Case Study: KiwiRail - Transforming New Zealand's rail network with technology

KiwiRail reduced construction risks and improving productivity by increasing digital capability on its new rail projects and upgrades.

KiwiRail is delivering a programme of work designed to bring transformational change to New Zealand's rail network. Using Building Information Modelling technology (BIM) and digital engineering, KiwiRail is increasing its digital connectivity and innovation to reduce construction risks and improve productivity on new rail projects.


The Trentham to Upper Hutt project, part of KiwiRail's Wellington rail upgrade programme, is its first BIM enabled project – designed to tackle the complexities of implementing BIM on a live construction site.

KiwiRail needed to identify partners that were willing to join them on the journey. The team focused on building the foundations that would set them up for success, such as partnering with organisations that share its objectives, developing fit for purpose technology infrastructure and using a 'fail-fast' approach – which meant encouraging new ideas to be tested and improved during the process.

The project consisted of laying a second rail track between the Trentham and Upper Hutt stations, building an additional platform and shelters at both stations, installing a pedestrian underpass beneath the Trentham station, and various improvements to pedestrian and level crossings around the new track.

Project overview

Project goal: To reduce construction risks and increase team productivity by increasing digital capability in new rail projects and upgrades.


  • KiwiRail's first digital modelling design and delivery project
  • Total project value of $70 million, due to be completed in late 2021
  • Project aims to increase rail network capacity and resilience in the Wellington metro area, and includes 2.7km of a double-tracked railway corridor between Trentham Station and Upper Hutt Station
  • Work includes level crossing improvements, upgrades to existing Trentham and Wallaceville stations and a new pedestrian underpass at Trentham
  • Project team procured through an Early Contractor Involvement model.

Applies to: The environment and culture can be applied on a range of projects by clients and providers who want to embed technology into their process.

Accord goals:

  • A productive, value-driven and efficient construction sector able to produce more for each dollar spent.

Accord outcomes:

  • A collaborative industry
  • Healthy and safe Kiwis
  • High performance culture
  • Trusted and respected professions
  • Consistent, reliable and timely project delivery.

Acord principles:

  • Working in a collaborative and inclusive way
  • Fostering innovation, research and development
  • Sharing knowledge and lessons learnt.

Project stage: The project is nearing completion and lessons from the project have already been applied across KiwiRail's other projects.

Beacon monitoring process: The Accord Beacons team will collect lessons from the implementation of BIM in subsequent KiwiRail projects.

Transforming New Zealand's rail network with technology

From the beginning of the Wellington rail network upgrades, KiwiRail found that technology would be a key enabler of success by improving efficiency and collaboration across different projects. It meant selecting a suitable pilot project and using it to develop a culture that was open to sharing the successes and challenges of embracing technology and new ways of working. To enable this to happen, the entire programme team needed to understand and support KiwiRail's digital vision.

Years of unstructured documentation and designs, and a historic lack of understanding of the value of data and information, meant that KiwiRail needed to build its digital capability from the ground up. The company needed to develop the team's digital skills and put in place systems and processes that would support the use of BIM. Digital delivery and its tools, frameworks and capabilities, needed to become a major part of the project's ethos.


A key part of KiwiRail's procurement process was identifying the right partners and developing collaborative and transparent working relationships. KiwiRail invited Downer, the preferred construction tenderer, and Aurecon, the design partner, to participate in interactive problem-solving sessions that tested collaborative behaviors and team culture. These sessions also gave KiwiRail the opportunity to share its vision for a paperless project and its focus on using digital technology to design, share and manage information – allowing the company to build a team of digitally-minded people for the project.

With the right team in place, KiwiRail and its contractors began thinking and solving problems in a 3D digital environment, with the shared goal of managing and eliminating risks during construction. Clashes between design and reality can have a big impact on cost, time and safety on construction projects – by increasing the likelihood of rework, defects and accidents. The risks related to construction work in the rail industry are also very high compared to other project settings – including the consequences of failing to comply with health and safety protocols, and unplanned disruption to the network causing significant disruption for customers and resulting in a loss of income for the rail network.

To ensure its teams shared this digital focus, KiwiRail developed a digital engineering framework that established requirements for Project Digital Work Plans and BIM Execution Plans. The requirements set out how the various parties should work together and what standards they should follow in their modelling. KiwiRail made the requirements, key project documentation and designs accessible to the project team through its common data environment – an information sharing hub – that was developed in the early stages of the project.

Working in an open, transparent and collaborative way helped KiwiRail, Downer, and Aurecon understand each other's perspectives and focus on getting the right people working on the right parts of the project. The benefits of seeing things from another person's perspective were demonstrated when developing the machine avoidance system. Locomotive engineers had the opportunity to sit in the excavator, while excavator operators were able to ride in the cab of a train – allowing each team to understand the impact of their activities on the wider network. This shared understanding resulted in the project team implementing further improvements, such as enhanced hazard lighting on the machine avoidance system.

KiwiRail also hosted multiple sessions focused on sharing lessons learnt, which allowed the team to continuously innovate, test and improve elements of the project. While they were making significant progress in reducing construction risk and the occurrence of clashes, there were still errors being found on site. By discussing this topic at one of the shared sessions, the team realised that this was due to a lack of formal process to address issues identified in the digital model. Future projects avoided this by implementing a collaborative tool to raise and address issues, which is now the standard tool across KiwiRail's projects.

Outcomes and benefits

The Trentham to Upper Hutt project and BIM pilot programme has changed the way KiwiRail approaches projects in the railway corridor. KiwiRail ran a comparison to measure the benefits of the new approach compared to a traditional project. The comparison found that for a complex project in a live transport corridor, there was a significant financial benefit. It also found that contract correspondence was greatly reduced, with the time saved equivalent to a year's work for one full-time employee.

Between the two projects KiwiRail found that delivery using BIM:

  • Reduced individual requests for information by 88%
  • Reduced individual notices to contractor by 83%
  • Reduced the forecasted contract cost by 55%
  • Reduced the programme timeframe by 62%

KiwiRail's approach has led to several breakthrough innovations that could deliver significant productivity benefits for New Zealand's rail network and the team believe that these improvements could not have been made under previous ways of working.

Some of the innovations and applications of BIM that were developed through the pilot include:

Machine control and avoidance technology

The machine control and avoidance tool improved safety and productivity by creating a 'digital shield' or barrier, which prevents construction machinery like excavators from hitting hazards. Digital engineers upload a 3D avoidance model to the machine's computer to create virtual no-go zones. Merging the model with each machine's GPS information means it shuts down when it is close to or crosses the digital shield.

How machine control and avoidance technology works(external link) -

Clash and service strike issues

KiwiRail reduced the occurrence of re-work – caused by coordination issues or service strikes during construction – by using 3D models that provide an accurate as-built record of services and constructed works. Access to a digital model of the asset during design and construction means quality assurance checks can be conducted effectively on a regular basis.

Monthly as-built process

The as-built process was shifted from the end of the project, when it is typically carried out, to become a live and ongoing part of the construction process. The monthly as-built process placed a strong focus on the value of collecting accurate information. Downer was able to use 3D models to provide monthly information, which supported the contractor's payment claims. KiwiRail could then create assets in small bitesize chunks, allowing the team to refine the way information was delivered and improve the asset handover process.

Digital consenting

Instead of using 2D manually drawn plans, BIM contains 3D models and non-geometrical data that enabled council planners to better examine the project and have increased confidence in its design and construction. By bringing local and regional councils in the Wellington region on its digital journey, KiwiRail and Aurecon provided them with specific information to enable a paperless consenting process. To manage access and hardware challenges, the project team also produced flyover videos using Google Earth to provide spatial context, earthworks, erosion and sediment control measures.

Watch the flyover video(external link) -

Improved scheduling

The project has had fewer scheduling issues than similar projects, which can be attributed to the collaborative, digitally focused project environment that KiwiRail created. For example, the machine control and avoidance tool has significantly improved efficiency, delivering a 25% efficiency gain on the earthworks process.

Digital tools on site

An indicator of success was when the digital designs started being used as a tool by workers onsite. For example, the construction team were able to pull data from the model into KiwiRail's 3D modelling software, Sketchup, for planning works. Geo-located data from site is fed back into the model, supporting more efficient and effective planning, reporting and cost control.

Using the 3D model on site has also improved progress reporting to KiwiRail and enabled greater clarity of earthwork volumes – contributing to the efficiency gains.

Engaging with the community

The 3D models were also used by KiwiRail and Aurecon's stakeholder and communications team for engaging with the public. Using virtual reality glasses and augmented reality, the team showed the community and school children what was being built – alleviating some fears about the project and helping to build awareness of how to stay safe along the railway corridor. They also used eye tracking technology in the virtual reality headsets to analyse how children experienced the proposed designs for level-crossings, which was considered during the design process.

Watch a video about engaging with the community(external link) -

Lessons learnt

Make learning lessons part of your project culture

The lessons learnt sessions that KiwiRail hosted with its project partners helped to identify issues and challenges and develop appropriate solutions on a regular basis. It was important that these sessions were a priority and that the team felt empowered by leaders to make changes along the way.

Get people on board with the digital vision

Achieving buy-in and understanding of the purpose and objectives of delivering through BIM requires a commitment by all parties, including subcontractors, supported by strong engagement, training and communication. When a team learns together it strengthens collaboration.

It’s also important to start with the right people in the room. KiwiRail's BIM approach requires a collaborative design team, involving all designers right from the start. This also helps to provide the significant amount of digital engineering resource required at the start of the project to deliver all the necessary 3D models.

Identify and develop key skills for critical roles

There are only a certain number of people that can operate the models on site, requiring an investment in training and development for those roles. For example, to enable data-driven cost estimating you need people who know how to input data into the model. Capability issues can lead to problems. It is critical to have an engineer or technician capable of accessing the model that can effectively integrate within the construction team. It is also important to have a document controller from the beginning of the project.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

One of the greatest lessons for KiwiRail in delivering this pilot project was to 'give it a go'. There will always be reasons why teams will deter from trying something new – be it budget constraints, time pressures or resource shortages. KiwiRail's success in piloting digital engineering and developing a new way was driven by starting small and refining along the way. The goal should be to: 'be a little bit better than yesterday'.

More detail and documentation about Kiwirail's digital engineering journey(external link) -

Last updated: 30 September 2021