A KiwiRail driver’s journey from tech sceptic to DAS champion

Published January 15, 2024 in Blog

New Zealand’s largest rail transport operator, KiwiRail, achieves impressive fuel cost savings and decarbonisation outcomes by using Trapeze’s Driver Advice System (DAS). For almost a decade, DAS driver champions have played a crucial part in KiwiRail’s successful introduction, acceptance, and ongoing use of this technology.

The Trapeze DAS solution provides real-time advice for drivers of any type of train. The software generates and continually adjusts an optimal journey profile and provides operating advice to achieve it. The advice considers factors including track geometry and speed profile, timetable, train characteristics, and train position.

Implementing in-cab advice is ultimately a decision for the driver on each trip, so the influence of an experienced driver champion is essential to help their colleagues appreciate the system’s value. Trapeze provides DAS training, including for union representatives, enabling champions to support fellow drivers in the future.

KiwiRail’s original DAS champion was experienced locomotive engineer, Robin Simmons, who would later be a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to the rail industry. In 2014 he helped evaluate DAS despite initially doubting the predicted ten per cent fuel consumption savings.

After a four-month trial it was clear the savings had been achieved and Robin became instrumental in KiwiRail’s adoption of the technology. Between 2015 and 2020 the business saved 17 million litres of fuel, and with DAS KiwiRail continues to achieve an annual 13.5% reduction in fuel costs.

Following Robin’s retirement another experienced driver, Adam O’Sullivan, now supports his KiwiRail colleagues as they use the system. We asked Adam to share his personal driving journey from being a technology sceptic to becoming the organisation’s DAS driver champion.

An ‘old-school’ driver

“I’d been driving KiwiRail freight trains for two or three years when I first heard about a driver advisory system that was coming onto the scene. My initial reaction was that I hated it. I felt like DAS was telling me what to do.

“I had been trained the ‘old-school’ way which prioritised train-handling. This meant focusing on in-train forces, keeping the train stretched without drifting or coasting, and maintaining the track speed limit. I drove a particular way to ensure the train was handled well, then the DAS advice threw my personal driving style out of the window!

“My negativity stemmed from DAS telling me to drive the train in a way which was contrary to my professional instincts. I preferred to use the airbrake, to use the power, and to keep the train at line speed while avoiding any sort of run-in, coasting, or dynamic braking. Under my original training I would never consider dynamic braking down to a speed restriction, I just would never do that.

“When I was first signed off on DAS, I would log in then ignore the advice, so the system was essentially on but not used. I was constantly in the team leader’s office being pulled up for poor driving practices. I kept up the battle, thinking that it was my train so I would drive it how I wanted to.”

Influence of the driver champion

“The turning point actually occurred because of my interest in steam trains. As well as being our DAS champion, Robin Simmons was also responsible for KiwiRail’s heritage trains. I approached Robin about a heritage driving role and he told me to come back when I’d learned to do my job properly!

“Robin was a no-nonsense personality so I wasn’t laughing at the time, but he had cleverly planted a seed in my mind. Over the next few weeks I reflected upon where I wanted to be in my career, and it didn’t take long for me to really connect with the fuel efficiency aspect of the DAS system.

“I realised I had been pretty selfish by concentrating on my own perspective inside the cab. Robin taught me to see the bigger picture and consider how I could help the business maintain our fuel-efficiency advantage over trucks, which are our main competitor.

“My perspective became that coasting a 1,500 tonnes train for 15 kms was actually a pretty cool thing, instead of constantly being on the power then on the brake. The penny dropped that if you follow DAS advice, you’re effectively moving the train for free for that 15 kms.

“A significant mindset change for me was realising that combining a driver’s own skills and judgement with the advice is the best use of DAS. I would look at the advice then improve it in small ways, because I understood that I could also make it better at times.

“This showed me DAS isn’t about de-skilling drivers. The more I used DAS the more I understood that train handling is still important, because those skills can be incorporated into the driving advice. The new approach really paid off in how I use DAS myself, and also in how I train other drivers to use DAS. I teach them to combine their own skills as a driver with the advice.”

Just another aspect of our job

“As someone who was once a hardcore DAS sceptic, I can say that anti-DAS sentiment among KiwiRail drivers has pretty much disappeared. Today it is just another aspect of our job, I believe ninety-five per cent of our drivers would agree with me on that.

“Things have changed a great deal in the last ten years. This is an easier environment to introduce change and new ideas, because people are more accepting of technology since it is so common in all areas of their daily lives. Drivers are no different.

“Nowadays I’m often in the classroom with trainee drivers to explain our fuel burn, fuel costs, and the fuel savings that can be achieved. We also teach direct comparisons with truck transport and how we need to remain the more fuel-efficient transport mode.

“I spend a lot of time explaining that DAS will have you running slower if there is room within the schedule to do so. This doesn’t mean you’re running late. Once drivers understand this reasoning, it makes the technology much easier to accept at four o’clock in the morning when you’re tired and you’re trying to get home.”

Create a culture of acceptance

Having an influential DAS champion helped KiwiRail avoid a potential obstacle during its implementation of the system, by creating a culture of acceptance that is now being advanced by Adam O’Sullivan and the next generation of drivers.

The in-cab driving advice made an immediate impact on operations. After KiwiRail fully introduced DAS in 2015, its 2020 target for lowering energy consumption was achieved four years early. This impressive outcome prompted the organisation to increase its 2020 target by more than 50 GWh. KiwiRail and Trapeze Rail continue their partnership to identify further initiatives in reducing fuel use and carbon emissions.

Want to discuss how your business could benefit from implementing Trapeze’s DAS solution? Our experts are available now to help you learn more so get in touch today.

Mode of Transport



Driving Advice System (DAS)

Meet the author

Trapeze Group

Contact us

Group 17 Copy