Autonomous long distance trains announced for Australia

Mining giant Rio Tinto will invest U$518 million in autonomous trains for its long distance heavy haul rail network. The company plans to put the first autonomous train into operation in 2014. Rio Tinto currently operates 41 trains from its Australian mines to ports with 148 locomotives and 9400 iron ore cars.

The company expects productivity improvements because of greater flexibility in train scheduling and the removal of driver changeover times. Besides increased network capacity, they also expect more efficient fuel use and thus lower carbon emissions.

Generally trains are much better suited for autonomous operation than road-based vehicles because of their fixed tracks. Unfortunately, very few truly autonomous driverless trains are in operation today. While some cities have driverless commuter systems, these typically operate in carefully controlled environments where most of the intelligence is located within the rail network and little intelligence within the locomotive itself. The Rio Tinto approach needs to be different: because of the size of the rail network (1500km) most of the intelligence will have to be placed within the locomotive. Hopefully Rio Tinto will be able to demonstrate quickly that significant productivity improvements are possible by using autonomous trains and thus start the transition towards more efficient and cost effective public transportation systems. It remains to be seen, however, to what degree labour unions and train regulators will be able to limit progress in this area.

Image © Copyright 2012 Rio Tinto

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