Rio Tinto completes Pilbara automation

Written by David Briginshaw, Consulting Editor, International Railway Journal
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Rio Tinto announced Dec. 28, 2018 that it successfully completed its $940 million AutoHaul project to automate the operation of its 1,700-km (1,054-mile) heavy-haul rail network in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which it says is now the “world’s largest robot and first automated heavy-haul, long-distance rail network.”

Full automation of its Pilbara heavy-haul rail network was first proposed by Rio Tinto about 10 years ago. The project reached a milestone in May 2018 when the AutoHaul system received regulatory approval. This was followed on July 10 by the first fully automatic operation of a loaded train. The 28,000-tonne train was hauled by three locomotives and travelled more than 280 km (174 miles) from Tom Price mine to the port of Cape Lambert without an engineer in the cab.

By October, autonomous operation had increased to an average of 34 trains per day, equating to 290,000 km (180,000 miles) or 45% of daily route-miles operated. Since July, Rio Tinto says it has steadily increased the number of autonomous journeys across its network, with over one million km (620,000 miles) now operated autonomously, although a few trains continue to be operated manually or have engineers on board.

“The safe and successful deployment of AutoHaul across our network is a strong reflection of the pioneering spirit inside Rio Tinto,” said Rio Tinto Iron Ore Managing Director-Rail, Port and Core Services Ivan Vell. “It’s been a challenging journey to automate a rail network of this size and scale in a remote location like the Pilbara, but early results indicate significant potential to improve productivity, providing increased system flexibility and reducing bottlenecks.”

The AutoHaul technology, which has been developed by Ansaldo STS, is based on the international standard digital radio-based signal and train protection system ATO over ETCS Level 2 at Grade of Automation 4 (GoA4), which provides the fully automated train operation.

Rio Tinto operates a fleet of about 200 GE diesel-electric locomotives transporting iron ore from 16 mines to four port terminals. The trains average about 800 km (496 miles) on a return trip with an average journey cycle, including loading and dumping, of around 40 hours.

Locomotives fitted with AutoHaul software also have on-board cameras to permit constant monitoring from the operations center in Perth, more than 1,500 km (930 miles) south of the Pilbara region. In addition, all grade crossings have been equipped with CCTV upgraded to what Rio Tinto says are the highest safety standards.

Automation is expected to increase average train speed 6% by reducing acceleration and braking variations caused by manual operation. Trains will no longer have to stop for crew changes enroute, and Rio Tinto will avoid having to transport engineers by road for operational reasons. In addition, the company expects its annual iron-ore capacity to rise from 340 million to 360 million tonnes. Automation will also enable Rio Tinto to adapt its output more easily to changes in market conditions.

“Over the coming months, we will continue to refine our autonomous operations to ensure we are able to maximize value,” Rio Tinto said. “We continue to work closely with engineers during this period and do not expect to make any redundancies in 2019 as a result of the deployment of AutoHaul.”

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