If the idea of this seems vague or strange, it’s no wonder: Mining railways are not well-known by the public. Hollywood films like “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom” portray them as rickety wagons with rusting tracks. Video games and even roller-coaster rides portray mining railways, and the deep earth, as eerie and chaotic. Perhaps, more generally, the public has no clear idea what a deep mine could be like.
A visit to the LKAB mine in Kiruna, Sweden provides a real idea of railway mining today. At the exterior of the mine, only a few people are required at a control centre to oversee loaders, which are placing the mine’s ore onto above-ground railway trains. What is underground is even more interesting.
A truck drives you through circular tunnels down to the ‘1365 level.’ This level, which is actually about 1365 metres below the original top of the mountain above, is the newest deep frontier. Here, a sub-control centre awaits with only a handful of people inside: Some use joysticks to ensure train cars are properly loaded with iron ore, remotely drilled on levels above the cars and dropping through chutes. Others watch monitors, showing train cars unloading ore into crushers and conveyors and then onto hoists that lift it to the surface.
Once, this mine might have been filled with men and equipment, and drills and dynamite. Today, the mine resembles an ultra-modern subway system: Driverless trains glide through smooth, clear tunnels. The workers in the sub-control centre largely observe as a high-tech signalling system manages loading and hauling.
It’s not just the LKAB mine where you’ll find such streamlined operations. Advanced railway mining systems like this are found world-wide: at copper mines in the Chile, coal mines in Columbia, Indonesian gold mines, and other mines around the world.
Modern Railway Mining
Railways have two basic roles in mining: they act as a key component of the production chain within a mine and bring commodities from the mine to port to be shipped onward to markets. A key component of any railway is a signalling system. With standard parts including balises and switch point machines, a basic signalling system has the primary purpose of directing and stopping the train. In comparison, an advanced signalling system aims for greater efficiency. A central computer acts as a control centre and optimises train routes and speed by communicating with a small onboard computer fitted onto the train itself.
The technical sophistication of advanced signalling systems is reflected in train movements. Traditional rail systems move in ‘block sections,’ where each train can only pass when an entire block section is clear. In advanced signalling systems, there are ‘moving blocks’: Basically, these blocks are like a ‘red carpet’ continuously rolling out in front of a train, allowing safety but optimising space and capacity. The train can even be driverless, so the system is fully automated.
High-Tech Meets Deep Earth
According to Tyler Conley, Head of Bombardier’s Industrial Rail Control Solutions, an advanced signalling system is distinguished by “what you don’t need: a lot of equipment beside the tracks.” Additional equipment not only brings up the price of a signalling system’s installation and maintenance; it can also add safety risks for maintenance workers. Conley adds that interest in high-tech signalling systems is growing not just for underground mines but also for mine to port operations. With today’s lower commodity prices, mining operators are upgrading signalling systems to lower operating costs while improving safety.
Standing inside the deepest part of Sweden’s LKAB mine, more than 1300 metres below the surface, is a pleasant surprise: Fully automated driverless trains of twenty or more cars move along well-maintained tracks, with almost no extra equipment. It’s all very clean, with no operational dust, and worker safety is maximized. The new railway mining era has arrived: Smart railway mining inside the deep earth.
Advanced Signalling Systems and INTERFLO 150
Bombardier’s INTERFLO 150, an advanced signalling system, uses a central computer that optimises train routes and priorities. The traffic control centre -‘Interlocking’ - communicates via radio with the ‘Onboard,’ a small computer fitted onto the train that controls where and how fast the train can go. Designed for industrial applications and automation, the INTERFLO 150 solution includes features such as integrated loading/ unloading and a built-in driverless system.
Solution Manager for Industrial