Rio's robot trains return

RIO Tinto’s board has approved a $US518 million ($A479million) spend to convert all of the trains on its Pilbara network to autonomous operation – creating the world’s first long-distance driverless heavy haul network.
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Staff Reporter

AutoHaul is a minor variation on the program the miner had been experimenting with prior to the global financial crisis. The first driverless train running the system is due to launched in 2014.

Rio Tinto’s share of the AutoHaul program spend will be $US478 million.

The timing of the driverless train program is interesting, given Rio recently lost a court battle with the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union involving its rail operations.

However, Rio Tinto Pilbara Operations president Greg Lilleyman said the AutoHaul program had nothing to do with the company’s problems with the CFMEU.

“It’s about positioning ourselves to manage the growth of our business,” Lilleyman said.

Rio Tinto runs 41 trains from its mines to its ports comprising 148 locomotives and 9400 iron ore cars.

Lilleyman said the driverless trains would give the company’s iron ore operations much greater flexibility and de-risk them too.

It is about 450km from the Yandicoogina mine to Dampier, and there have been instances of a train driver using up the number of hours they are allowed to work within fatigue guidelines by midway.

Drivers have to stop the train and wait for a replacement driver, which could be a couple of hours – leaving the train out of action during that time.

Another problem Rio Tinto and other miners face is getting train drivers.

It takes about 18 months to train a novice up to a level where they can operate an iron ore haul train.

If the company were to look to drivers operating engines on the metropolitan lines, it would take about 12 months to provide training to a suitable level.

Rio Tinto will be introducing the driverless trains in phases. The first phase is from Dampier to Rosella Junction.

Lilleyman said the company would not be automating the area from what it calls the eastern junction to the Mesa J mine at this time.

Nor will it mean the end of train drivers in Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations.

Lilleyman said they would still be needed for “yard duties”

Unlike the autonomous trucks Rio Tinto has been trialling for the past three years, which arrive on site brand new, AutoHaul can be retrofitted to the miner’s existing trains.

Those five autonomous trucks, which have been running at West Angelas since December 2008, will be broken up within the next few weeks and moved to Yandicoogina’s Junction Southeast pit.

They will join five other Komatsu 930E haul trucks fitted with the autonomous haul system.

Rio Tinto also announced it would be expanding trails of a tunnel boring system it is developing jointly with Atlas Copco.

It is believed this system could halve the amount of time it takes to build large underground block cave mines when combined with new shaft boring technology.

Rio Tinto is trialling a similar system developed by Aker Wirth at the Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales.

This will be expanded to a trial with the Atlas Copco system at the Kennecott Utah Copper mine in Salt Lake City.

Kennecott has been chosen because Rio Tinto is looking to extend the mine’s life through underground development. The tunnel boring system at Kennecott is expected to tunnel more than 10 metres a day – nearly twice the rate of conventional methods.

This article first appeared in Miningnews.net

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