Rio Tinto spends $371m on unmanned trains

Rio Tinto is spending $371 million on automating its iron ore railway over 1,300km worth of track in WA's Pilbara, in a move that will herald the advent of driverless trains.

Rio Tinto is spending $371 million on automating its iron ore railway over 1,300km worth of track in WA's Pilbara, in a move that will herald the advent of driverless trains.

An automated train on its way to Dampier Port

(Credit: Rio Tinto)

While train automation may not be new, Rio Tinto says it's using the technology on a whole new scale.

Rio Tinto's rail trips across the Pilbara take around 33 hours and need train drivers to be switched over every few hours, meaning the company was facing a logistics problem that prompted it to turn to driverless trains.

The mining giant plans to double its annual iron ore production to 320 million tonnes by 2012, leaving the company with a "colossal requirement of rail haulage to meet that schedule", a spokesperson for the company told ZDNet.com.au. "There aren't really enough train drivers to fuel our expansion in coming years."

The automated system won't put Rio Tinto's remaining human train drivers out of a job but they may face a role change, according to the company, with work such as driving trains around rail yards.

Trials of the automated system have already been run between Paraburdoo to Tom Price with unloaded and loaded iron ore trains, while rail safety officers watched on.

With no problems cropping up in the trial, the company decided to press ahead with a full scale roll-out, and unmanned trains are now expected to come online from 2011 or 2012.

In preparation for the roll-out, the company is currently working on beefing up safety systems on the line, such as implementing video and laser object detectors to know when a vehicle is across the tracks at level crossings.

During their journeys, the driverless trains will be monitored via radio — there are radio repeater stations along the tracks — from a control centre, currently located at Seven Mile near Dampier, later moving to a remote operations centre at Perth. Centre staff will keep an eye on the varying speed requirements of the trains across the network as well as watch for problems that arise, including overheated bearings or stressed couplings, with information on where the train is, whether it is loaded, how fast it is going or how stressed its bearings or couplings are provided by sensors in the train, on rails and at crossings.

"There's a fair bit of hands-on work required. It's not set and forget," the spokesperson said.

Components of the system were bought in, but the application behind it was an in-house effort, according to the spokesperson.

To see more photos of the driverless trains, click here.

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