Rio Tinto seeks safety gains with $1.2bn Pilbara AutoHaul project

Rio Tinto’s fully autonomous train, coined by the mining giant as “the world’s largest and longest robot”, completed its first iron ore delivery last week.

Designed to transport iron ore to Rio’s port facilities, the AutoHaul project has cost the miner up to $US940 million ($1.2 billion), exceeding its initial budget by 80 percent.

Ivan Vella, Rio Tinto Iron Ore managing director rail, port and core services, said, “This program 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.”

Rio Tinto’s head of growth and innovation, Stephen McIntosh, explained that the technology embedded in the driverless train enabled it to travel faster than human operated trains. Using artificial intelligence, the train is able to accurately assess topography, railway bends, carriage weight and the interrelationship of these factors, thereby presenting a better driving strategy.

The miner claimed that the autonomous train system would also reduce the distance that train drivers need to travel to changeover points by approximately 1.5 million kilometres per year. The reduced need for driver changeovers will increase rail circuit capacity.

The autonomous train system will also improve safety by reducing risk at level crossings, and by using automated responses to alarms, speed restrictions and asset protection devices.

In 2012, a $317.5 million contract was drawn up for the AutoHaul project. It was awarded to a Hitachi Group Company, Ansaldo STS, who was charged with the development and delivery of a highly-specialised modular signalling system that ran the automated train.

The first quarter of 2017 saw the train run in autonomous mode, with over 60 per cent of its total kilometres supervised with a driver on board. The train will be fully implemented by the end of 2018.

A spokesman of Rio said that, once fully operational, “AutoHaul will deliver big safety and productivity benefits to business.”

Its Pilbara shipments guidance for 2018, on a 100 per cent basis, is between 330 and 340Mt, depending on market conditions and weather constraints.

Last week, the driverless train went on a 280km journey carrying 28,000t of iron ore from Tom Price to the port of Cape Lambert, a distance double its last reported single trip. It was remotely monitored by operators in Rio Tinto’s Perth operations centre 1500km away.

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