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Hi-tech, high power: Exploring Roy Hill’s new locos

Roy Hill train - Photo GE Roy Hill

Gina Rinehart described them as some of the best looking machines she’d ever seen in the Pilbara. But just what is it that makes Roy Hill’s new General Electric ES44ACI locomotives so impressive?

Rinehart’s colleague, Roy Hill chief executive Barry Fitzgerald, said the miner was very specific when it drafted requirements for its locomotives, and was after “the most technologically advanced heavy-haul machines available”.

With the GE ES44ACI series, Fitzgerald believes that’s just what Roy Hill has got. And Fraser Borden, GE Transportation’s sales leader for locomotives in Australia, agrees with him.

“We don’t manufacture a locomotive with a higher ambient temperature specification than the Pilbara locomotive,” Borden said. “55 degrees Celsius.”

An advanced cooling system is crucial to the temperature management in the ES44ACI. But it’s just the first of many features Borden outlined. Another, GE’s Locotrol system, is a platform designed to fulfil three main functions for Roy Hill.

First, directed via tower control from the miner’s Remote Operations Centre (ROC) in Perth, the trains will talk ‘machine-to-machine’ to the mine-control system, so that the operator at the ROC can monitor the day-to-day loading process without direct intervention.

Borden explained Locotrol will automatically drive the locomotive with very fine speed control, taking direction from the mine-control system to ensure the loading process is optimised.

“When the train system is being brought into the mine area,” Borden outlined, “tower control, via Locotrol, takes over the loading remotely, and each wagon is loaded on a time limit.

“You need accurate control of the train to make sure it’s not over- or under-loaded.”

Second, Locotrol’s Remote Controlled Locomotive system allows a train to be moved via a hand-held controller from just metres away.

“If at some point during that 344km journey you need to check or sub out a wagon, the driver – instead of getting out and having to walk up to two kilometres to that wagon – gets out, stands by the train and, using Locotrol’s portable hand-held unit, controls it remotely to go past him, until it gets to the point he needs to attend to,” Borden explained.

Borden noted that drivers used to operating in the heat of the Pilbara would no doubt agree with him, in calling it “a pretty neat system”. And the same system will be used to speed up the shunting of locomotives at the main yard, at the mine or at the port or maintenance yards, again adding convenience to the operation.

The third feature the Locotrol system will provide Roy Hill is in managing the varied landscape around the Roy Hill mine.

Borden pointed out that a 2km train hauling a 30,000 tonne load is tough to manage in that kind of landscape. But by using its Distributed Power System, Locotrol co-ordinates the braking and power distribution between the locomotives on a train, to make managing hilly terrain much easier.

“If you have a two-kilometre train and you’re going over a hill, if the front two locomotives are going down the hill, you don’t want them accelerating,” Borden explained. “And the locomotive that’s in the middle of the rake still need to be pushing.

“This system automatically distributes the power appropriately, depending on where the locomotive is on the hill.”

The system allows safer haulage of bigger loads, with reduced fuel and operating costs, according to GE.

GE says that together, the various aspects of the Locotrol system should in the future enable automated train operation, (i.e. driverless trains), which the manufacturer says Roy Hill will likely add to its operations in the near future.

250 sensors and 10.7km of on-board wiring not only enable communication between the locomotives and Roy Hill’s ROC, but also allow the machines to communicate with GE’s Remote Monitoring and Diagnostic Centre in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“The locomotives go past a wireless access point at various points in the track – at the mine, at the port and at the maintenance facility,” Borden explained.

“Every time they go past that point, they transmit data that’s received at [GE’s monitoring centre], and that enables us to get a status update of the locomotives.

“If that system detects that there’s an issue, it sends a recommended-repair notification to the customer.”

For all the brains Borden described, he said the GE locomotives have a lot of brawn, too.

At Roy Hill, the GE Evolution locomotives will be tasked with pulling 55mtpa of iron ore from the Roy Hill mineto the purpose-built port stockyard in Boodarie Industrial Estate, south of Port Hedland.

Each 4,400 horsepower, 12-cylinder diesel loco is so powerful that it can pull the equivalent of 160 Boeing 747 jetliners, while using 5% less fuel than its precursor model and giving off 40% lower emissions, GE says.

Roy Hill’s ore trains will be configured with two locomotives up the front, followed by 116 ore cars, then another loco, then another 116 ore cars.

Because it’s a hilly route out of the mine, each of the five daily ore trains will get an assist for the first 30 kilometres of the journey to port from manned banker locomotives at the rear of the 2km train, according to GE.

Loaded up with ore, travelling at around 80 km/h, each ore train will have a payload of approximately 31,133 tonnes.

Locomotive 1001 was christened “Ginny” at a celebration on March 23. It is one of 14 already delivered to Roy Hill by GE, with a further seven set to arrive down the road.

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