Rio Tinto reboots robot trains for US$518m

Rio Tinto has once again put autonomous trains on its agenda, saying that it will spend US$518 million on these driverless trains.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

Rio Tinto has once again put autonomous trains on its agenda, saying that it will spend US$518 million on these driverless trains.

Mining train

(Credit: Rio Tinto)

The first of these driverless trains will be launched in 2014 with the "AutoHaul" automated train program. The program itself will be completed in 2015.

Having driverless trains will allow the company to increase Pilbara production capacity without needing to buy more trains. It will also provide productivity improvements, according to the company, because it won't need to schedule driver-changeover times, and the automated trains will use fuel more efficiently.

This is the second time that the company has embarked upon the path of autonomous trains; it announced in 2009 that it intended to spend $371 million on driverless trains.

The trains were supposed to come online either last year or this year; however, the project was put on hold in 2009, when the financial crisis hit.

The company said at the time that the "easing of market growth" had "reduced the urgency" of the project. It also said that the project would resume when there was a pick-up in market demand.

In 2009, only a "lesser proportion" of the original budget had been spent.

Now it seems that Rio Tinto has decided that the project is viable. Last month, it released a report, which said that the costs of mining automation are outweighed by its benefits.

Today's announcement — along with Rio Tinto's decision to source 150 automated trucks from Komatsu for the Pilbara operations, which was announced in November last year — ensures Rio Tinto's lead place in the large-scale use of automation.

"Expanding Pilbara iron ore production is a high-return and low-risk investment for Rio Tinto that will enhance shareholder value. Automation will help us meet our expansion targets in a safe, more efficient and cost-effective way.

"Automation also helps us address the significant skills shortage facing the industry, providing a valuable opportunity to improve productivity."

He said, however, that he expects to see an overall increase in job numbers.

The AutoHaul train program is subject to state government and other approvals, according to the company.

The automated trucks and trains are part of Rio Tinto's 2008 "Mine of the Future" program. Aside from the trucks and the trains, the company has also been trialling a remote ship loader, and has opened a remote mining-operations centre as part of the project.

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