back to article Thomas the Tank Engine lobotomised by fat (remote) controller

Paraburdoo is a tiny town in Australia's north west famous for being hot, dry, remote … and the site of a rich iron ore mine operated by Rio Tinto, which has just run the first fully autonomous mine train to the town. Because Paraburdoo is so nasty, few people want to live there. Its remoteness means everyday goods are …

  1. Phil Kingston Silver badge

    I'm sure they've done the math, but that seems like it would be a hell expensive project to save on a small number of staff.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I think most of the work has already been done. I know in the US some trains are already controlled by remote in the yards. As long as you can keep kangaroos and people with earbuds off the tracks.....

      1. FozzyBear Silver badge

        Unless you can detect the person from 5 km's away they are going to be a red smear on the tracks. Those trains need a lot of distance to stop.

        The sad truth is even if there is a driver present they cannot stop in time if they see a person on the tracks.

        1. Winkypop Silver badge
          Devil

          "cannot stop in time if they see a person on the tracks"

          Yes, but, the meat-controller can help the train-automaton to fill in the accident report papers...

          1. Richard Jones 1

            Re: "cannot stop in time if they see a person on the tracks"

            Many drivers suffering a 'one under' incident spend a long time off work afterwards and some never do come back as complete. You would not save the Darwin project item with headphones, but at least you might save the driver's trauma.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: "cannot stop in time if they see a person on the tracks"

            Another use for a dash cam.

        2. cb7

          Ah yes, but a driver could blast the train's very loud horn. Earbuds or no earbuds.

          Not saying HAL couldn't do the same thing, but that version would be more expensive.

      2. Kernel

        "I know in the US some trains are already controlled by remote in the yards."

        'Shunting robots' have been in use in New Zealand for some years now.

        1. Tim99 Silver badge

          The Docklands Light Railway was envisaged as fully automated. The unions were not happy, and so initially they had a driver who did other stuff as well, this job was turned into a "Passenger Service Agent" who acts a bit like a conductor or guard, and checks whether people are stuck in doors etc., this person can manually bring the vehicle to a stop, and "drive" it. Passengers really wanted to see a human "in charge", perhaps we are now close to the customer accepting no visible human operator.

          1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

            @tim99 - Unions

            Trains on the London Victoria tube line have also been automated since the line opened. The meatsack at the front just opens & closes the doors and presses "Go": A job the platform staff could easily do via a remote.

            If you look at some of the safety systems on trains (speed limiters, obeying signals, being awake, etc) they're just there to ensure the meatsack does what it's supposed to do (The electronic dog). So why not just remove the meatsack? As others have mentioned, trains are so big and heavy that they couldn't stop in seconds if the meatsack saw an obstruction on the line.

            The main reason driver automation hasn't been done (In the UK at least) is the trade unions.

            1. MrXavia

              Re: @tim99 - Unions

              I don't like the idea of unmanned passenger trains, in an emergency a conductor can ensure everyone is evacuated safely, a conductor is a visible deterrent for bad behaviour.

              But I don't see a problem with automated driverless trains, they make sense, automated systems can be much more reliable and have more sensors than a human driver.

            2. jab701

              Re: @tim99 - Unions

              Jubilee and Northern lines have also been automated, driver has to open/close the doors and then press two buttons and hold them to tell the train to start.

              Trains can run ~50m apart at 67mph...they are talking to each other and the control center all the time. The pair of red wires running down the line that cross every 25m are the signalling system lines.

              The system is really cool, although if it goes down the drivers can only drive them at <15mph i think...

              Central line might be computer driven in the central london section only (I dont think the whole line is automated)....basically all the night tube lines are driven by computer...iirc.

          2. TimTheEngineer

            The Victoria Line, which opened in 1968 IIRC, has always been completely automated - all the driver does is close the doors and push two "start" buttons simultaneously; everything else is under machine control. One suspects that the only reason the driver is actually there is for the PR to the passengers... and possibly some input from ASLEF.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              "One suspects that the only reason the driver is actually there is for the PR to the passengers... and possibly some input from ASLEF."

              ... though if the RMT had their way then pressing buttons to open/close doors would clearly be work for the guard as the driver is far too busy make sure the train goes to the right destination.

              1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

                make sure the train goes to the right destination.

                "Use the tracks Luke!"

            2. Alan Mackenzie
              Happy

              Just as a matter of interest, the U-Bahn lines 2 and 3 in Nuremberg are entirely automated - there is not even a figurehead "driver" in the train. The doors are opened and closed on a timer. There are sensors to detect anybody falling off the platform at stations.

              It works well. For example, short trains run every three minutes rather than longer trains every six, given that there is no shortage of drivers. It still doesn't prevent the trains being sardine cans, though, in the rush hour.

              1. collinsl

                We still manage trains up to every 2 minutes on the Victoria Line of the London Underground, and 3 minutes on a lot of other lines.

                It's mainly down to the engineering and advances in automation and train acceleration/braking speed etc.

                1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

                  @collinsl

                  We still manage trains up to every 2 minutes on the Victoria Line of the London Underground

                  Actually, the Victoria line is now hitting 90 seconds between trains during rush hour. See London Reconnections for (another) excellent article.

                2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

                  advances in automation

                  So they have done away with the cardboard controller then? (Old-style train management done with big sheets of punched card..)

          3. anothercynic Silver badge

            Ummm, Tim 99...

            ... no. The DLR has *always* been automated. The 'human in charge' can't stop or control the train either... they contact control who deal with the train. They can override the doors at most. The rest is *all* run from the DLR control centre.

            1. ChrisC

              Re: Ummm, Tim 99...

              Nope. At the front of every DLR carriage, tucked away under a locked cover, is a set of manual controls which can be used if required - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Docklands_Light_Railway_rolling_stock#Passenger_stock_overview

              1. Mike Pellatt

                Re: Ummm, Tim 99...

                Used under very close supervision, though. Here's an original training video. Complete with Ford Transit being driven like a shot from The Sweeney :-)

                https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BMop6GA2iI

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Re: DLR video

                  Gosh, that’s cutting edge 1980s technology on show there! Lots of mechanical levers, buttons and lockout wire clips, and an almost Apollo programme like set of operating procedures! I can’t imagine that the mainline railway is quite as complicated as that when a train needs to be shunted out of the way?

        2. Knoydart

          The "robots" in New Zealand are basically remote controlled shunters with the operator riding on either on the footplate of said shunter, walking alongside the wagons or in visual range of the train. Not that remote when compared to those trains across the ditch. Think of an oversized RC car but on steel wheels and tracks.

      3. Oengus Silver badge

        As long as you can keep kangaroos and people with earbuds off the tracks.....

        Kangaroos are generally smart enough to avoid the trains. "People with earbuds"... if they are anywhere near these train tracks they are so lost they will die from their "stupidity" long before they can get back to civilization.

        1. Tim99 Silver badge

          "Kangaroos are generally smart enough to avoid the trains"

          By the number I see dead on the side of the road around here they don't seem to be smart enough to avoid road traffic. I have seen one grazing at the side of the road and then, just as I was within a few metres, it moved across the road in front of me. ABS brakes and luck helped avoid a collision.

          1. Phil Kingston Silver badge

            Yep, they're daft buggers. Always seem to run towards the car/bike/train that's scaring them. Had one smack into the passenger door of the ute on Saturday. Made a helluva thump.

            1. Ray Foulkes

              Darwin at work

              Another 10,000 years and kangaroos may be driving the trains...

          2. Stevie Silver badge

            "Kangaroos are generally smart enough to avoid the trains"

            Worrabout that stupid kangaroo that "E's a grumpy snake" Steve the Crocodile Whisperer pulled out of a flooded cable culvert? Two hours of human effort vs uncooperative kangaroo in a World Gone Mad, kangaroo free for two seconds, jumped right back down the hole.

            Stupid doesn't begin to plumb the depths here.

      4. collinsl

        Well, for a given value of remote - in yards it's normally a guy with a remote controller walking around next to the train. It gives them better visibility and they can do away with some of the ground-based marshallers because the driver can see what they are doing better.

      5. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        As long as you can keep kangaroos and people with earbuds off the tracks..

        If you can see them, it's probably already too late to stop..

    2. Tim99 Silver badge

      I know someone who worked on automating trains at a large competitor. He believed that it was a test of concept, but with a fairly fast financial return - A train driver costs roughly $250,000 in the Pilbara or Gascoyne, so 20 drivers @ $5 million a year starts to look like real money. Many other jobs in mining are being replaced, full automation is probably coming for the Komatsu 250+ ton Dump Trucks.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I wish I'd become a train driver instead of an IT techie.

    3. rh587 Bronze badge

      I'm sure they've done the math, but that seems like it would be a hell expensive project to save on a small number of staff.

      Eh, this mining is an expensive lark - I had a school friend who went out and did a few years as a Mining Engineer. The town his son was born in doesn't exist anymore - mine arrives, they build out, dig for 10 years and abandon it.

      Every meat sack needs somewhere to sleep, eat and do their business. You have to ship food out to the arse end of nowhere and deal with waste. You have to air-condition the buildings, etc, etc.

      The fewer people the better - these places are so remote that the best analogy is to an aircraft carrier/naval vessel.

      Each job you can automate eliminates a bunk, a seat in the mess, reduces the requirements for waste-disposal systems, reduces the size of the food stores, eliminates a life-raft seat. Fewer crew reduces the number of galley cooks needed, which in itself churns back into reduced bunks/heads/food rations.

      The savings form a positive-feedback loop that scales quite rapidly past the actual salary and training costs for the crew.

  2. Louis Schreurs BEng

    Just last week I thought it would be better to first put autonomous vehicles on rails and when that runs safely, try it out on the roads with no rails.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What's that Skip?

    There's a train coming?

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Re: What's that Skip?

      Don't think they run those there.

      I think it is only the UK with those inflicted on us.

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: What's that Skip?

        But they did run Crocodile Dundee, so the reference will make sense even in the hated US.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What's that Skip?

        "inflicted"

        How rude!

        I lived near where it was filmed.

        That's my idyllic childhood you are dissing.

        Never did see Sonny in the bush.....

        : )

  4. Queasy Rider

    High self opinion?

    I looked up properties for sale in Paraburdoo. Average asking price for 14 homes was $358,000. Doesn't sound so undesirable to me.

    1. MonkeyCee Silver badge

      Re: High self opinion?

      "Doesn't sound so undesirable to me."

      I don't think you understand the delights of outback mining towns. They are generally pretty shitty, because there is not other reason for them to exist other than the mine. Thus there are only miners, and a few people who are running the "services" for said miners. Getting anything to the town, be it goods, people or building supplies is horribly expensive.

      Since the miners are usually on pretty good money (especially if you're stuck in the back of beyond) you have a situation of very short supply of everything, with a decent sized demand. So even a shitty house will be worth something there, since at least a house will be slightly cooler than a caravan or tent.

      So a house in a shitty town can be "desirable", it's just relative to what other property is available (not much), what can be built cheaply (very little), and the wages of the residents (high). Hence you get houses, mobile homes, vehicles, booze, smokes and prostitutes all going for 2-3 times the price in the cities.

      I had a friend who would buy mobile homes for ~120k, pack them full of booze, smokes and assorted supplies (another ~10k) and drive them to mining camps/towns, where he'd sell the goods and the mobile home for ~250k total. Then back to civilisation on the motorbike.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: High self opinion?

        "I don't think you understand the delights of outback mining towns. They are generally pretty shitty, because there is not other reason for them to exist other than the mine. Thus there are only "

        A chap who had started his working life in an Australian mining town started to frequent my favourite pub.

        He seemed to think that a fight on a Saturday night was normal behaviour...

    2. hplasm Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: High self opinion?

      Is that $358,000 for 214 houses, though?

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: High self opinion?

      A friend of mine was a gold miner in the deep outback. Hundreds of miles from even the closest town, as due to security all the services were provided inside the mining camp. I guess they're less worried about the miners taking iron ore home...

      He did a few years of 8 hours underground, 8 hours in the pub, 8 hours asleep. With trips out every couple of months.

      Does not sound fun to me, even though well enough paid that he could come back to the UK and buy a large chunk of a house with all the money he hadn't spent.

    4. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: High self opinion?

      I looked up properties for sale in Paraburdoo. Average asking price for 14 homes was $358,000. Doesn't sound so undesirable to me.

      The price of an item is a reflection of demand versus supply. Try figuring the demand for luxury mansions on Tristan Da Cunha.

      In the case of Paraburdoo demand will be limited (by number of miners not owning houses already, roughly), but supply is also limited (noone's going to cart in house parts unless there's actual demand) so that will keep prices at the level you see.

    5. Chemical Bob
      Coat

      Re: High self opinion?

      "I looked up properties for sale in Paraburdoo."

      Yeah, but ya gotta remember it ain't *real* burdoo, it's *para*burdoo...

  5. DougS Silver badge

    Self driving trains are low hanging fruit

    The switching is already automated, so basically it just has to stop if it sees something on the track ahead. If anyone is worried about the safety of self driving trains, they'll never trust self driving cars or trucks that have 2D freedom of motion instead of the basically 1D freedom trains have.

    1. TrumpSlurp the Troll Silver badge

      Re: Self driving trains are low hanging fruit

      A train I travelled on the other week was delayed due to "incorrect route offered".

      http://www.railforums.co.uk/showthread.php?t=43103 makes for interesting reading.

      One of the tasks of UK train drivers is making sure the signallers don't do something sub-optimal. So first make sure that all the signalling and routing is absolutely reliable (including the track side infrastructure used for communicating with the train) and when you have had a few years with zero signalling problems you can then start to consider automated trains. Of course, when some scroat half inches the signalling wires to sell the copper you do have to have some method of taking the trains onto the next good section. Today this would be the driver.

      Design , simples.

      Infrastructure upgrade? Given that they can't even manage to electrify the network at the moment due to lack of allocated cash I won't be holding my breath.

      1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: Self driving trains are low hanging fruit

        make sure that all the signalling and routing is absolutely reliable

        I don't wish to worry anyone but one of my older brothers works for Siemens as a railway signalling engineer. And I helped do some of the DLR design work.

        Now you know why I drive everywhere :-)

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Self driving trains are low hanging fruit

      Given how big these things are, I suspect that the amount of track it would take to come to a complete stop would be further than any optical device could 'see', so it's probably just "brake in time to stop at destination" and maybe "stop if it seem like something is wrong".

      If the train can see something on the track in front of it then it's already too late to brake.

  6. jimdandy
    Windows

    So, considering what I know about desert mining towns' history in the American West, who provides the Independent Service Providers for Paraburdoo and it's ilk in NW Oz? Perhaps the company should bring them "on-board" and train them up to be "operators" as well as "handlers".

    We would call that a "two-fer" hereabouts. Double the income, double the fun. They could throw in the Doublemint Gum for free.

  7. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    236 carriages?

    Don't you mean "Wagons"

    In railway speak, Carriages are what us meatsacks travel in (or americans call Coaches)

    Wagons carry freight.

    Unless this is some quaint bit of Aussie lingo?

    1. Dave Bell

      Re: 236 carriages?

      I think they use a different term in the USA, but it really depends which audience The Register hacks are writing for. The jargon can soon get complicated.

      Even in Britain, with the rather tight loading gauge, 100 tonnes gross per hopper wagon is possible. That is going to be a huge train, with multiple locomotive units linked by a control circuit to get enough track-adhesion to move it. Even with a human driver, reliable control operation is going to be tricky. Having the driver in a control centre in Perth might not be so dramatic a jump.

      1. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: 236 carriages?

        "I think they use a different term in the USA"

        Yup. "Cars" in the generic case. "Hoppers" if they dump using floor hatches. "Gons" if they are just open wagons (short for "gondolas", pronounced gon DOH las rather than GON duh las).

        Dunno about the Oz terminology though.

    2. Peter Prof Fox
      Facepalm

      Re: 236 carriages?

      Might as well have been charabancs for all the sense it makes.

      AND the report miserably failed to give us the loco numbers. Is this the future of automated 'journalism'? No thanks!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 236 carriages?

      > Don't you mean "Wagons"

      Given the reference to TtTE in the title then they must be (troublesome) trucks

  8. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
    WTF?

    ore

    I once knew a guy who had worked there. He'd sent back to Europe *by post* a huge amount of iron ore. He wanted to make a wall of the quite decorative ore either side of his fireplace. It's hard to estimate how much but his barn was stacked high with the parcels that he'd sent, maybe 200kg! The cost of posting all that stuff must have been enormous.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    drivers overpaid as compensation for working...

    near future:

    We wish all the best for the future to our ex-employees, overpaid as compensation for working.

  10. ukgnome Silver badge
    Mushroom

    For some reason I immediately thought of Atomic Train.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But not the command trains of Schar's World?

      Task, tsk.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Deceptive headline

    Surely this is a step close to the Rev Awdry's vision - autonomous AI trains that often acted without the humans intervention. In fact it would make logical sense to put a friendly anthropomorphic face on the front of the train, which it could use to talk to any poor deluded soul that did end up on the tracks in the middle of nowhere, without scaring them further by appearing like an outtake from Mad Max.

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Deceptive headline

      Has anyone done a Thomas the Tank Engine / Rise of the Robots crossover yet?

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: Deceptive headline

        Has anyone done a Thomas the Tank Engine / Rise of the Robots crossover yet?

        Undoubtedly. As well as a Rule 34 version thereof.

  12. graeme leggett

    If I recall it's the Thin Controller and the Tall Controller who operate railways relating to mining in the Rev Audrey's books.

  13. MJI Silver badge

    Are they DC or DCC?

    We need to know!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In the Pilbara

    Nobody can hear you scream

  15. anothercynic Silver badge

    Given...

    ... that most trains already have been run in automatic mode, I don't see any problem with this, provided that there are sufficient failsafes to deal with eventualities...

  16. Peter Clarke 1
    Go

    Trouble Shooters

    I remember seeing a documentary series about the rescue team for when things (inevitably) go wrong. They managed it with only five vehicles. They worked all over the world so were truly International. It was FAB.

    Time for me to GO! ??

  17. Pedigree-Pete
    Paris Hilton

    Expensive importing goods to the area.....

    ....Genuine question. Once these enormous trains have made their destination, smelting plant, port etc, I assume they have to go back to get more. Loaded with what? Building materials for more homes perchance or more booze an gals? (Not sure the gals will enjoy the ride tho').PP

    Icon>Paris because it has a question mark and we'll think of the gals.

    1. John 104

      Re: Expensive importing goods to the area.....

      @Pedigree-Pete

      Considering the nature of the line, I'd guess they are running back dead-head (empty).

      For those who don't know, multi engine trains are no new thing. Go watch vids of Tahachapi Pass or Cajon pass on the West coast for some good examples. Or older footage of the SP lines in Oregon.

  18. DainB Bronze badge

    Isn't BHP doing it already for quite a some time ? They also use autonomous Caterpillar 793F AFAIR.

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