KiwiRail is seeking an urgent transport rule change to ensure passenger trains don't get stuck in tunnels if the engine catches fire.
The Transport Agency ordered automatic fire suppressors fitted to all passenger train locomotives and freight engines for going through the Ōtira Tunnel, which runs underneath the Southern Alps on the route between Christchurch and Greymouth.
The suppressors, which cut out engines in the event of a fire, do not allow the driver to over-ride them.
"The regulations ... don't give us that flexibility to get out of there," KiwiRail group asset manager David Gordon said.
"We and the union both agree you are better to give the driver that choice."
KiwiRail wants drivers to be able to over-ride that in a tunnel, and expects the Transport Agency to agree to the rule change.
The move is just one of a host of train tunnel safety measures being rolled out in a $70-80 million programme.
Rail and Maritime Transport Union organiser Karen Fletcher said it had taken relentless pressure and WorkSafe's intervention to spark action.
"Through the improvement notices they [WorkSafe] put on KiwiRail we've started to see some real progress."
KiwiRail hit embarrassing lows over tunnel safety five years ago.
In August 2012, 10 contract maintenance workers stumbled out of the 8km-long Kaimai Tunnel sick from breathing fumes.
An inquiry found they ignored gas alarms that went off as their petrol-driven grinding machines generated exhaust fumes, they lacked emergency evacuation equipment and they were not given a medical check-up once they got up.
The following year, similar failings occurred at the steep and long Ōtira Tunnel near Arthur's Pass.
Four years on, the state-owned operator is halfway through meeting a second lot of nine WorkSafe improvement notices.
"We're spending about $18m a year," Mr Gordon said, "It's not as if we're not getting on with this. It's a big job."
One major delay has been around finding the best rescue breathing gear.
KiwiRail will meet this month's deadline to get masks and "oxy-boxes", which strap onto a person's chest, installed on all trains that go through tunnels 200m or longer, plus training for all workers to use them.
At Ōtira, however, it has pushed back to September getting a trickier aqualung-type system into use.
Workers wanted the aqualung system because they could work in it and talk to each other via face-mask systems, the union said.
Of the trio of other 8km-long tunnels - Lyttelton, Kaimai and Rimutaka - only Rimutaka takes passenger trains. Drivers there now have radio communications with the controller, plus up to four staff on each train instead of one or two.
Ms Fletcher said the new private rail operator on the Rimutaka route, Transdev, was behind KiwiRail on tunnel safety.
Transdev in Wellington did not respond for comment.
The France-based operator also runs Auckland's passenger trains. Its Auckland arm referred RNZ to Auckland Transport, which was yet to respond.