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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

How an old railway tunnel is becoming a top-secret test track

UK firm Totalsim is close to bringing this idea to fruition in Northamptonshire, thanks to Dr Beeching.

A 2.7km stretch of abandoned railway shut in the 1960s has been successfully converted into a test track for supercars and bicycles.

The Catesby Tunnel in Northamptonshire, shut as part of the Beeching cuts to the railway in the 1960s has now been turned into a state of the art testing facility with principal works carried out by Safer Highways member Tarmac.

The perfectly flat roadway will test new vehicles in a completely closed environment, away from eyes of competitors.

The £12 million Catesby Aerodynamic Research Facility (CARF) has been created inside the 1.7 mile long, perfectly straight disused Victorian railway tunnel.

With the capability for 24/7 testing in all weather conditions, Catesby Tunnel is a disused railway tunnel in Northamptonshire on the route of the former Great Central Main Line.

Having been completed in 1897, the tunnel fell into disrepair in 1966 when the line it played host to closed and after lying in a state of disrepair for over 50 years and prone to flooding it took an innovative project in 2017 to breathe life into the structure.

Watch a video detailing the ambition plan for the disused railway tunnel

The Northamptonshire tunnel – which got £4.2 million of investment from the Government’s Local Growth Fund, secured through the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership – will be able to test new vehicles in a completely closed environment, away from the eyes of competitors.

The tunnel is said to be more accurate and efficient than a traditional wind tunnel and will give the UK a unique proposition in automotive and race car development, hopefully attracting global interest.

Ironically, before the proposal was approved the tunnel was examined as a potential part of the upcoming HS2 route, alongside the proposal to build a freight line along the west coast, neither of which came to fruition.

Tarmac's role on the project, included laying a specially designed SMA asphalt surface, with specialist PSV 65, 10mm gritstone aggregate. The company was selected by ARP after previously successfully resurfacing the racetrack at Silverstone – home of the British Grand Prix.

Tarmac managing director (Midlands) Rob Doody said: “The seamless way this project was planned and delivered resulted in a truly world-class finish that is amongst the highest known paving standards in the world today.

Doody explained how the supply of asphalt had to be carefully planned to ensure a continuous supply to the paver, while ventilation enabled safe working conditions to be maintained for the paving teams while working in the tunnel.

To achieve the super-smooth finish to the test track required by ARP, Tarmac used specialist aggregate – with a Polished Stone Value (PSV) of 65 – from the company’s Bayston Hill Quarry in Shropshire, which had also supplied the same stone used at Silverstone, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuits.

A special mix design ensured the asphalt remained malleable while being transferred through the tunnel to the paver to ensure the best possible surface finish."

Previously Minister for Business and Industry Lee Rowley heard how the project – described as a world-class aerodynamic vehicle testing centre – was now in its final stages with contractor Stepnell soon set to put down the last layer of asphalt prior to the first tests going ahead.

Mr Rowley met representatives of Aero Research Partners (ARP), which instigated the project, and Rugby construction firm Stepnell, which was awarded the design and build contract.

Mr Rowley said: “This new testing facility represents another example of fantastic British construction and ingenuity, turning a long-disused Victorian railway tunnel into a 21st century, state-of-the-art car testing facility here in Northamptonshire.

“It’s been terrific to see first-hand the impressive engineering and workmanship that has gone into getting the new testing facility ready.

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