Multinational mining company Rio Tinto runs an integrated system of seventeen iron ore mines and four port terminals in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The mines and ports are all linked by a railway network, on which a fleet of heavy haul locomotives operates over 1,900km of track.
Hitachi Rail and Rio Tinto have worked together to automate the railway, and in 2019 launched AutoHaul™, the first fully autonomous heavy-haul rail operation in the world. In 2021, the Guinness Book of Record officially recognised AutoHaul™ as the “heaviest robot in the world”. Hitachi Rail integrated the signalling, telecommunications and traffic management system (TMS) systems in the project.
The integrated system includes CCTV cameras and an obstruction detection system (ODS) at all public rail crossings on the network. The locomotives' safety systems include collision detection, automatic train protection, which controls train speed, and automatic train operations technology.
The system can move around one million tonnes of iron ore a day. Today, an operations centre in Perth remotely monitors the 2.4-kilometre-long trains as they haul their load of iron ore from the mines to the ports, using on-board cameras. The trains' average return journey is 800 kilometres, and takes around forty hours including loading and dumping. AutoHaul™ technology has been retrofitted onto 221 locomotives, enabling them to travel the return journey without a driver on board.
At the same time, Hitachi also began work to replace the existing Integrated Control and Supervision System (ICSS) with its MicroLok II interlocking system. The ICSS is the technology platform that enables integrated, centralised and local train control and monitoring, as well as supervising trackside subsystems.
By replacing the previous system with its own design, Hitachi aims to optimise the capacity of the rail network, ensuring trains run to time and reduce costs, while minimising faults and failures and eliminating potential risks to safety, operations and efficiency. Programme Director Mazahir Yusuf explains that, “Our focus is on supporting Rio Tinto to future proof their network with an innovative, scalable and flexible solution.”
MicroLok II is a computer-based interlocking system, which performs key wayside functions both in the field and remotely, including detecting trains and protecting track circuit integrity. It can ‘self-diagnose' and send alerts to the control centre.
The system includes more than two hundred wayside signalling stations, most of which are solar powered, and which can handle internal temperatures higher than 60 degrees celsius.
This advanced technology can monitor multiple lines of track and crossings, moving freight trains safely and efficiently to its destination. The system's functions include coded track circuit communication, generating cab signalling code and recording events. It also uses a vital interlocking code and a code system for nonvital control and indications.
The project is being carried out in eight stages over three years, Phase 1 and Phase 2 ICSS are now completed, having replaced the existing interlocking system and associated wayside equipment across a hundred-kilometre stretch of the Tom Price line and two hundred kilometres of the Yandi line. Last year, the companies commissioned AutoHaul™ for the latest Gudai-Darri iron ore mine in Pilbara.
Phase 3 will now focus on the Paraburdoo Line and the two companies expect it to ‘go live' in 2025.
AutoHaul™ has also seen one of the first installations of the European Train Control System Level 2 (ETCS L2) in Australia. Hitachi Rail is now delivering ETCS L2 as part of the Cross River Rail project in Queensland.
There is a considerable environmental benefit in moving freight haulage from road to rail. AutoHaul™ is estimated to have removed around one million driver kilometres from the road each year, reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Hitachi's technology is supporting Rio Tinto's carbon emissions reduction targets of 15% reduction by 2025 and 50% by 2030, aiming for zero by 2050.