Oh dear! Poor old mother country. Over the years, we’ve got used to Australia handing out Ashes whitewashes, the Wallabies putting us out of the Rugby World Cup, Kylie Minogue topping the pop charts, and the country having a stable government.
Now this; for the last few months, train travel in the UK has been stressful, to say the least, as the train companies have struggled to implement the new timetable they decided to bring in, with the intention of improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of travellers, including commuters. Well, it didn’t quite work like that, and journey times have ballooned. “It’ll be all right soon,” they say. Mmm, glad I don’t have to use it too often. And, of course, the chaos created by all this has refreshed the calls from the “nationalisation cures all” wing of the political left to step back in time to a mythical golden era.
So what has this to do with Australia? Well, at the same time as the UK shows itself incapable of running an efficient railway, the first fully automated, driverless trains have been ramped up to regular service in Pilbara, hauling Rio’s iron ore from the mines to the port at Cape Lambert. That’s a 280 kilometre journey, and the on-board camera systems are monitored from Perth, 1500 kilometres away.
My comparison, of course, is not entirely fair. There is a significant difference between running a national railway system transporting millions of passengers and a freight route operating between just two points (although many individual mines) and having no intermediate stopping requirements. Nevertheless, there are, for example, level crossings along the route (although I suspect traffic frequency may be measured by the week not by the hour) and potentially severe weather conditions. The train operators (and the regulators) are satisfied that safe operations are viable. Citic Pacific are also heading in the same autonomous train direction for their similar mining activities.
What’s making these operations possible is the growing confidence in artificial intelligence, and, at the same time, the reducing cost and growing reliability of the equipment, particularly the sensors. That reliability is obviously the bit that focuses the minds of the transport regulators.
There are two extreme ways of looking at developments like this; there is the Luddite view that anything that changes or reduces jobs must be resisted at all costs, and the arch-capitalist approach that anything which reduces the need for workers must be good. Then in the middle is the sane approach, that replacing dull, repetitive jobs with automation frees up a workforce to do other things. Sitting in a railway engine cab watching the outback of Western Australia go past for hours on end is, I suspect, hardly a stimulating activity; and on the other hand, the global market in mining automation technology is predicted to grow from US$2.2 billion in 2017 to US$3.3 billion by 2023 - that’s a fifty percent increase in five years. That will create a lot of activity in design, development and - crucially - manufacturing.
So hats off to Rio and Australia for pioneering this development - and can we please borrow the man who put it all in place to take over Govia Thameslink Railways, so we in the UK can at least have a realistic crack at having some trains run efficiently, or at least on schedule?