TRAINS COULD be hauling iron ore out of the West Angelas mine in the Pilbara, northwestern Australia, ’early in the second half’ of next year, thanks to an agreement reached on July 2 between Rio Tinto and the Robe River Joint Venture Partners. A year ago Rio Tinto successfully pushed through a A$3·5bn bid for Melbourne-based North Ltd, then the majority owner of Robe River Iron Associates, which had secured access to the West Angelas ore. The deal was opposed by the Japanese minority partners, Mitsui, Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Industries, as it reduced the number of Pilbara ore suppliers from three to two - Rio Tinto also owns Hamersley Iron, whose line to Yandicoogina runs close to the West Angelas ore body.

North had originally hoped to secure access to the Hamersley Iron tracks, but a court bid to achieve this failed, and North then proposed to build a 342 km line parallel to the Hamersley tracks to reach West Angelas. Rio Tinto’s bid for North threw this project into doubt, as it would clearly be simpler and cheaper to build a branch off the Hamersley route to tap the West Angelas ore body.

This is what has now been agreed, and in addition to construction of a 60 km spur south to West Angelas, a chord will be built where the Hamersley main line crosses the 205 km Robe River route from the Mesa J mine near Pannawonica to Cape Lambert. Further, around 50 km of the Hamersley main line will be doubled to increase capacity.

While Robe and Hamersley will still own their rail assets, a 50:50 joint venture company to be known as Pilbara Rail Co, will be set up as the operator and maintainer of the route. The parties have also agreed that an option to build the complete link will be kept open for the time when annual traffic from West Angelas reaches 15 million tonnes a year.

All this remains subject to agreement by the Western Australia state government.