International mining group Rio Tinto has announced plans to run the world's first automated long-distance heavy-haul rail network in Western Australia, with a US$518 million investment (Rio Tinto share $478 million) in driverless trains.
The first driverless train will be launched in 2014, with the AutoHaul automated train programme scheduled for completion a year later.
Automating train operations allows Rio Tinto to expand production capacity in the Pilbara region without needing to make a substantial investment in additional trains.
It will also drive productivity improvements, with greater flexibility in train scheduling and the removal of driver changeover times creating extra capacity in the rail network. Other benefits include more efficient fuel use, resulting in lower energy costs and a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions for each tonne of iron ore produced.
Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations in the Pilbara have a current annual capacity of 225 million tonnes, with advanced plans to increase capacity to 283 million tonnes by 2013, on a pathway to 353 million tonnes by 2015.
With a network of 14 mines, three shipping terminals and the largest privately owned heavy freight rail network in Australia, the Pilbara operations make up a major part of the group’s iron ore activities globally.
AutoHaul is being pioneered as part of the automation component of Rio Tinto's Mine of the Future initiative, which also includes driverless trucks and autonomous drills. On its 1,500-kilometre rail network, Rio Tinto currently runs 41 trains from mines to ports, comprising 148 locomotives and 9,400 iron ore cars.
Sam Walsh, Rio Tinto chief executive Australia and Iron Ore, said "Rio Tinto is leading the way in large-scale use of automation, with plans to deploy 150 driverless trucks and our plans for AutoHaul. Automation will help us meet our expansion targets in a safe, more efficient and cost-effective way. Automation also helps us address the significant skills shortage facing the industry, providing a valuable opportunity to improve productivity."