Rio Tinto has awarded the 2010 Terry Palmer Award for outstanding innovation in the workplace to the Pilbara Iron Railways division based in Karratha, Western Australia. The Terry Palmer Award, now in its tenth year, is presented to the team or individual who contributed the most outstanding example of innovation and improvement in process or work practice during 2009.

PIRD employed CATER to provide extraordinary inspection of the RTIO rail network between Tom Price and Karratha. This 1,100km network of 68k/m rail is amongst the world’s heaviest haul railway. At an effective average of 30km/hr, this project replaced the alternative option of employing track walkers to cover the distance.

The specific inspection requirements were provided by the Perth-based Australian company, Centre for Advanced Transport Engineering and Research (CATER). Testing runs, or audits, were completed, targeting previously difficult to inspect issues. In particular, PIRD needed to identify a series of bad welds within the total weld population. By using an instrumented vehicle the process of identifying these welds was faster, more accurate and less costly.

The technique employed leading edge imagery, location identification and image processing techniques to identify welds that matched a target image. Customised software was also written to link with Google Earth to provide spatial information about the defect locations. Such an arrangement has not previously been employed in an Australian railway.

This was an innovative research and development project which was undertaken over the past 12 months by the PIRD and CATER team. The adoption of this innovation and the removal of these high risk welds have substantially improved the reliability of the railway.

Cracked sleepers, weld type, location and condition, insulated joint condition and rail-head surface condition are examples of the assets tested. The information is analysed and comprehensive reports are included in the asset management database leading to condition monitoring. This can be used for benchmarking and trend progression analysis. Predictive maintenance is then possible for improved budget decision making.

The forward-thinking and passion to improve revenue traffic of the PIRD management and staff, in conjunction with the technical innovation and capability from CATER, has been rightly recognised by this prestigious award.