Rio Tinto has announced it will invest $371 million (Rio Tinto share $350 million) to automate its iron ore railway in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, following successful trials. Within five years, driverless trains will be operating on most of the 1,300km of track that serves the Pilbara operations, helping Rio Tinto meet its goal of expanding annual iron ore production to 320 million tonnes in 2012.
Tom Albanese, chief executive, Rio Tinto said, "I am committed to making our vision of the "mine of the future" a reality, and automation of our rail network is an important step. This innovation will allow us to deliver more tonnes, faster to meet the continuing surge in demand for iron ore from China and other emerging economies."
This will be the first time automation has been used in a heavy haul railway of this scale, though the technology successfully operates on many metropolitan passenger railways around the world, where it has had a positive record for safety and reliability.
The roll-out of automation is part of a wider project to upgrade the rail network, which includes the introduction of 40 new-generation locomotives, extensive re-railing and a substantial reinvestment in rolling stock, including the purchase of 2,400 new ore cars over 18 months.
Automated operations will integrate with the existing train management system and will bring efficiency gains through greater scheduling flexibility and the removal of delays.
Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Sam Walsh said, "Our immediate goal is to ensure the continued safety of our rail operations while implementing leading technology, and meeting our ongoing need for train drivers as we expand. While some roles may change due to expansion plans, current employee numbers will not be reduced by the automation of most rail operations.
"Additional safety systems are being developed to meet safety levels required for automatic trains. The level of safety protection at level crossings is also being upgraded, well above the standards required by legislation," he said.
A typical loaded train on Rio Tinto's network weighs around 30,000 tonnes, is 2.4km long and travels at speeds of up to 75km per hour. On average, 320 train journeys travel across this network every week. The average cycle time for an iron ore train is 33 hours and there is a train movement about every 25 minutes along the line.
A successful trial of automatic operation has taken place in the Pilbara, with 126 journeys of empty and loaded iron ore trains completed on a section of railway from Paraburdoo to Tom Price. Rio Tinto Iron Ore is continuing to work closely with the Western Australian Office of Rail Safety to ensure all safety and other regulatory requirements are met.