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Rio Tinto’s autonomous trains can’t work in North America…yet

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto

Autonomous trains might be fully running in remote Australia, but it will take awhile before those kinds of trains will be rolling down the North American countryside.

Mining company Rio Tinto last week celebrated the completion of a multi-year project to deploy autonomous trains to serve its iron ore mines in western Australia. Rio Tinto touts its AutoHaul trains as belonging to the world’s first automated heavy-haul long distance network.

But Rio Tinto’s trains in the Outback work under unique conditions that don’t exist in North America, sources said. The trains are located in a remote location on an enclosed and privately owned track, and so they don’t have to grapple with grade crossings and pedestrian access. Crews would also be needed to switch trains while they’re operating. Because of these issues, it could take years and years before autonomous trains are used in North America, an industry expert said.

Still, the North American rail industry has visited Rio Tinto’s trains in Australia to observe how that technology can be applied more locally. And so, while automated trains are unlikely in the near- and medium-term, automation – particularly for safety and operational applications – is a more tangible target.

“The Rio Tinto situation is certainly different to that of Class I railroads (a captive railroad moving its own product, run when ready versus scheduled, etc.), but I think paints a picture for the future,” said Tom Forbes, chief executive officer of Biarri Rail, a technology company. Biarri has worked with Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU) to deploy that railroad’s precision scheduled railroading system.

“Autonomy is the end point that railroads we work with, such as KCS, have clearly identified. The journey they need to go on is to utilize data and decision-making artificial intelligence solutions in the planning environment and to steadily move towards more real-time and then automated solutions over time as the data sources mature,” Forbes said.

Rio Tinto conducted its first loads on the automated train system in July 2018, adding more automated trains to the network since then. In December 2018, the mining company said it successfully deployed the technology throughout the network and would spend the subsequent months refining the system.

The company says the technology will improve productivity, increase flexibility and reduce bottlenecks. An operations center located 1,500 kilometers away in Perth remotely monitors the robot trains, which serve 16 iron ore mines and travel 1,700 kilometers of company-owned track.

“This project has cemented Western Australia as a leader in the heavy-haul rail industry and has attracted interest from around the world,” said Ivan Vella, managing director of rail, port and core services for Rio Tinto Iron Ore.

The US$940 million initiative entailed installing software on Rio Tinto’s 200 locomotives, as well as safety systems that monitor train speed and detect potential collisions. Rio Tinto also installed on-board video cameras on the trains that provide a front view. The company says these tools will cut the amount of road travel to transport drivers to and from trains.

Partners in the multi-year project included Hitachi Rail, Calibre, New York Air Brake and Wabtec, among others.

Wabtec told FreightWaves that it supplied two of the onboard computers that enable AutoHaul’s remote capability for throttle and dynamic brake and other train driving functions. The computers provide the interface to the locomotive inputs and outputs that are used by AutoHaul, and they host both the electronically controlled pneumatic brake system, known as ECP brakes, and the direct locomotive control system, known as the DLC system.

“Rio Tinto’s milestone is an exciting one for the rail industry, and demonstrates the opportunity for technology solutions to improve safety, efficiency and productivity across the broader transportation market,” Wabtec said.

Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.