Autonomous train completes first iron ore delivery in Western Australia

A stock picture of Rio Tinto's operations in Western Australia. Photo: Rio Tinto.
A stock picture of Rio Tinto's operations in Western Australia. Photo: Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto has successfully delivered 28,000 tonnes of iron ore by an autonomous train in Pilbara, Western Australia.

The shipment marks the first delivery of iron ore by a driverless train. It is the latest milestone in the multinational mining corporation’s A$940 million, six-year AutoHaul project to establish the world’s first heavy haul, long-distance autonomous rail operation.

Travelling the 280km distance between Rio Tinto’s mining operations in the town of Tom Price and the port of Cape Lambert on 10 July, the train, which consisted of three locomotives, was remotely monitored from Rio Tinto’s operations centre in Perth more than 1,500km away.

Ivan Vella, Rio Tinto managing director for port, rail and core services in iron ore, said: “The safe first delivery of iron ore by an autonomous train is a key milestone for AutoHaul.

“This programme symbolises both the pioneering spirit and innovative talents of many people across Rio Tinto and shows our absolute commitment to improving safety and productivity, as well as enabling greater flexibility across our operations.”

Locomotives carrying AutoHaul software are fitted with on-board cameras allowing them to be monitored remotely.

Reports are automatically generated from onboard driver modules that relay the locomotives’ exact position, speed and direction of travel to a central control centre.

The system uses a solution from Ansaldo STS, which is based on ATO over ETCS Level 2 (GoA4).

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All level-crossings on the network have been upgraded and fitted with CCTV cameras. Rio Tinto said it is working with its train drivers during this transition period to prepare them for “new ways of working”.

Ansaldo STS president for freight Michele Fracchiolla described the milestone as a “major turning point for heavy freight rail operators globally”.

He added: “One only need to refer to the degree of change that the introduction of driverless metro has had on mass transit operations in the passenger sector to gain insight into the potential impact that autonomous freight rail management solutions may have in the heavy freight and resources sector.”

In total, Rio Tinto operates around 200 locomotives on more than 1,700km of track in Pilbara, transporting ore from 16 mines to four port terminals.

The average return distance of these trains is around 800km with the average journey cycle – including loading and dumping – taking around 40 hours, according to Rio Tinto.

The latest milestone follows regulatory approval for the system back in May.

Rio Tinto estimates that the system will be completed by the end of 2018, unlocking “significant safety and productivity gains”.

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