Rio Tinto Iron Ore is investigating the viability of introducing automated train operation at its Pilbara iron ore mining operations in Western Australia.
A project team is currently studying the application of Automated Train Operation (ATO) technology in a heavy-haul capacity.
The project is the first application of its kind in Australia as the ATO technology has previously been used only on passenger services.
Rio Tinto Iron Ore operates one of the largest privately owned heavy-haul railways in the world.
The Pilbara rail network comprises 1,300 km of rail track — roughly the distance of New Zealand from end to end.
Trains are 2.5 km long, with 230 ore cars each with a load capacity of more than 100 tonnes of iron ore.
Pilbara Iron acting general manager railways division Sid Hay, said the study was part of the company’s continual business improvement process.
“The Automated Train Operations project is one of a number of initiatives that the business is considering to help it reach its annual export target of 320 million tonnes of iron ore and beyond into the future,” Hay said.
“While the project will automate certain significant aspects of our rail operations such as train driving, we do not expect that there will be any reduction in staff numbers. In fact, we need to recruit additional people into our rail operations to support our future plans.”
Hay said the company has been liaising closely with rail employees throughout the study process.
A live trial of the ATO system is now underway with train drivers and technical experts on board able to switch to manual control at any stage.
“We are in discussions with a number of key local stakeholders and Government regulators and will conduct a comprehensive engagement and information program if we decide to proceed,” Hay said.
“Our primary goal is to ensure that safety and other concerns of the public and our employees are properly considered at all times throughout this study and during implementation of ATO.”
While it is still too early to provide precise detail on the project as a number of options are being considered, Hay said it was likely that any implementation of the technology would take up to five years to complete across the company’s rail network.
The ATO study started in late 2006 and includes prototype system development and testing on a dedicated test track at Dampier before trials began on the main line near Paraburdoo.
Rio Tinto expects to make a final decision on the ATO project later this year.
All stages of automated train trial activities are subject to approval from the Western Australian Office of Rail Safety.