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Roy Hill’s new GE locomotives are super strong and super smart

More than 70% of the locomotives that are hard at work in Australian mining today were made by GE in the United States. Roy Hill, Western Australia’s brand new, innovation-focussed iron-ore mine, is on schedule to begin shipping ore in September, and will one day have 21 GE EVO AC Heavy Haul locomotives at the heart of its operation. The first 14 have arrived in Port Hedland, where Locomotive 1001, was christened “Ginny” at a celebration on March 23.

These locomotives are specially built for the searing conditions of the Pilbara, and can withstand the 45-degree-Celsius days that come with enervating regularity for six months of the year. But the GE ES44ACI locos have attributes that go way beyond heat-tolerance: with some 250 sensors on board, they can be remotely controlled. For shunting activities around the rail network, the remote control is via a nifty belt pack. For loading operations at the mine, the locos are directed from Roy Hill’s Remote Operations Centre, located more than 1,000 kilometres away in Perth. As well, the locos are equipped to perfectly calibrate their speed and power as they pull their 2 km-long ore trains up and down hills. They can even notify their masters when they need oil and water, and in the future will lead the way in driverless operations.

Pennsylvania or Pilbara, these mighty locos will put shoulder the wheel wherever you put them. This one, being tested in the US before being shipped to Western Australia, will never see snowflakes again. Image courtesy of Roy Hill.

Roy Hill’s massive, marvellous machines began their life in Erie, Pennsylvania, where they were subject to test runs in sub-zero temperatures, through snow and on icy tracks late last year. More than 7,100 GE Evolution Series locomotives, nicknamed GEVO, are in operation around the world. In Australia, at the March 23 celebration to christen Roy Hill’s first loco, chairman Gina Rinehart described the GE ES44ACI as “one of the best looking machines I have ever seen in the Pilbara”. Roy Hill’s CEO Barry Fitzgerald explained that the project was ticking off a range of very specific requirements for its locos; he said that the company had researched the market and, “after careful analysis, decided on the GE ES44ACI, the most technologically advanced heavy-haul machines available”.

And they can take the heat. “We don’t manufacture a locomotive with a higher ambient temperature specification than the Pilbara locomotive — 55 degrees Celsius,” says GE Transportation’s Fraser Borden, account leader on the Roy Hill project.  “We don’t run a locomotive anywhere in the world that’s hotter than here. The advanced cooling system is the most important feature, to be able to cope with the heat that they have to run in for six months of the year.”

At first glance, these cabins look like the height of 1950s industrial decor. But go beyond the brown and you’ll find a killer combination of brawn and brains.

The GEVO loco can pull the equivalent of 160 Boeing 747 jetliners, while using 5% less fuel than its precursor model and giving off 40% lower emissions.

At Roy Hill, the GE Evolution locomotives will be tasked with pulling 55 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) from the Roy Hill mine in the Pilbara, to the purpose-built port stockyard in Boodarie Industrial Estate, south of Port Hedland. Each 4,400 HP 12-cylinder diesel GEVO 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.

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

The brains part is GE’s LOCOTROL™ system.  The platform already sets global standards in locomotion technology, and will host more mind-blowing applications in the nearer-than-you-think future.  This latest iteration is helping Roy Hill to meet its ethos of delivering and developing innovation and next-generation technology.

Borden explains the three main functions the system will fulfill for Roy Hill.

First, directed via tower control from Roy Hill’s Remote Operations Centre (ROC) in Perth, the trains 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.  LOCOTROL™ will automatically drive the locomotive at very fine speed control, taking direction from the mine-control system to ensure the loading process is optimised. For example, “when the train system is being brought into the mine area”, explains Borden, “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 underloaded.”

Next, there’s the LOCOTROL™ Remote Controlled Locomotive system. Says Borden: “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. That’s a pretty neat system.” Drivers who are no longer required to trudge a couple of kilometres at high noon in the Pilbara heat to check out an ore car will doubtless concur.

This 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.

And finally, remember those hills as you travel north to leave the Roy Hill mine? When you’re operating a 2-kilometre train with a 30,000-plus-tonne load, you need to think very carefully about how to tackle them. Or LOCOTROL™ does. It calls on its Distributed Power System to co-ordinate the braking and traction power distribution between the locomotives. “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,” explains Borden, “and the locomotive that’s in the middle of the rake still need to be pushing. So 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. The holy grail for LOCOTROL™ lovers is ATO—automated train operation, commonly known as driverless operations— which will likely be added to Roy Hill’s already hi-tech system in the near future.

The GEVOs’ 250 sensors and 10.7 km of wiring, and the 9 million data points they transmit every hour during operation, mean that—in addition to their remote-control capabilities—the locos can self-report on performance and maintenance issues, before they become a problem.

GE Evolution locos also boast another cool Industrial Internet application. The 250 sensors and 10.7 km of wiring onboard each loco transmit around 9 million data points every hour when they’re in operation, and are the key to GE’s remote maintenance and diagnostics system, explains Borden. “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. Every time they go past that point, they transmit data that’s received at our Remote Monitoring and Diagnostic Centre in Erie, Pennsylvania, and that enables us to get a status update of the locomotives. And if that system detects that there’s an issue, it sends a recommended-repair notification to the customer.” So the GEVO locos can call out for service attention before they need it—moving away from the traditional break/fix world to the predict/prevent model that is a pillar of GE’s Industrial Internet, and is already saving millions of dollars in unplanned downtime in industry around the world.

The first 14 Roy Hill locos will soon make their maiden run down their 344 kilometre private track, before taking the new ore wagons to the mine site.

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