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“Mind blowing” Rio Tinto autonomous train tech earns official safety approval.

Posted on May 23, 2018

Rio Tinto's sutonomous train - SmartRail World“In essence these are the world’s largest and longest robots.”

Just seven months after the world’s first autonomous, driver-free and unsupervised train journey was completed in Australia, the country’s ruling safety board has fully approved the technology which underpins the entire system, AutoHaul. The approval from the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) now enables the mining company Rio Tinto to use its unmanned freight trains to operate on a line in Western Australia for the company’s iron ore business, after it proved its competency and capacity to manage the risks to rail safety using the autonomous technology.

Speaking in Sydney shortly before the approval of AutoHaul, Stephen McIntosh, a Rio Tinto group executive, admitted that even he found the concept “pretty mind blowing”. “Each autonomous train comprises two or three locomotives and some 240 ore cars making them each 2.4km long,” said McIntosh. “In essence these are the world’s largest and longest robots. We have about 65 per cent of all trains operating in this mode and the percentage is increasing by the day.”

McIntosh also spoke about the technology’s ability to drive improvements for @RioTinto, bringing efficiency upgrades and also relaying vital information back to the control centre that can be used to inform future operations. Using these capabilities, AutoHaul has shown in trials that the autonomous trains delivered the product to the port nearly 20% faster than a manned train.


It was in October last year that Rio Tinto first showed the capability of its autonomous technology, when it completed a 62-mile trial trip ahead of its planned full roll out by the end of this year – a target it’s on course to achieve. A spokesperson from the ONRSR (
@ONRSRAustralia) told SmartRail World that under rail safety national law, the board wasn’t permitted to discuss the accreditation’s specifics but was clear that it will be closely and regularly monitoring the safety management system to address “any and all rail safety risks as far as is reasonably practicable”.

SMW Download - Understanding the Key Threats and Trends in Transport Safety and Security According to Rio Tinto’s website, once commissioned the network will be the world’s first heavy haul, long distance autonomous rail operation, unlocking significant safety and productivity benefits for the business. The mining company operates approximately 200 locomotives on more than 1,000 miles of track, transporting ore from 16 mines to four port terminals.

In related autonomous rail news, the prospect of such a train was not greeted with enthusiasm in Arizona in the US, where the Federal Railroad Administration asked those living and working in the area how they would feel about unmanned automated trains running on the network. As reported on the Daily Sun website, a representative from a rail transport union, thought it was a bad idea. “Right now, we have two sets of eyes on each train. Humans can react to different situations, I don’t think they will ever be able to program a computer for every different situation,” he said. “Anyone who’s worked with computers knows there are glitches.”


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Dave Songer
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