Rio Tinto’s driverless train system was a world first in rail technology
Find out how they prepared their workforce with the skills and mindset to ensure the project’s success.
Rio Tinto made history in 2019 when, in partnership with Hitachi, it introduced the world’s biggest robot, AutoHaul, a fully autonomous, long distance railway system, to its Pilbara operations in north Western Australia.
Since then, the driverless trains have travelled 4.5 million km – 60 times to the moon and back –transporting iron ore between 16 mines and two ports.
Train routes are set from Rio Tinto’s Perth offices, 1500km away. Once the train is moving, computers on-board the train and in the Operations Centre take over, safely navigating the 2.4km-long automotive across the desert and through 42 public level crossings.
The project has resulted in a shift in Rio Tinto’s workforce with employees across departments having to reskill, upskill and change the way they work.
“The project took many years, during this period we had to get all our maintenance people and all our operations people ready for the change,” AutoHaul’s Principle Engineer Lido Costa told a National Rails Skills Hub webinar recently.
How Rio Tinto navigated this change, developed new skillsets and gained the support of employees and stakeholders, provides lessons for other organisations.
The digital transformation of rail
The rail industry globally is in the midst of profound transformation. Digital technologies like AI, 5G, big data, automation and the internet of things are impacting all components of the sector from control and signalling systems to railway infrastructure, rolling stock and communication and surveillance systems.
Preparing workers for this new era of innovation, involves getting their buy-in and providing training and skills to operate and maintain the new technology.
When AutoHaul was at a very early stage of development, Rio Tinto initiated regular communications with its employees and stakeholders, established an Operational Readiness Team, set up a Project Management Office and started to develop reams of training material including manuals, safe working procedures and maintenance plans.
“Over 1000 documents were produced to provide procedures and processes to qualify our people to work and maintain these new systems,” Lido said.
Operational Readiness Team
Rio Tinto recognised that bringing in consultants, engineers and project delivery people to prepare the workforce was not going to work. Instead, it created a operational readiness team of drivers, train controllers, maintainers and other workers to help sort out bugs in the project, learn the system and prepare their peers for a new way of working.
“It’s no good have technical people come in and try to explain to someone how their life is going to change,” Lido said. “They need to hear it from other drivers, or controllers, people who understand the job.
“The business had to sacrifice this team of workers, taking them out of the workplace and bringing them along the AutoHaul journey. We had to empower them and give them some authority over managing the change.”
Project Management Office
Rio Tinto also set up a Project Management Office, a team of people whose role was solely to manage the impact on other projects.
“When big change happens, it’s going to affect other parts of the operations,” Lido explained. “The key role of the PMO was to make sure the entire business was ready to accept and transition into autonomous operations.”
Right from the beginning Rio Tinto provided briefing packs and monthly updates for all its stakeholders.
Some workers were sceptical that driverless trains would ever work. Gradually over time they all came on board. Engagement with workers groups began early.
“We met one-on-one with all the various representative groups and planned ahead,” Lido said.
A similar strategy was taken with regulators.
“Getting the Office of National Rail Safety (ONRSR) across the line was one of the biggest challenges.
“It’s huge process. There were so many hazards to mitigate. We had independent safety assessment experts in France, Italy and England as well as Australia, whose job was to sign off independently on the safety of the system as part of the ONSRS process.
“We engaged with ONRSR very early, taking them on test runs during the development process so they knew exactly what was involved and our safety strategy.”
Consultative committees and working groups were also set up to regularly engage with different external stakeholders, including local landholders, Telstra, the Water Corporation and Western Power. Training was conducted as new processes replaced the bumper gates protecting 61 passive level crossing - not open to the public - used for access and maintenance to farms and public services.
“External relations were recognised as being just as important as internal communications because of the effect the rail has on the whole community in that part of Western Australia,” Lido said.
Rio Tinto secured most of the skills it needed for the AutoHaul project by upskilling its existing workforce. Training involved a mix of e-leaning and practical modules.
Knowing when to start training employees was a critical part of the transition.
“If you give it too early, by the time the system comes online people will have forgotten what they were trained to do,” said Lido.
“So, you prepare all the material and then deliver the training close to when it has to be used.
“We used a lot of high quality, interactive videos, but it’s also important to provide training in the workplace.”
The Operational Readiness Team played a significant role in the training process as they ‘talked the same language’ and better understood workers’ questions and concerns.
At first, adoption of the AutoHaul systems was slow. But by the time the technology was fully developed, and all the training and engagement had been done, the ramp-up happened very quickly.
"This," noted Lido, "Is an excellent metric of the project’s success.”
Reskilling and redeploying train drivers
A big challenge when introducing new technology, particularly autonomous technology, is the impact on the workers it is replacing.
Rio Tinto’s train drivers were no exception.
“The idea was that no-one would to lose their job,” Lido said.
“We did have a very ageing workforce and some drivers did move on because their work was changing. In the end our focus was on retaining enough drivers for shunting and recovery activities.”
Rio Tinto is continuing to optimise and improve the AutoHaul system, redesigning training and developing its workers to ensure it has the skills and capabilities needed as the sector advances.
In collaboration with the Western Australian Government and South Metro TAFE it has developed the Certificate IV in Autonomous Control and Remote operations, Australia’s first nationally recognised VET qualification in automation.
The certificate and micro-credential courses are designed to equip today’s and future workforces with the formally recognised STEM skills that automation and technology require.
Lido Costa is the Principal Engineer on Rio Tinto’s AutoHaul project. He's been involved in train technology for more than 40 years, was part of the team that built the high-speed train linking Madrid and Seville and was chief engineer on the Perth to Mandurah rail line.
Lido spoke at the National Rail Skills Hub webinar “Preparing your workforce for digital change” on 14 June 2023. Learn more about the upcoming webinars in our ‘Growing next gen rail skills’ series.