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There's nothing as relaxing as a train journey, and New Zealand has some of the world's most scenic rail journeys.

Unfortunately, most of the country has no passenger train service, and the routes that do have trains typically only have one or two a day.

 
 
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Traveling by Train in New Zealand

Limited choices, but wonderful scenic journeys


Click image for a larger rail map of all NZ to open in a new window

New Zealand does not have a lot of rail track, and even less in the way of passenger rail services.

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links on the right hand side for more articles.

 

 

We love traveling by train ourselves, and the good news is that the beauty of New Zealand is splendidly showcased when traveling by train.  Some of the world's most beautiful rail journeys can be enjoyed in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, the small population in New Zealand has hindered the development and continuation of passenger train service.  In addition, terrain that is often rugged and mountainous, plus a narrower than normal gauge track (3' 6" instead of 4' 8") all makes for slower than normal travel times, and with typically only one train a day, there's not a lot of convenience in the schedule either.

By all means add a rail journey as a feature/highlight of your NZ travels, but don't count on rail as a functional convenient method of getting around the country.

An Overview and History of Train Service in New Zealand

New Zealand developed a moderately extensive rail network, starting in the 1860s, and continuing until reaching a peak in 1953.  New Zealand's key 'Main Trunk' line, connecting the two major North Island cities of Auckland and Wellington was completed in 1908.

Since the mid 1950s track miles have gradually reduced again and with little or no new track added.  Passenger services over the remaining track have been much more severely curtailed.

Due to much of the track running over hilly ground, and to conserve costs, the track has a relatively narrow gauge - 3' 6", and because of the tunnels that were needed, the overall profile of carriages and locomotives is also limited, all of which has been maintained to this day.  By comparison, most other railroads in the world use a 4' 8.5" gauge - so called 'standard gauge'.

This narrow gauge has been used as an excuse for why train service in the country is slow, and passenger carriages narrower than normal (typically two seats on one side and one on the other, instead of 2 + 2 or 2 + 3 on regular gauge trains elsewhere).

The argument about the narrow track gauge limiting the speed of passenger trains is somewhat specious, because moderately fast trains on that gauge can be found elsewhere in the world.  The main issues are outdated carriages that can't be safely operated at higher speeds, poor track maintenance, and tight curves.

In the heyday of rail, in the first half of the twentieth century, and although a small country with limited resources, New Zealand designed and built its own steam locomotives at several workshops, as well as importing locos from the US and UK.

Steam gave way to diesel during the 1960s, with the last steam train being the South Island Limited (a passenger train between Invercargill, Dunedin and Christchurch) on 26 October 1971 (the engine is now preserved outside Dunedin's beautiful train station).

There was some electrification of track during the 1980s, but most of the track remains without overhead electrical power.

New Zealand's rail system, formerly known as NZ Railways, was originally government owned and operated.  The company also added a series of passenger and freight ferries to travel over Cook Strait between Wellington and Picton (at the top of the South Island), to its operations.  The ferries carried passengers, passenger vehicles, regular freight trucks and also rail wagons on a 3 hr 20 minute journey between the islands and were a key part of the connectivity between the two islands in the country.

The rail network was at its peak in the 1950s, reaching 3,555 miles of track in 1953 (5689 km).  Since then, there has been some gradual retrenchment of rail services (particularly passenger rail) and reductions in track, down to about 2,565 miles in 2009 (4128 km).  The comparatively short distances between many cities in New Zealand make trucked freight more convenient than rail freight, although the government mandated that freight be carried by rail when rail service existed and the total distance traveled exceeded certain minimums.

The coming of the motor car and the airplane inevitably impacted on passenger rail service.

Those passengers without a car or plane alternative were wooed away from rail by intercity bus services, which, much/most of the time, were bizarrely operated by another division of NZ Railways itself.  Buses offered lower fares, shorter journey times, and more frequent services, with more stops in more convenient places.

Due to New Zealand's small population (back then, under 3 million; today, a little over 4 million) and low density of population, it was very difficult for the high fixed costs of rail to be suitably amortized over high volumes of passenger (or freight) traffic, and the rail services have never been outstandingly successful.

In 1990 the railways were semi-privatized and then in 1993 they were completely sold to a consortium comprising of a couple of investment firms and in 1995 renamed as Tranz Rail.  In 2003/2004, after financial problems, the company was sold to Toll Holdings in Australia, and then, in 2008, the wheel turned full circle and the government repurchased the system back from Toll Holdings.

The new name for the operation is KiwiRail, and the passenger trains are operated under the subsidiary, Tranz Scenic.

Current Passenger Train Services

There are now two remaining passenger trains of note, one wonderful scenic journey, and two other minor routes which are of little interest to most international visitors.

The two minor routes are between Wellington and Palmerston North and between Wellington and Masterton.  These are of little interest because few visitors will be found overnighting in Palmerston North or Masterton, and those who do will have probably, of necessity, driven there in a rental car and so will want to continue with their rental car rather than go to the hassle of returning a rental car, getting to the train station (and the opposite at the other end) all for a two - three hour rail journey.

We'll discuss the other three services individually.

The Overlander between Auckland and Wellington

Since the withdrawal of overnight sleeper train service between New Zealand's two major cities (what was known as 'The Northerner' and prior to that as 'The Limited', with service ending in 2004) there is a single train traveling between these two cities, known as 'The Overlander'.

This operates a daily train each way during the summer half of the year (approx Sept - May) and three days a week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) the rest of the year.  Ridership has been increasing for the last several years.

The train leaves both Auckland and Wellington at 7.25am in the morning, and after making up to 15 stops along the way, including a 30 minute stop about halfway at National Park, get to their destination 12 hours later at 7.25pm.  It is a 426 mile (681 km) journey.

Various travel writers have labeled this as one of the world's classic rail journeys, and the British Guardian newspaper called it one of the best-value rail journeys in the world.

The TranzCoastal between Christchurch and Picton

This service first started in 1945 as the 'Picton Express', and has operated in its present form as the 'TranzCoastal' since 1988.

It operates daily with a single train traveling from Christchurch up to Picton then back down to Christchurch.  It is about a 5 hr 20 minute journey with six stops en route.  The journey covers some 216 miles (348 km), with 22 tunnels and 175 bridges on the route.

The times are designed to conveniently connect with the Interislander ferry service between Picton and Wellington, and slightly less conveniently with the Bluebridge services.  See our three pages on taking a ferry between the North and South Islands of New Zealand for more information on the ferries.

The train leaves Christchurch at 7am, arrives into Picton at 12.13pm, then leaves Picton at 1pm and is back in Christchurch at 6.21pm.  It includes an open-air viewing carriage.

Like the other two of New Zealand's train journeys, it is on various 'best train journey' lists.

Note that sometimes it is cheaper to buy a combination train and ferry ticket than it is to buy the two fares separately.

The TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth

This service may be of more interest to people wishing to do a day trip from Christchurch and back to Christchurch than it might be for people wishing to use it as regular transportation, inasmuch as few international visitors choose to visit the South Island's West Coast and will be in Greymouth anyway.

This would generally be considered the best and most scenic and beautiful of New Zealand's train journeys.  It was introduced in 1987 as a new more tourism focused replacement to the previous standard passenger service.

This is also the most popular of New Zealand's rail journeys.

The route is 140 miles long (224 km) and has 19 tunnels and 4 viaducts.  The train includes an open-air viewing carriage - lovely in the summer, but definitely to be avoided in the winter.

The train leaves Christchurch at 8.15am, arrives into Greymouth at 12.45pm, then leaves again at 1.45pm and arrives back into Christchurch at 6.05pm.  It makes ten stops en route, including an extended stop at Arthur's Pass.

The one hour in Greymouth (the rail station is in the heart of the small town) is enough time to quickly get off the train, sightsee a bit, and then return to the station and travel back to Christchurch that afternoon.

Ticket Prices

At the time of writing (July 2010) one way adult ticket prices seem to generally be at one price only, with occasional infrequent special promotions.

Auckland-Wellington tickets are NZ$129, with promotional rates as low as NZ$49.

Christchurch-Picton tickets are about NZ$118.

Christchurch-Greymouth tickets are about NZ$161 and a return ticket is about NZ$209.

Combination rail and ferry tickets for travel between Wellington and Christchurch are NZ$, with promotional rates sometimes as low as NZ$130.

Passes

There are also seven and fourteen day passes, good for unlimited travel on the trains.  Both of these passes include one ferry crossing.

These are priced at NZ$409 and NZ$519.  Note that a one way ferry ticket costs about NZ$64.

Book for your train travel

Due to the limited number of trains, and in some cases their popularity, you should book the trains you want rather than just turn up at the station.

Charter Operators and Special Trains

In addition to these scheduled train services, there are some occasional and additional train services variously operated by more than 20 different heritage and specialty train operators around the country.

The most notable of these is the Taieri Gorge Railway, operating daily from Dunedin to Pukerangi and sometimes on to Middlemarch on the way to Queenstown (a bus connection can take you the rest of the way), and also some days a second route north of Dunedin up to Palmerston.

Both journeys make nice half day tours out of Dunedin.

Details on their website.

There are occasional day and overnight tours operated by TranzScenic, sometimes to places not normally served by passenger trains any more (such as Napier).  Details of these can be seen on the TranzScenic site.

Steam Hauled Services

TranzScenic also operates occasional 'Steam Engine Sundays' whereby the Overlander train is hauled by a restored vintage steam loco over part of its journey on selected Sundays.  Details here.

If you are hoping to ride a steam hauled train on a special excursion somewhere in New Zealand, you may be in luck.  A number of such events occur each year.  In particular, the Mainline Steam Heritage Trust, the Railway Enthusiasts Society and Steam Inc are the main operators of excursions, so you should visit their three websites to see what might be scheduled.

One other steam experience of note - the Kingston Flyer.  This lovely short branch line operation, close to Queenstown, had financial problems and was closed in November 2009.  Its future is uncertain and all the assets are currently (July 2010) for sale.

Here's a 'taste' of what to expect, experience and enjoy on a NZ steam train.  Maybe it is just because they represent 'my' heritage, but to me the NZ locos are the most beautiful in the world, and the haunting wail of their whistle, when properly sounded (eg at the 2 minute 30 second mark in the video clip below, or at the 22 second mark in this video), more evocative and moving than any other train whistle, anywhere else.

Former Passenger Routes

There have been lots of passenger route service closures, particularly during the first half of the 2000s.  In most cases, the track is still used for freight trains, and there is the possibility of occasional passenger trains operating too, although in the case of the line from Napier up to Gisborne, at the time of writing (July 2010) there is a danger that this spectacular line may be closed entirely.

Some of the services that no longer operate include :

  • Auckland Rotorua (The Geyserland Express)

  • Auckland Tauranga

  • Auckland Whangarei

  • Christchurch - Dunedin - Invercargill (South Island Limited)

  • Dunedin - Queenstown

  • Wellington - Napier (The Endeavour)

  • Napier - Gisborne

  • Auckland - New Plymouth

  • Overnight Auckland - Wellington (The Limited and The Northerner)

For more information

Visit the TranzScenic.co.nz website for more information about NZ's scheduled trains, and to book tickets.

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Originally published 29 Jul 2005, last update 28 May 2011

 
 
 
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