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Rio’s first unmanned train a big step towards 360mtpa

Rio Tinto train - Photo Rio Tinto

Mining giant Rio Tinto’s first unmanned train as part of its AutoHaul program is a major step towards its goal of exporting 360 million tonnes of iron ore per annum from its Pilbara mine, rail and port network.

The ASX-listed miner completed its first fully autonomous rail journey, with a nearly 100-kilometre pilot run taking place without a driver on board, early this month. The train travelled, unmanned, from Wombat Junction to Paraburdoo.

The journey followed ongoing partial use of the AutoHaul technology across the network, which saw around 32% of rail kilometres performed in autonomous mode – with drivers on board – on Rio’s networks in the first half of 2017.

Rio says the driverless train technology and its associated infrastructure now ‘enhances’ 80% of its production tonnes, with early benefits including reduced variability and increased speed, as well as reduced in-train forces benefiting maintenance costs.

Fully driverless trains will also save an extra hour per average cycle, Rio says, thanks to fewer train stoppages for driver changes.

“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,” Rio’s iron ore boss Chris Salisbury said.

“Gains from AutoHaul are already being realised … helping to reduce average cycle times. 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.”

Rio has invested millions over the last several years in its Mine of the Future program, which includes AutoHaul as one of its key projects. However, AutoHaul’s development has been slowed by technical issues.

Rio now believes it can fully commission AutoHaul by late 2018 – later than the miner had originally hoped.

Struggles during the commissioning of Rio’s driverless trains already cost it its target of 350 million tonnes of Pilbara production in 2016. Now the miner is on track for 330 million tonnes in 2017, and says the AutoHaul development should help it finally reach its long-term target of 360.

Also contributing to the 360mtpa target will be a ramp up in capacity from the Silvergrass mine, and other port and network upgrades.

Rio exports its iron ore from the Port of Dampier, which has publicly-listed trade figures, and Cape Lambert, which does not.

Based on the public figures, it can be roughly estimated that 130 million tonnes of Rio’s iron ore will be exported from Dampier in the 2017 calendar year, while around 200 million tonnes will be sent from Cape Lambert.

If the miner’s growth target of 360mtpa is spread evenly across the two sites, Dampier will be exporting around 142mtpa of Rio’s iron ore, while Cape Lambert will handle 218mtpa.

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