Rio Tinto steams ahead with driverless iron ore trains in the Pilbara

Credit: Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto (LSE:RIO) (ASX:RIO) has taken a huge step in implementing a driverless train network in its Pilbara iron ore operations.

The diversified mining giant completed its first long haul autonomous train journey, controlled by operatives hundreds of kilometres away, as is progresses towards the full commissioning of its AutoHaul project in late 2018.

The pilot journey of nearly 100km was completed without a driver on board, making it the first fully autonomous heavy haul train journey ever completed in Australia.

Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said: “This successful pilot run puts us firmly on track to meet our goal of operating the world’s first fully-autonomous heavy haul, long distance rail network, which will unlock significant safety and productivity benefits for the business.

The driverless train was monitored in real-time by Rio Tinto teams and representatives of the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator both on the ground and at an operations centre in Perth.

Building a fully-autonomous train network is expected to bring Rio major gains in speed and reduced variability which will in turn reduce average cycle times.

Rio already runs driverless trucks at its mines and began running trains in autonomous mode during the first quarter of this year. Around 50% of its pooled fleet rail kilometres are being completed in autonomous mode, but with drivers on-board.

However, issues with the AutoHaul rail plan cut Rio’s iron ore output by 20 million tonnes to 330 million tonnes in 2016.

“Rio Tinto is proud to be a leader in innovation and autonomous technology in the global mining industry which is delivering long-term competitive advantages as we build the mines of the future,” continued Salisbury.

“New roles are being created to manage our future operations and we are preparing our current workforce for new ways of working to ensure they remain part of our industry.”

The AutoHaul project is part of the ‘Mine of the Future’ initiative the company launched in 2008, including the introduction of autonomous haulage trucks, automated drilling and the roll out of an operations centre near Perth airport.