pink train

Roy Hill is the first among a handful of major miners adopting a FLXdrive battery-electric, heavy-haul locomotive to move massive amounts of ore hundreds of kilometers. (Photo: Wabtec)

Rail haulage specialists offer solutions that help their customers prepare for the world tomorrow, and increase revenue now

By Jesse Morton, Technical Writer

Rail haulage OEMs for mining recently announced developments and solutions that help their customers address their big transport challenges. Aboveground, a precedent-setting, battery-powered, heavy-haul locomotive will help power a consist moving massive amounts of iron ore hundreds of
kilometers from mine to port. A fully electric, autonomous rail solution is seeing demand from top-tier miners looking for ways to decarbonize material haulage both aboveground and underground.

In the underground mining rail space, a wireless communications solutions supplier released new gateways that allow an autonomous locomotive to talk to a network. And a used and rebuilt locomotive and car supplier can deliver solutions quickly to help customers reduce downtime amid supply chain constraints.

The OEMs say their capabilities and solutions help their customers prepare for the future. They also deliver real benefits today.

Roy Hill Adopts Battery-powered Locomotive

Wabtec reported Roy Hill adopted a FLXdrive battery locomotive, “the world’s first battery-powered heavy-haul locomotive for mainline service.” With a 7-megawatt-hour (mWh) battery system, the locomotive and two existing Wabtec diesel-electric locomotives, in a consist, will pull a 2.6-km train hauling more than 33,000 metric tons (mt) of iron ore 344 km downhill from the mine to the port and then back.

Wabtec said the FLXdrive locomotive is a major step in the company’s and the miner’s journey to a low- or zero-emissions future. “Roy Hill is an ideal customer to partner with given their leadership and excellent operational record,” said CEO Rafael Santana.

The locomotive is the pinnacle of more than two decades of research and development into battery technology, battery management solutions, and locomotive design, said Rogerio Mendonca, president, freight equipment, Wabtec. “More than 20 years ago, we were investing in what we call the hybrid battery locomotive.”

In 2019, Wabtec announced FLXdrive. In 2021, the supplier announced that during a 3-month pilot with BNSF Railway a FLXdrive battery-electric locomotive in a consist delivered an 11% reduction in fuel consumption. Travelling more than 21,000 km in hilly California terrain, the unit helped save 23,500 liters of fuel and 63 mt of CO2 emissions, Wabtec said.

Other companies adopting FLXdrive locomotives include BHP, Rio Tinto, and Vale, said Tim Bader, director, external communications, Wabtec. “Miners are early adopters when it comes to battery technology.”

The locomotive destined for Roy Hill is currently in final assembly at a Wabtec facility in Pennsylvania and will ship in 2024 to the Pilbara. It is hot pink in color to symbolize the miner’s commitment to assisting research into breast cancer. It has state-of-the art technology that encapsulates the supplier’s research into battery and battery management technology.

The battery cell chemistry is lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC). “This is a chemistry that allows higher power density,” Mendonca said. “For Roy Hill and for most of the mining applications that we are talking about today we believe that NMC is the right chemistry for these heavy-haul, high-density, high-power applications.”

The cells are packaged into modules. The modules are packaged into packs. “And the packs are super large-scale locomotive-size battery structures,” Mendonca said.

The modules include a cooling system, a vibration protection system, and electronic controls. The systems and controls are designed to maximize the power capacity of the locomotive while optimizing the life of the battery and the safety of the overall system. Wabtec’s digital solution, FLX Optimizer, manages the power usage of the FLXdrive battery locomotive and the other diesel locomotives to reduce the consist’s fuel consumption and emissions.

“The FLX Optimizer is the system that operates and integrates the different locomotives in the consist,” Mendonca said. “They basically control which locomotive does what at each point of operation,” he said. “It will determine what is the best operation, when the battery should run the train, when the diesel should run the train, when the battery should be recharging verses when the battery should be applying power.”

Wabtec FLXdrive

Recent innovations in battery technology and locomotive design plowed the road for the advent of battery-powered, heavy-haul locomotives in mining. Above, a prototype Wabtec FLXdrive locomotive is tested in 2021 by BNSF in California, U.S. (Photo: Wabtec)

FLX Optimizer is similar technology to Wabtec’s Trip Optimizer, which is “an intelligent cruise control system for trains programmed through artificial intelligence to respond to every curve and grade of the track in the most energy-efficient way possible,” Wabtec said.

Two mechanisms will be used to recharge the FLXDrive locomotive at Roy Hill. Regenerative braking on the downhill stretch of the circuit will charge the batteries. “They can also be statically charged,” Mendonca said. “It can be plugged into a charging station and charged there.”

Currently, Wabtec is developing a dynamic charging system that could someday be deployed at customer operations. “Basically these locomotives would have an overhanging catenary and through pantographs they would charge as they operate,” he said. Dynamic charging could occur in loading and unloading areas, where the locomotive typically moves at a slow speed.

Only recently did battery technology reach a point where it could power a locomotive robust enough for the application at Roy Hill. For example, the battery-powered locomotive Wabtec tested with BNSF in 2021 had 18,000 lithium-ion cells giving “the equivalent of 2.4 mWh of battery power,” Mendonca said. “The locomotive that we are now delivering to Roy Hill has the equivalent of 7 mWh battery power,” he said. “The power density and the power volume are critical characteristics of the product.”

Battery technology is “evolving fast” as is “our ability to package a higher amount of energy in a locomotive,” Mendonca said. “That is critical, very important,” he said. “The more power we are able to pack inside those locomotives the better.”

Size limits to locomotives that have to pass through tunnels or under bridges limit the number of battery cells that can be used. “The height and the width of the locomotives are limited as is the weight per axle,” Mendonca said. “That is what limits the battery system size, and we try to put in as much batteries as possible.”

For the FLXDrive locomotive, Wabtec removed the diesel engine and the alternator. “We tried to optimize and use all of that space for batteries,” he said. “Combining a large-scale, cost-efficient battery with a very reliable and proven base locomotive architecture is what is allowing us to have this very first heavy-haul battery-powered locomotive.”


Above, a Railveyor electric, autonomous material haulage solution operates in an underground mine in North America. Railveyor solutions are gaining interest from major mining companies due to the benefits offered. (Photo: Railveyor)

The locomotive will add optionality for Roy Hill, Mendonca said. “The batteries will have the opportunity to be charged when they are coming down and braking, and they will have the opportunity to pull the train at certain points not only to help with the overall power but also to optimize the fuel efficiency at certain points where the demand for power is less intense,” he said. “It is an empty train up, a loaded train down, with the ability to charge and use the battery at different points of that journey.”

The deployment is a “joint journey with the customer” that shows that Wabtec is “committed to creating and maintaining a portfolio of efficient solutions,” Mendonca said.

“That means increasingly more efficient diesel-electric locomotives, increasingly more powerful diesel-electric locomotives, all the way to the introduction of batteries and other power technologies going forward,” he said. “With that portfolio we believe we will be supporting not only the decarbonization journey of our customers but fundamentally their requirements for operational efficiency, energy efficiency, and cost efficiency.”

Electric, Autonomous Solution Decarbonizes

Railveyor said as the mining industry embraces decarbonization, demand is steadily growing for its fully electric, autonomous rail haulage solutions. “We have numerous inquiries from major miners to small-scale miners, in both underground and open pit applications,” said Nik Gresshoff, executive vice president, sales and marketing. “We have seen a shift in demand from European and North American countries that, in the simplest terms, closely follows the underlying trends of decarbonization in industry.”

Operations in Northern Europe are known for “leading the way in electrified and automated mining,” he said. “We are getting more interest from that region as well as from the Iberian peninsula.”

The list of potential new customers increasingly includes bigger operations, indicating possibly a new trend. “The mining industry is not known as an early adopter of new tech. Change triggers a certain hesitation,” Gresshoff said. Historically, “second- and third-tier miners” have chosen Railveyor solutions “to give themselves a competitive edge,” he said. “But now we are fielding significant interest from some of the majors.”

The increased demand also follows the release of a white paper that showed Railveyor outperforming competitor solutions at lowering costs and cutting emissions. “The GHG emissions and economics of Railveyor and competing material transport systems have been analyzed by internationally recognized sustainability consulting firm, Warm Springs Consulting,” Gresshoff said. “Across a number of different metrics, the data shows that Railveyor offers both the lowest emissions and lowest total cost of ownership.”

The increased demand is also in part driven by activist investors. Increasingly, conformity to United Nations Agenda 2030 sustainability guidelines now tops the lists of priorities of institutional investors. “Investors are telling mining companies that their investments or supply chain must be carbon-neutral by a certain date,” he said. “Mining companies have made commitments to that and now must follow through on those commitments.”

Fulfilling those commitments may not be possible when using only traditional haulage solutions that “have not advanced quickly enough to meet those requirements,” Gresshoff said. “Railveyor is here and ready,” he said. “We are a proven technology to help investors and miners reach the carbon-neutral goals they have promised to their shareholders.”

Railveyor also offers the general energy efficiency investors laud. “Railveyor uses a regenerative system that allows for the trains that are running down a grade to feed power back into the system,” Gresshoff said. “Railveyor also offers low rolling resistance, high payload-to-weight ratio, and uses industry-leading electric motors, so no matter where you get your electricity from, Railveyor uses it more efficiently.”

Inspired by investors and U.N. guidelines, potential new customers are inquiring about “advanced power systems, including generation using solar or wind, as well as battery-energy storage systems to further complement emission reductions,” he said.

Beyond sustainability benefits, Railveyor is a lifecycle haulage solution. “In the early stages, Railveyor offers flexibility in the design phase,” Gresshoff said. “With the ability to go up grades of 30% and around bends of 20 m, mines can retrofit Railveyor to available pathways or, in a greenfield application, design a system that more closely follows the orebody, reducing development costs,” he said. “The low OPEX of Railveyor additionally allows for the further development of ore bodies that might not have been financially viable using traditional techniques.”

In the design phase or as a retrofit, a Railveyor solution can be engineered to “add value in every facet of the operation,” Gresshoff said. “For instance, Railveyor presents an opportunity to remove tramp steel early in the material haulage process and remove potential manual handling prior to entering the comminution circuit,” he said. “Lots of customers separate mining from processing and don’t equate the on-flow benefits.”

In later stages of the lifecycle, Railveyor offers needed workplace safety benefits. “Railveyor’s autonomy provides a driverless method to move ore,” Gresshoff said. “Not having people driving trucks up and down ramps eliminates numerous safety risks and mitigates labor demands, which can be challenging in the current market.” With no exhaust gases or particulates, it supports a cleaner work environment that requires comparatively minimal ventilation.

The autonomous capability can help a miner address labor shortages. “We also have a philosophy of keeping it simple, both in code, products and components,” Gresshoff said. Railveyor solutions use industry-standard components, which means it is less exposed to supply chain constraints.

“We allow for miners to use the global supply chains of the major OEMs,” he said. “Of course, our software sits on top, and we offer globally connected services to ensure that no matter where the mine is, they will be supported by our centralized team in Sudbury, Canada.”

Anybus Communicator

An in-house case study shows the mining-class Anybus Communicator gateways offers fast data transfer and communications between a network and an underground locomotive with autonomous and remote control capabilities. (Image: HMS)

To answer the growing demand, the company is adding options and opening offices. “We have recently opened an office in Australia to cater to the demand for electrified haulage inquiries coming out of Australia,” Gresshoff said. “We have partnered with mining consulting companies to ensure Railveyor is designed in from an early stage,” he said. “Our global reach has expanded to include sales offices in Kazakhstan and Australia while also filling in our North American presence.”

At the same time, research and development at Railveyor is producing new design features and capabilities. “For example, we are currently working on ways to optimize the drive quantities,” Gresshoff said.

“We are also experimenting with coatings to increase friction for customers in extremely wet or icy conditions,” he said. “We have added a larger train size of 48 in. (1.22 m), which allows us to carry almost double the tonnage per train car or increase the lump size over prior years.”

The innovation helps to guarantee the future viability of the solution as a means to decarbonization and increased revenue, Gresshoff said. “It’s not just improvements in new solutions, but we are also ensuring that our installed base benefits from any technical advances,” he said. “We see growth continuing.”

Gateways Connect Autonomous Locomotives

HMS Networks recently introduced 23 next-generation Anybus Communicator gateways, and plans for additional releases in the future.

The Anybus Communicator gateway connects a network to machine control systems, sensors and devices. It allows “the user to connect CAN equipment to almost any PLC system,” HMS Networks said. In underground mining, it can connect a network to a locomotive with autonomous and remote control capabilities.

“The Anybus Communicator CAN gateway does not require any software or hardware changes to the host devices, as all protocol conversion is made inside the gateway,” the company said. Connected to the network over WiFi, the “Anybus Communicator CAN realizes seamless communication between different devices, and the product is easy to use, secure and reliable.”

The new networks offer a host of benefits, an expert at the company said. “First, they’re incredibly easy to use,” said Fredrik Brynolf, product manager, Anybus Gateways.

“Their effective housing design and intuitive user interface enable users to quickly install and configure the gateways,” he said. “We believe ease-of-use is increasingly essential as the number of devices is growing faster than the number of automation engineers.”

Ease of installation and use means they can help companies reduce some labor costs. “The gateway’s ease-of-use helps a miner quickly install, configure, or troubleshoot the gateway, saving valuable time,” Brynolf said.

The new gateways offer the needed data-transfer speed. They are “up to 10 times quicker than their predecessors and can transfer volumes of data to and from connected PLCs,” Brynolf said. The gateways are also designed “to keep you safe from cyberattacks, a critical consideration as more OT systems are connected to IT systems.”

The new Anybus Communicator gateways offer twice the life expectancy of predecessor models.

Benefits the new models share with predecessor models include the ability to support “custom CAN protocols, allowing users to build their own protocols refined for their application,” Brynolf said.

The company offers more than 400 unique gateways. “This means we can solve any industrial connectivity issue,” he said.

“To simplify supply, we offer the Anybus Communicator Common Ethernet gateway, allowing you to use the same physical gateway and download the software package for the specific industrial Ethernet network,” he said. “This approach enables you to maintain a stock of Common Ethernet gateways and download the software for the required protocol when needed.”

The Anybus Communicator is built with “selected industrial components and verified against industry standards,” Brynolf said. “Furthermore, the gateways hold certifications for worldwide usage and compliance with relevant network organizations.”

5-min locomotive

Mining Equipment Ltd. has numerous locomotives and cars on site that can be rapidly customized and shipped. Above, locomotives on the shop floor. (Photo: Mining Equipment)

The gateways can help a miner increase revenues it two main ways. “Firstly, when they’re investing in new equipment, they can focus solely on choosing the best equipment for their application,” he said.

“Select the machine that helps increase production, revenue, and profits,” Brynolf said. “Don’t worry if it’s not using the same protocol as the control system because you can easily use a gateway to convert the protocol.”

The gateways also allow a customer to continue using existing equipment that is working well. “You don’t need to invest huge sums in upgrading equipment to improve connectivity,” Brynolf said. “The easier and cheaper approach is to use a gateway to connect legacy equipment with modern machinery.”

An in-house case study at a hard rock mine in China published by HMS Networks shows the Anybus Communicator enables fast data transfer and communications between a network and an underground locomotive with autonomous and remote control capabilities.

At the mine “an unmanned driving system handles the operation of the locomotive, automatic loading of ore, material levels at the unloading station and monitoring of ore,” the study said. “It also handles safety and emergency stops, material level detection and much more.”

The locomotive’s automation and control features allow it to be remotely operated from the surface. The miner had “a special motion controller called EPEC as the control unit,” the study said.

“The motion control unit has a 16-bit processor and a CAN communication interface,” it said. “It is used as a controller in a CAN control system to connect different sensors and actuators and other devices.”

The aboveground main control station uses a Siemens S7-400, which uses PROFINET for communication. “Therefore, the communication between the EPEC controller and the Siemens controller has become a key issue,” the study said. The miner adopted an Anybus Communicator CAN to connect the “CAN controller of the locomotive to the PROFINET controller of main control station.”

The miner quickly realized many of the offered benefits. “The Anybus Communicator CAN has proven to be very reliable, allowing the user to connect CAN equipment to almost any PLC system,” the study said.

“The Anybus Communicator CAN gateway does not require any software or hardware changes to the host devices, as all protocol conversion is made inside the gateway,” it said. The gateway allows the miner to “freely choose equipment in different parts of the system without worrying about different communication standards.” The communication between the PLC and the locomotive and other devices is “seamless,” and “the product is easy to use, secure and reliable.”

The new gateways encapsulate technical knowledge gained from more than 30 years of experience in industrial communications, Brynolf said. “During this time, we’ve worked with all the industrial protocols and have built a huge portfolio of Anybus gateways,” he said. “We can convert almost any protocol to help you establish the required connectivity, regardless of the application or system.”

Mining-class Anybus Communicator gateways are designed to last, he said. “We use durable components that work in the tough conditions found in industrial environments,” Brynolf said. “We offer renowned support whenever needed.”

Railveyor 2-min

Designed to the specifications of the customer, Railveyor driverless material handling solutions offer low emissions, safety benefits, and ways to simplify maintenance even amid trending supply chain constraints. (Image: Railveyor)

Custom Rebuilds Save Money, Time

Mining Equipment said buying a custom rebuild can save money and time. “They are probably looking at 65% to 75% of the cost of new,” said Matt Pope, co-president. “We totally rebuild it and it comes with a warranty.”

The supplier has locomotives and cars on site and ready to be customized before shipping. “It is in our yard and it is in our possession,” he said.

“We control it and can rebuild it and get it out in a hurry,” Pope said. “We are not brokering somebody else’s equipment.”

Contrast that arrangement with buying new, which today often requires a lead time of many months. “When we order, we wait twelve months for new engine packages for repowering units,” he said.

The company started out as a used and rebuilt equipment supplier. “That is still in our roots and what we do,” Pope said. “We probably have 200 different locomotives in inventory right now, whether they be diesel or battery, and from a ton and a half up to 40 tons,” he said. “We’ve got a wide range of locomotives and rolling stock available.”

Inventoried cars include muck cars, flat cars, personnel cars, and customizable new cars. “Mining Equipment, and the former Muhlhauser equipment, is used in mines and tunnel projects around the world,” Pope said. “It is tried and true,” he said. “Mines depend on it and it gets the job done.”

Mining Equipment offers support and service on every purchase. “We’ve got technicians that can come on site,” Pope said. “Whether that is for commissioning or if there’s problems, we totally understand that downtime costs these mines a lot more money than did the equipment causing the downtime.”

That understanding and consistently meeting the needs of customers is “something that separates us from other suppliers,” he said.

“We really don’t compete with many other used equipment suppliers,” Pope said. “When we’re competing, it is with our own stuff or with new manufacturers.”