Rio Tinto’s Australian trains go driverless

By Reuters Time of article published Feb 21, 2012

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Sonali Paul Melbourne

Global mining company Rio Tinto has accelerated a move toward automation, unveiling a $518 million (R4 billion) plan to pioneer the use of driverless trains in Australia and increasing its bet on a future where machines rather than miners do most of the work.

The second-biggest iron ore producer, which already has driverless trucks, plans to run fully automated trains across its 1 500km iron-ore rail network in northwest Australia from 2014, to help boost output by 60 percent by 2015.

The re-fitted trains will be operated from a control room in Perth, 1 500km away, from where Rio Tinto now runs the driverless trucks.

“This is not just about job losses… this is about us remaining competitive,” Greg Lilleyman, the president of Rio Tinto’s Pilbara operations, said yesterday.

Rio Tinto says it wants to avoid forcing workers to toil beneath the scorching heat of the Pilbara, but automation also enables it to overcome a shortage of skilled labour.

The shortage has been fuelled by a boom in mining and energy investment, with $230bn worth of projects under way or approved in Australia. Salaries have sky-rocketed to the point where a truck driver can earn more than $100 000 a year.

At least half of Rio Tinto’s 500 train drivers may lose their current jobs, with the rest to be used on about a fifth of the network that will still need drivers. But the company said no one would be laid off as it aimed to retrain workers for new roles.

Trade unions oppose automation, but their influence in the Pilbara has waned as Rio Tinto and rivals such as BHP Billiton have switched to contract labour.

“The company’s objective of lowering labour costs is the wrong way forward,” said Gary Wood, the Western Australia district secretary for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. He said hundreds of jobs were at stake.

“This decision… isn’t based on people. It’s based on shareholders, and international shareholders at that.”

Rio Tinto said it was expanding its overall Pilbara workforce and would need thousands of new workers, on top of the 10 500 it already employed, to boost iron ore output. – Reuters

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