Train drivers employed by Rio Tinto Group to haul iron ore across Australia’s outback make about the same money as surgeons in the U.S. It’s little wonder the mining company will replace them with robot locomotives.
The 400-plus workers in the remote Pilbara region who earn about A$240,000 ($224,000) a year probably are the highest-paid train drivers in the world, according to U.K.-based transport historian Christian Wolmar. Australia’s decade-long mining boom has sucked up skilled workers, raising wages for engineers to drivers at Rio, the second-largest exporter of the mineral, and its closest competitors, Vale SA (VALE) and BHP Billiton Ltd.
he three companies that control about 59 percent of the $145 billion-a-year global iron ore trade are automating to bolster margins and squeeze out extra capacity as they boost supply to a record to feed steel mills in China, the biggest buyer. The push by Rio (RIO), which aims to move about 290 million metric tons on its rail network by next year, is expected to be the biggest driver for cost cuts in its iron ore unit after currency swings, according to Deutsche Bank AG.
“All producers are chasing better margins and stronger returns,” said Chris Drew, an analyst in Sydney with Royal Bank of Canada. “Rio is ahead of the competition in terms of automation of trucks and trains,” Drew said in an interview after touring its ore operations in the mostly arid Pilbara, home to Western Australia’s biggest deposits for export.
The pace of automation is picking up as the seaborne market is poised for at least four years of gluts. The price of ore, which rose as much as eightfold in the past decade as China added $6.8 trillion to its gross domestic product, will drop to $80 a ton in 2015, according to a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. forecast. It closed yesterday at $131.40 a ton.
Rio, which last year approved spending of $7.2 billion to expand the iron ore operations, is aiming to have the world’s first, fully automated, long-distance and heavy-haul rail system operating in 2015. Its automated rail will have 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) of track, 10,000 wagons and individual train sets 2.3 kilometers long, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. The company is spending $518 million on the program that was announced last year.
“You need to have quite a significant amount of scale” in fleet and volumes to benefit from automation technology, said Evy Hambro, manager of BlackRock Inc. (BLK)’s $7.7 billion World Mining Fund.
Regulators in Canada and the U.S. are reviewing rules for transporting hazardous materials after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded on July 6 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and incinerating 30 buildings. The train was operated by a single engineer, who parked the train for the night and left it unattended.
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