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Rio Tinto – Fully Autonomous Train Technology Transforms Heavy Freight

The heavy freight sector of the future

Transporting minerals like iron ore efficiently and safely is integral to the wealth and prosperity of many Australian towns, and essential to the growth and development of several emerging global economies.

Technology from Hitachi Rail STS enabled Rio Tinto to achieve a global first in freight rail automation through an automated, heavy-haul, long-distance rail network. Launched in 2018, Rio Tinto’s AutoHaul program allows trains to travel to and from 16 mines and four port terminals, autonomously. This increases both efficiency and safety.

AutoHaul marks a major turning point for heavy freight rail operators globally, combining efficiency, safety and economic sustainability. It is an inspiring example of how innovative collaboration can revolutionise an industry.

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Partnering to make robot trains a reality

AutoHaul is the result of a multi-year collaboration between Rio Tinto and Hitachi Rail STS. The partnership began in 2006, when Rio Tinto contracted Hitachi Rail STS to develop a concept design for its Pilbara railway line.

After years of development, testing and trialling, Hitachi STS signed an agreement with Rio Tinto in 2010 to provide the complete signalling, communications, train control, supervision and automation system upgrades needed for a fully autonomous mining rail network. A team of Hitachi Rail and Rio Tinto staff collaborated across the globe for six years to develop and deploy the AutoHaul automation technology program.

The team maintained the highest safety standards at every stage, and worked hard to gain necessary regulatory approvals for the robot trains. As a result, the project was developed and delivered to the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization's international safety standards and accredited by Australia’s Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator.

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Advanced technology drives forward

Each train is about 2.5km long, consisting of three self-driving locomotives fitted with AutoHaul technology, and about 240 cars. These trains can travel a return distance of 800km across remote and inhospitable terrain.

Technology designed and developed by Hitachi Rail STS enables each train journey to be monitored continuously from a central control centre in Perth, more than 1,500 kilometres away. Each locomotive is installed with an onboard driver module which generates automatic reports on the exact position, speed and direction of travel of the entire fleet via Internet Protocol (IP) communication. Hitachi designed and developed the interface software which allows remote locomotive control, level crossing safety and location tracking.

Hitachi also installed more than 50 radio bases and upgraded more than 40 level crossings to the highest safety standards, including adding CCTV cameras.

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The benefits of autonomous trains

In July 2018, a train hauled 28,000 tonnes of ore from Rio Tinto's Tom Price mine more than 280kms to the port of Cape Lambert.

Since then, the benefits of fully autonomous operation have been numerous. Rio Tinto has transported iron ore between a number of mines and ports in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Operational flexibility has increased, and autonomous trains have achieved a six percent speed improvement over their predecessors.

AutoHaul is a ground-breaking development which was achieved through creative collaboration and use of cutting-edge technology. The system designed and implemented by Hitachi has set a strong example for similar projects across the world.

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