The Rio Tinto mining operation in the Pilbara region, in the north of Western Australia is quite remarkable. Taking around 250 million tonnes of ore out of the ground a year from a network of 15 iron ore mines, connected to four port facilities, employing thousands of staff many of whom live in the 3,300 houses that Rio Tinto own across the region. And at heart of operation is a 1,700 kilometre rail network and related infrastructure that is essential for moving the iron ore once mined. The key nature of this transport was underline by a Bloomberg story which stated that the 400-plus drivers earn about 240,000 Australian dollars (USD$224,000 /. EUR198,000) a year - making them almost certainly the highest-paid train drivers in the world. So it’s probably no surprise that in 2013, Rio Tinto announced plans to replace the drivers with an automated system. However an announcement this week has acknowledged that this hugely ambitious project has run into some problems and SmartRail World looks at the details.
Launched in 2008, mining conglomerate Rio Tinto’s ‘Mine of the Future’ programme in Australia has at its core the world’s first fully-autonomous heavy haul, long distance railway system. What they call AutoHaul aims to provide additional capacity to meet increasing production without investing in additional trains for the freight network. The project itself though will cost USD$518m. Throughout 2015, AutoHaul fitted locomotives were trialled on over 75,000km of track to test on-board systems, signalling, safety mechanisms and communications with our Operations Centre in Perth.
A Rio Tinto statement on the Operations Centre running the network points towards its integrated nature; “… all our mines, ports and rail systems will be operated from a single location, greatly increasing opportunities for shared experience and overall system improvement. It incorporates visualisation and collaboration tools to provide real-time information across our demand chain, and will allow us to optimise our mining, maintenance and logistic activities across the Pilbara in a way never before possible.”
However, the opening production report for 2016 from Rio Tinto published last week, included the news that is has cut its forecast for production next year from its Australian mines by as much as 6 percent with experts seeing the dip partly down to the delay in the train automation project. The official report stating that "some delays are being experienced."
2016 was the original date for completion but 2018 is now looking the earliest possible date. In the meantime, testing is going to continue on regulatory approvals, completion of full system functionality, improvement of system performance and reliability and gradual integration into operations.
Writing this month in Australia’s Financial Review, Matthew Stevens puts a focus on the rail plans; “To appreciate the complexity of this task you have to understand what these trains actually are. Rio currently runs 53 freight consists – the technical term for a long chain of cars. Each one is made up of three 4400 horsepower GE locomotives that haul 236 wagons. Each consist stretches 2.25 kilometres and, fully laden, they weigh 32,300 tonnes, which explains why it takes a full 30 minutes to bring their progress to a halt.”
Editor’s Comment: Such an ambitious project, was always likely to encounter some serious challenges. An automated driverless sysrtem has typically been deployed in metro environments such as Dubai and Copenhagen running on short stretches. The vast hot, dusty swathes of the Australian outback is nothing like that. And automated trains on metro networks exist in a sealed environment, those being developed by Rio-Tinto come into contact with road crossings, towns and other (non-automated) trains. This would be a major milestone for the rail industry and is being developed in some of the most challenging conditions. It may be delayed currently but with the investment so far, and the deep pockets of Rio-Tinto, I would expect this system to be operational by 2019.
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