Rio Tinto has announced it will invest almost $500 million to convert part of its heavy haulage rail network to a driverless system.
The AutoHaul system will be rolled out to long distance rail between Rosella, about 250km south-south-east of Karratha, and Rio Tinto ports in Dampier and Cape Lambert.
The technology will be launched in 2014 and is expected to be fully operational by 2015.
“Just like the autonomous trucks, developing an investment like this into an expanding business is exactly the way to go, it supports our Pilbara expansion,” Rio Tinto Pilbara operations president Greg Lilleyman said.
CFMEU secretary mining and energy division Gary Wood said there was concern there would be fewer main-line train drivers as a result of the automation.
“What it can in effect do is lead to job losses or reduction – it could be in the hundreds,” he said.
Mr Wood said there were concerns over train drivers who live in towns such as Karratha having to relocate to Perth to operate the new system.
“From our point of view, it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘we can redeploy, we can re-train’, it certainly has an impact,” he said.
“It will have an impact on train controllers being forced to transfer from Karratha to Perth – it’s already occurred. That was done basically, ‘take it or leave it or we’ll find you another job’ – but that job will be $50,000 less than what you’re currently on.”
Rio Tinto runs 141 locomotives and more than 9000 iron ore cars on its 1500km rail network.
It employs about 500 drivers but Mr Lilleyman would not speculate on what the number of drivers needed would be under AutoHaul.
The idea was originally floated before the global financial crisis but was sidelined during the tough economic times.
Mr Lilleyman said after a successful roll-out, further upgrades would be made to include other parts of the rail network increasing safety and productivity.
“We will be introducing this AutoHaul system into our Pilbara operations and immediately positioning ourselves for a safer and more productive outcome,” he said.
Different from remotely operated trains, the AutoHaul system will be run by computer GPS and radar systems networked together.
They will be monitored from Perth.