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Seeking to ride the rails with nobody riding the footplate

Rail haulage is a key transport mode for various bulk materials, but can automation help it take the next step on its journey?

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The autonomous train is still something of a holy grail for rail operators. In the passenger train market, some cities, including London, Copenhagen and Kuala Lumpur, have installed driverless trains on urban light rail networks.

But freight trains perhaps offer a better opportunity to make real progress, given that any risk to passengers is eliminated. However, obstacles remain. These are not so much technical, as powerful onboard computers and sensors can already pilot a train safely along a designated route.

The main objections are likely to be from train drivers, who in many parts of the world are members of powerful trade unions that also cover their passenger train comrades. This can make the implementation of driverless trains politically difficult if unionised workers fear the loss of further job opportunities.


Intellectual leap

Automating any train also requires an intellectual leap on the part of regulators, which can be hard to make. This seems to be the case in the United States, where the Federal Railroad Administration is still trying to push through a federal mandate requiring all freight rail operations to have at least two crew members aboard. Currently, most major freight rail services have a conductor and an engineer in the cab, but shortline trains have long operated with single-person crews.

That has attracted the ire of the American Association of Railroads, which argues that data do not show any correlation between the size of the crew and safety.

Yet to some industry watchers that argument somewhat misses the point. The real problem with leaving crew sizes to regulators is that it is holding back American operators from making a technological leap in train automation.

Elsewhere the picture is a bit different, although few can claim to have made great strides.


In Europe, tests began late last year using autonomous trains on the Betuweroute in the Netherlands, in a partnership between infrastructure company ProRail, train builder Alstom, and operator Rotterdam Rail Feeding.

Alstom successfully performed a week of ATO tests on a 100km double-track of the Betuweroute
Alstom successfully performed a week of ATO tests on a 100km double-track of the Betuweroute
New Roy Hill-funded rail bridge carries the Great Northern Highway over the miner’s rail line
New Roy Hill-funded rail bridge carries the Great Northern Highway over the miner’s rail line



Going Dutch

In December, Alstom reported successfully performing a week of Automatic Train Operation (ATO) tests on a 100 km double-track section of the Betuweroute line. The tests were performed at a Grade of Automation (GoA) level 2 on the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) equipped Betuweroute.


GoA level 2 is still two steps away from complete autonomy, known as level 4. At level 2, the train takes over part of the driver’s tasks. The driver supervises the journey, and can intervene if necessary. During the tests on the Betuweroute, various issues are being investigated, such as the transition from ERTMS Level 1 to Level 2, automatic zoning of trains, and human behaviour. In addition, sensors are placed on the train to detect objects on the line.

Trains equipped with ATO can operate at closer intervals, which can increase the capacity of the network and allows for reduced energy consumption, because trains operate more uniformly. Automated operation can therefore be an added value for operators facing increasing traffic on the current railway networks, without making expensive changes to the infrastructure, argues Alstom.


Utrecht Alwin van Meeteren, director of Alstom, explained the system at last year’s InnoTrans conference in Berlin.

“The advantages of this technique are increased capacity, because all driving styles are uniform,” said van Meeteren. “In addition, the trains can ride closer together. The quality of transport will also improve, because the trains will run more punctually and a lot of energy will be saved.”


Alstom is working with other suppliers in the European joint venture Shift2Rail on the specifications of ATO, in order to make the technology applicable throughout Europe.


Van Meeteren conceded that a big obstacle to introducing self-driving trains on mainline railways is that unlike, say, urban metro systems, they are not closed networks with homogenous rolling stock. Main lines have intersections with different rolling stock, displaying different functionalities and characteristics.

To be able to drive autonomously on regular track, additional object detection is required and a few other things need to be arranged. “Fully self-propelled trains on regular track are still something of the future, but we think it is important to include important stepping stones in this test,” he said.


However, in Australia, mining company Rio Tinto Helix Dumpers from Kiruna Wagon are back in operation on the Iron Ore Line running from the Kaunisvaara mine has begun deploying fully automated trains, exploiting those very advantages found in light rail systems, but expanding them onto a much larger canvas.

AutoHaul is one of Rio Tinto’s major automation projects, claimed to be the world’s first automated heavy-haul, long-distance rail network.

Since completing the first loaded run in July 2018, Rio Tinto has steadily increased the number of autonomous journeys across its iron ore operations in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, with over 1M km now travelled autonomously.

Ivan Vella, Rio Tinto’s iron ore managing director for rail, port and core services, said: “The safe and successful deployment of AutoHaul across our network is a strong reflection of the pioneering spirit inside Rio Tinto. It’s been a challenging journey to automate a rail network of this size and scale in a remote location like the Pilbara, but early results indicate significant potential to improve productivity, providing increased system flexibility and reducing bottlenecks.


“Over the coming months we will continue to refine our autonomous operations to ensure we are able to maximise value. We continue to work closely with drivers during this period, and do not expect to min 2019 as a result of the deployment of AutoHaul.”


Long haul


The A$940M AutoHaul programme is focused on automating trains transporting iron ore to Rio Tinto’s port facilities in the Pilbara.


The average return distance of these trains is about 800 km, with the average journey cycle, including loading and dumping, taking about 40 hours. Locomotives carrying AutoHaul software are fitted with onboard cameras, allowing for constant monitoring from the operations centre.


The heart of the AutoHaul system is supplied by German technology firm make any redundancies Kontron. The train has an onboard computer built by Kontron that does not rely on direct communications with a central control room, as it uses 3D maps and real-time data gathered from cameras and sensors. With this data, the train can independently make decisions.


In order to facilitate the locomotives’ autonomous function, all level crossings on AutoHaul selected routes have been upgraded to higher safety standards and are fitted with CCTV and obstruction detection systems. If the detection system identifies an object on the line, a warning is sent to the train control system and to the operating centre in Perth.

The onboard system maintains the train’s speed and makes sure it avoids collision with other trains and obstacles. Sensors on the train also detect if a fault occurs in any of its mechanisms, such as a faulty wheel or coupling system. If one is detected, the train is brought to a halt.


Safety in Pilbara


Also in the Pilbara, mining company Roy Hill has funded a new rail bridge to reduce the risk of rail-road accidents.


The A$18.66M single-span rail bridge carries the Great Northern Highway over the Roy Hill rail line, leading into Port Hedland’s port. The new bridge replaces an existing level crossing, enabling the free movement of traffic over the rail line, and removes the potential for a rail-road accident at the intersection.


Main Roads Western Australia oversaw the design, procurement process and construction of the project, and now the bridge is complete, will oversee the future operations and ongoing maintenance.

Main Roads appointed Western Australia business Georgiou Pty Ltd the contract to construct the bridge, and local Pilbara Aboriginal business Gebro Contracting as the project site supervisor, with the construction of the bridge generating 65 jobs.

“I am pleased the rail bridge has been completed on budget and ahead of its original March 2019 schedule,” said Barry Fitzgerald, CEO of Roy Hill. “This bridge is another example of Roy Hill’s commitment to extend its safety focus beyond our immediate workplace, positively contributing to the local communities in which we operate.”


This is the second project that Roy Hill has completed recently with Main Roads WA and Georgiou, having opened the final stage of the Marble Bar Road project last year. Over two stages, 22 km of the Marble Bar Road was upgraded from gravel to a fully sealed and compliant highway, at a cost of approximately A$39M.

“With our trains passing through the intersection up to 13 times a day, and the ore trains taking on average 3.5 minutes to pass through the crossing, this rail bridge will not only remove the risk of a road user collision with one of our trains, but will significantly reduce road user travel time, and improve traffic flow,” said Fitzgerald.

AutoHaul is one of Rio Tinto’s major automation projects
AutoHaul is one of Rio Tinto’s major automation projects
Helix Dumpers from Kiruna Wagon are back in operation on the Iron Ore Line from the Kaunisva mine
Helix Dumpers from Kiruna Wagon are back in operation on the Iron Ore Line from the Kaunisva mine



Orders for Kiruna


In 2017, Kiruna Wagon was awarded the Swedish Steel Prize for its Helix dumper wagon.

High-strength steel is used both in the wagon and in the unloading station, and distinguishing features of the system are its low weight, high payload and an unloading system that can operate at a speed of 25,000 tph, which the firm says is twice as fast as other systems for fine grained ores.


During discharge, the body of the Helix Dumper rotates 148 degrees while the chassis remains on the rails. The rotation is powered by the locomotive’s forward motion, and the unloading process requires no extra energy. Coupled with the rounded shape of the body, the rotation creates optimal conditions for efficient discharge of even the stickiest concentrate materials that would otherwise tend to cling to the wagon.


Last year, Helix Dumpers were put into operation once again for Kaunis Iron, following the restart of the Kaunisvaara iron ore mine. Previously held by Northland Resource, Kaunis Iron took over the mine, which is located near Kaunisvaara in the Pajala municipality of Sweden. Mining production started again in the summer of 2018, and the first train with Helix Dumpers left the transhipment terminal in Pitkäjärvi in mid-August.

Railway logistics operator RailCare is in charge of Kaunis Iron’s transport operations on the Iron Ore Line and Ofoten Line between Pitkäjärvi in Sweden and Port of Narvik in Norway, from where the iron ore is shipped to world markets. Each train carries approximately 2,900t of iron ore concentrate.

Kiruna Wagon was commissioned to refurbish 50 bottom dumpers for raw materials transport
Kiruna Wagon was commissioned to refurbish 50 bottom dumpers for raw materials transport

Refurbished wagons

For another customer, Kiruna Wagon was commissioned to refurbish 50 bottom dumpers for raw materials transport between LKAB sites.


The project called for a lot of customisation, since it involved renovating and reusing undercarriages from old UADK wagons and fitting them with new baskets.


These baskets were developed by LKAB, based on its experience with the basket of ore wagon F050. Besides having steeper ends – 50 degrees rather than 40 degrees – the main new feature is that the entire basket is made of Duplex Stainless Steel. Together, these modifications ensure complete discharge of many types of goods.


The Duplex Stainless Steel also guarantees a stainless surface on the basket, and good discharge properties over the long term, particularly for materials that can be hard to release. Thanks to the steel’s high strength, the weight and thickness can be reduced, making it a cost effective option for mining transport. Good weldability and malleability also make it ideal as part of the construction. The material in all the outside reinforcements and bars is normal steel.

However, welding stainless onto ‘black’ material presents a new challenge for the workshop. In the bottom section, or ‘skirt’, the Duplex Stainless Steel is welded onto the reused black steel parts. To minimise the risk of goods getting stuck, the hatches are coated with Matrox wear plastic, which has been specially developed for bulk materials handling in the mining industry and has good strength in
demanding applications.


“This project is a great example of how it really is possible to renew existing wagons using modern, high-performance materials,” said Pawel Karas, project manager at Kiruna Wagon.


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