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‘A catastrophic failure of safety systems’

May 17, 2024

Workers’ account of the Rio Tinto autonomous train collision 13th May

At 8:05pm on Sunday the 12th of May, an autonomous unmanned train consisting of three locomotives and 240 loaded cars was heading north through the Chichester Ranges when it separated between the 18th and 19th wagon after having applied too much power over the peak in the track profile. Such incidents occur regularly at this location, as the sharp drop-off can easily snap trains if handled poorly.

A crew of Network Locomotive Drivers was dispatched from 7mile and Emu Hub to attend the incident, while an additional driver departed Cape Lambert with a triple set of relief locomotives. The 7mile NLD boarded the first portion of the snapped train and transported it to Green Pool siding, where they swapped over with the Cape NLD. The Cape NLD then transported the first portion of the snapped train back to Cape Lambert, while 7mile NLD remaining with the relief locomotive.

The relief locomotive waited on the sidings at Emu Hub for authorisation to proceed to the site of the incident via an ‘On-Site’ override, where it was supposed to couple with the remaining 222 loaded cars. The Emu Hub relief NLDs met with the crew waiting to assist with coupling at the northern end of the disabled train, as required by company procedure, and began the process of coupling up.

At around ten minutes past midnight, a ‘Mayday’ alert was transmitted over channel 14, the channel utilised by the North Train Control who have jurisdiction over this area. The message said ‘Emu Crew – May Day May Day May Day – Potential Collision’ and was broadcast over radios in vehicles and two-way radios carried by workers. At this moment there were six attending crew members, including two crew members aboard the disabled train and the remaining four within meters of it on the ground. The two crew members on board the disabled train got off. The crew members thought the May Day warning may have related to an incident involving the relief locomotive.

At approximately 12:23am, a second autonomous train south of the incident collided with the rear of the 222 cars, derailing three locomotives and a number of cars. It is incredibly lucky that all crew members were located at the north of the train at this time, as the as the potential for an unplanned train parting can happen down the entire length of the train meaning workers could have been on sections that derailed.

This was a catastrophic failure of Rio Tinto rail safety systems that put rail crew’s lives at risk.

We believe that Rio Tinto train controllers initiated the ‘On-Site’ feature, transmitting it to the autonomous train to the south of the 222 car disabled train. The ‘On-Site’ override was implemented recently in response to a collision that occurred on the Rio Tinto Iron Ore network at Marandoo. The override’s aim is to prevent collisions when undertaking movements in recovery locomotives onto disabled trains. In this case, however, it appears the override was mistakenly sent to the loaded autonomous train to the south.

The override refers to ‘attended trains,’ that is when a driver has taken control of the autonomous train or is aboard the autonomous train and able to actively intervene. This override procedure requires said driver to communicate with the lead shunter and stop short of the field of protection. As the colliding train was fully autonomous, no driver was aboard to realise the transmission error and halt the train.

The mistake in issuing the ‘On-Site’ override to the incorrect vehicle stems from more than simple user error. In order to issue the override, the train controller must have their work checked and approved by their supervisor. Likewise, if a driver was attending the train at the time the override was received, they would have 30 seconds to respond before a penalty brake application is made.

We understand the ‘on-site’ key should have never been sent to an Autohaul train as it is not a feature to be used in autonomous operations mode. It is a feature developed for assisting disabled trains whilst humans are driving the Locomotive, being required to stop and pick up lead shunter.

This collision was not the result of the error of a single train controller, but rather a systematic failure of Rio Tinto’s implementation of safety procedures surrounding automation. We believe Rio Tinto’s suspension of the ‘On-Site’ override following this incident is a tacit confirmation of this fact.

The crew attending the disabled train are shocked and concerned that Rio Tinto appear to be downplaying this incident to the media. Richard Cohen, Managing Director of Rail, Ports and Core Services for Rio Tinto issued a statement which referred to the 222 loaded cars as a ‘set of stationary wagons’, severely understating the scale of the incident.

Further, no statements from Rio Tinto to the media suggest that this incident could have easily led to serious harm or death to the attending workers. In a statement following the incident, an unnamed Rio Tinto spokesperson claimed that ‘there were no people in the vicinity and no injuries,’ with no mention given to the six workers who narrowly escaped from the scene moments before the collision.

In the days following the collision, not one of the six attending workers have been asked to provide witness statements to Rio Tinto. This strikes the workers as nakedly hypocritical, as they are regularly required undertake overtime to write statements for comparatively minor incidents such as small cuts or strained joints.

Additionally, the attending workers are concerned that the environmental impact of this incident has not been adequately reported by Rio Tinto. The three derailed locomotives spilled thousands of litres of diesel fuel into the Harding River water catchment, part of the drinking water network for Karratha, Roebourne, and Wickham. Further, the incident occurred squarely in the Millstream-Chichester National Park, not far from the iconic Red Dog Gorge.

Finally, the catastrophic failure of the Rio Tinto safety regime needs to be adequately examined, particularly in relation to autonomous trains. The autonomous system Autohaul, which was developed by Rio Tinto and is being licenced to other mine logistics operators, is at the centre of this incident. Autohaul initially disabled the first train by applying too much power and pulling a coupling out. Then, Autohaul drove a second train into the rear of the disabled vehicle while six crew members were on site responding to it.

Immediately following the incident, Rio Tinto utilised Autohaul to drive the disabled vehicle back to Cape Lambert, understandably making the crew extremely uncomfortable. Rio Tinto rail workers are deeply concerned about how the introduction of Autohaul has both limited visibility for train controllers, and the ability for train drivers to maintain compliance with competency standards.

Mining and Energy Union rail workers in the Pilbara have been working with autonomous trains since 2018. Our members have embraced automation, and work alongside it, but this incident highlights their legitimate concerns about the safety of its implementation.

They don’t want a cover-up, they want safety-based solutions.

Workers say:

“Rio Tinto make safety molehills into mountains when it comes to disciplining workers; but here is a real mountain, and they just want to minimise it.”

“Rio Tinto have put out an incomplete version of events that underplays the risk to workers’ lives – we want the facts to get out there.”

“We want accountability and safety. We are at the forefront of automation, we have accepted and embraced it, we just want to ensure that we get home safely to our families at night.”

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