Mining giant Rio Tinto RIO -0.04% PLC calls it the world’s largest robot: mile-long driverless trains traversing the sparsely populated Australian Outback on roughly 1,000 miles of track. American railroad companies, seeking to boost network efficiencies, call it the future.
U.S. rail-freight operators say greater automation will make their networks safer and more productive. They point to railroads owned by Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto as a blueprint for the 140,000-mile private U.S. network that moves vast quantities of everything from cars to corn.
A decade in the making, Rio Tinto’s driverless train system, called AutoHaul, now manages roughly 200 locomotives that move iron ore from inland mines to coastal ports in Western Australia. The trains are operated hundreds of miles away, in an office block in Perth.
Rio Tinto’s network, which began formally operating in driverless mode late last month, is the first fully autonomous, long-haul freight railroad. Rail-company executives from countries including the U.S. and Canada have visited to see the technology in action, said Ivan Vella, Rio Tinto’s head of iron-ore rail services.
American companies say automating tasks once handled by crew will create fluid networks more akin to a model train set. Around 5 million tons of goods are moved daily on the U.S. network, which freight operators share with passenger trains, generating more than $70 billion in revenue annually.
Drivers have variable skills, so a generous distance is kept between trains. In doing so, companies sacrifice valuable rail capacity. Also, the different ways that drivers run locomotives lead to inconsistent wear-and-tear and fuel use, while human error accounts for more than one-third of accidents, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group.
Last November, miner BHP Group Ltd. was forced to derail a 268-wagon runaway train in Australia’s Pilbara region, the origin of half the world’s iron-ore exports. The train rolled away after its driver disembarked to inspect a wagon and failed to secure the brake.
Labor unions and some lawmakers worry about risks to public safety, cyber threats and job cuts from increased automation. Rail-freight companies have typically offered some of the nation’s best-paid jobs, with an average annual salary of more than $125,000, said the AAR, which represents most major railroads. The country’s biggest Class I railroads employed roughly 147,000 people in 2017.
“Americans want a rail network and a transportation system that serves the people, not one that simply makes money for stockholders by eliminating good jobs and quality rail service,” Railroad Workers United, a coalition of unions, said in a statement submitted last year to the Federal Railroad Administration, which was seeking comments on the future of automation in the industry. RWU opposes crews of fewer than two people.
Reaching a consensus among companies, unions and regulators on how many drivers, if any, should remain on board will likely take a long time, said CSX Corp. Chief Executive James Foote.
U.S. rail-freight operators, whose trains are typically staffed by a conductor and engineer, say the goal isn’t to do away with drivers immediately. They contend there are many steps to reach the sort of driverless network Rio Tinto has created, although a shift toward more one-person crews is anticipated as new technologies are implemented.
“The lack of certainty makes investments in technology and innovation cautious endeavors that result in small gains, not leaps forward,” the AAR said in a filing to the Federal Railroad Administration last month.
Today, efforts to advance automation are being held back by regulations that haven’t kept pace with technological change, executives say. They fear falling behind as vehicle makers develop self-driving cars and autonomous trucks.
The Transportation Department released guidelines on autonomous vehicles in October, but didn’t address autonomous trains in detail.
Existing regulations typically dictate that tasks such as track inspections be conducted by people. Operators say this could be done better using an automated system.
The AAR has urged transport officials to grant waivers on what it says are outdated rules and allow railroads and manufacturers to create voluntary standards for safety technology, where possible. The Federal Railroad Administration was unable to comment because of the continuing government shutdown.
The 200-year-old industry has spent most of the past decade developing positive train control technology, designed to automatically stop a train to prevent collisions. That system, which uses GPS information and track data, has created a platform to operate trains more independently.
“The Rio Tinto example clearly shows the technology is here,” said John Scheib, chief legal officer at Norfolk Southern Corp. “It shows that our regulator needs to move more quickly to open the doors to such technologies,” he said.
Rio Tinto’s trains complete an average return journey of 500 miles in 40 hours. Previously, the miner had to shuttle nearly 100 drivers around these scrubby outlands to switch train drivers three times for each journey. That totaled almost a million miles a year and the changeovers added more than an hour to each return train trip.
Today, a train controller at its Perth operations center sets the route, then computers both at the center and on-board take over to make decisions. Before the system was set up, the miner faced repeated setbacks. The project ran three years late and to almost double the original budget.
“What AutoHaul does,” though, “is drive it better than the best driver, every time,” Mr. Vella said.
Of course, there are many people in Australia “who love driving trains [and] they are disappointed they don’t get to drive trains anymore,” he said. “We are trying to give them alternatives.”
*This report was first published in Wall Street Journal