes and which can be used by future VLR systems. The centre’s main building houses a three-storey engineering hall with direct rail access to the track, as well as research laboratories, offices and an events suite.

BCIMO Test Loop - VLRNIC

Construction of the centre was completed in September 2022, thanks to funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership in partnership with the Midlands Engine Investment Fund, the West Midlands Combined Authority, the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Coventry City Council.

‘As we approach the festive season and the end of 2022, I am delighted to say that the Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre already has several major clients on site,’ said Neil Fulton, CEO of the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO) which was appointed to oversee the launch and ongoing operation of the centre.

‘We were only given the keys to the building in October, but there was demand to use the centre from day one and we are now already running at about 33% of the site’s total capacity – which is incredible for a facility that was only completed a couple of months ago.’

Business support

While the rail development and test site is the BCIMO’s current crown jewel, the organisation has a wider remit to support small and medium-sized manufacturing companies in the Black Country and wider West Midlands. BCIMO will use the innovation centre to help local manufacturers to become supplier ready for new and emerging markets, such as VLR, and will also begin to address longer-term skill shortages in the region.

‘The new innovation centre is a national asset for turning an exciting new transport concept into a thriving sector, while the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation is all about making sure that the Black Country is at the heart of that sector’s success,’ said Fulton.

VLRNIC - Centre and Workshop

As part of its mission to help local businesses become supplier ready, BCIMO has already launched a Supply Chains of the Future support programme, offering eligible businesses 12 hours of free business support funded by the ERDF. The programme includes modules on horizon scanning, process improvement, manufacturing-specific marketing and advice on how to diversify into the rail industry.

Moving into the new year, further significant activities will include the launch of the innovation centre’s Events Suite (complete with 130-seat auditorium, large exhibition hall and accompanying breakout spaces) with an Innovation Expo planned for the spring that will help to demystify innovation and dispel some innovation myths. A VLR simulator is due to be added during Q1, with further laboratories being kitted out throughout the year, based on feedback that BCIMO will obtain from a series of sector-specific workshops. The highlight of the year will be the official opening of the VLRNIC.

BCIMO is a not-for-profit Research and Technology Organisation (RTO) and operator of the Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre (VLRNIC), a unique, world-class centre for rail innovation based in Dudley in the West Midlands.

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