Remote controls are revolutionising one of Australia’s oldest industries — the cane train.
Since the days of steam, locomotives have been used to haul thousands of tonnes of cut cane from farms to local sugar mills for processing.
“It’s a big industry,” Gary Vaughan, a cane train driver of 14 years out of Invicta Mill, at Giru in north Queensland, said.
“There’s a lot involved, you know at this particular mill the train network is very professional, it’s set up with passing loops and trail points and there’s a large group of men and women that work here.”
Traditionally, cane trains have been operated by two-person crews; a driver and a pointsman, or driver’s assistant.
“They [the driver] slow down as they’re coming up to a set of points,” David Mewes, rail historian and curator of The Workshops Railway Museum at Ipswich, said.
“The driver’s assistant will have to jump off and run ahead and change the points in front if they’re going to a different track.
“That’s part of the operation of the train.”
But history is making way for modern technology, and radio remote control technology is allowing the industry to transition to driver-only locomotives.
A major part of the change is the increasing use of a remote shunting unit (RSU) on cane trains across the country.
The RSU allows the driver to use a hand-held remote to carry out shunting from outside the locomotive cab.
Shunting is when you push or pull the train, or part of the train, from the main line to a siding.
“[There] was quite a bit of training involved with it,” cane-train driver Gary Vaughan said.
“It took a bit of getting used to, especially at night time, but it works quite well.”
The technology has been used on cane trains across numerous sugar mills in Australia for the past 30 years.
Wilmar, which owns and operates eight sugar mills across Queensland cane-growing regions, said its Invicta Mill at Giru was on track to become the first in Australia to use 100 per cent driver-only trains.
Mr Vaughan said the transition to driver-only cane trains had been the biggest change to the industry in his 14 years as a driver.
He said although it may seem like operating a driver-only cane train would be lonely, there was actually still a lot of interaction throughout an eight-hour shift.
“We’ve got shunt radio communication with other locos, a lot of the guys carry two-ways or UHF radios where we can talk to contractors,” Mr Vaughan said.
“There’s quite a lot of communication, rather than just person-to-person.”
The hardware and software required to transition Wilmar’s cane train fleet to driver-only was installed at Invicta prior to the 2016 crushing season.
The mill is on track to be serviced solely by driver-only cane trains by the beginning of 2018.