New Zealand by rail can be a great way to see both the North and South Islands. New Zealand's passenger rail lines include both the government-owned KiwiRail, as well as heritage and steam lines throughout the country. Commuter train services operate in the Auckland and Greater Wellington region.
Although rail travel had historically played a much more prominent role in New Zealand's transportation system, with the advent of private car ownership and commercial air travel in the decades following World War II, the popularity of rail travel declined sharply. Today, New Zealand's rail network is only a shadow of its former self, and is primarily used for freight transport. Many former passenger lines have either been dismantled, or are now used exclusively for freight.
New Zealand's long-distance rail network is considerably underdeveloped by the standards of the developed world. There are no high-speed services — the intercity lines aren't even electrified, and driving yourself often works out to be faster than taking the train. The rail network is also limited, with only 3 long-distance passenger lines, all operated by state-owned KiwiRail. That said, the trains have been designed with tourists in mind; passenger carriages are built with exceptionally large windows to maximise the amount of scenery you can see from the train, and there are also outdoor viewing platforms where you can go to get some fresh air. There is no fixed rail (or road) link between the North and South Islands, with passengers and freight wagons transferred by ferry between Wellington and Picton.
A train ride from Auckland to Christchurch, however, with a ferry for crossing between islands, is undoubtedly a unique way to experience New Zealand's stunning landscapes, and would allow you to take in the sights from certain stretches that are difficult to access by car.
New Zealand's first railway opened in 1863 between central Christchurch and a temporary port at Ferrymead; the full line opened to Lyttelton in 1867 with the completion of the Lyttelton Rail Tunnel. Over the next 100 years, the rail network expanded to cover the country, however progress was slow due to difficult terrain. The line between Auckland and Wellington was completed in 1908 when railheads met between National Park Village and Ohakune, and the line between Christchurch and Greymouth was completed in 1923 with the opening of the 8.55 km (5.31 mi) Otira Tunnel under the Southern Alps main divide. Two world wars, the Great Depression and difficult terrain meant it took until 1945 for the line between Christchurch and Picton to be completed. The final link in the rail network came in 1962 with the commencement of roll-on-roll-off rail ferry services between Wellington and Picton. The first mainline diesel locomotives were introduced into service in 1954, with the last steam locomotives withdrawn from revenue service in October 1971.
Many rural branch lines closed in the latter half of the 20th century due to competition from road transport. Passenger services were cut back as car ownership rose and air travel became more affordable, although several services were retained and re-branded as tourist services. Auckland's suburban rail network was nearly scrapped in the late 1980s due to low passenger numbers. Wellington's suburban network experienced a decline, but passenger numbers remained strong. This was due to the city's geography being ideal for rail transport and the fact the network was electrified (completed 1938-40 and 1953-55).
In 1993, the government under Prime Minister Jim Bolger privatised the whole rail network. Privatisation was soon deemed an abject failure and it brought worsening quality of service and state of infrastructure, swinging the political consensus in favour of renationalisation. In 2004, the government under Prime Minister Helen Clark bought back the rail infrastructure assets and later in 2008, bought back the remainder to form the present day KiwiRail.
In 2003, the rail renaissance in Auckland began with the opening of a new underground central terminus, Britomart. In 2014-15 the Auckland network was electrified and for the first time, total passenger boardings exceeded those of Wellington. The renaissance has caused demand to outstrip the capacity of Britomart station, and in 2016, works started on a new rail tunnel through central Auckland to turn Britomart into a through station.
Pros & cons
The advantages of train travel in New Zealand are many:
- You can enjoy the unique New Zealand scenery, including some vistas unavailable by car.
- You can bring large equipment, such as surfboards, mountain bikes, or gear that would be too big to place on a bus or in a small car.
- In the South Island, trains offer daily service through many small towns. It is possible to get off, enjoy the town, then continue your journey by train the next day.
- You can get a snack or a drink -- on board the train itself.
- New Zealand trains are designed with photographers and sightseers in mind, with outdoor viewing platforms and panoramic viewing lounges in each train.
- All long-distance New Zealand trains have an automatic audio guide who explains, via supplied headphones, the history of each area and points out special things to see. Commuter trains have a train manager (conductor) who collects tickets and can provide you with some local information.
- You can enjoy the ride without the hassles of driving. The Wairarapa Connection service between Masterton and Wellington has survived largely due to the advantage of the 8.8 km (5.5 mi) Rimutaka Rail Tunnel through the Rimutaka Ranges compared to having to drive the narrow and winding 15 km (9.3 mi) Rimutaka Hill Road over it (and then getting caught in Wellington rush hour traffic).
The disadvantages of train travel in New Zealand:
- Lack of routes - there are basically only four long-distance passenger train routes in New Zealand; most other routes were cancelled by 2001-2 (i.e. during privatisation) due to allegedly being uneconomical.
- Travel time - Trains can only go up to 110 km/h (68 mph) and they often run slower due to track conditions and can even stop briefly between stations. If you are in a hurry to get somewhere, take a plane or drive a car. For example, the Auckland-Wellington route takes 11½ hours, while you can drive it in about 9 hours.
- Lack of flexibility - on the Northern Explorer, there are only three trains in each direction a week. If you stop anywhere en route, it will be two or three days before you can continue in the same direction.
- Financial cost - as well as being quicker and more flexible, flying between Auckland and Wellington costs less than the train.
On both the North and South islands, long distance passenger rail service is provided by state-owned KiwiRail under the brand Great Journeys New Zealand. New Zealand has three main passenger lines.
The Northern Explorer provides service three times per week from Auckland to Wellington and back. The Coastal Pacific provides service on the South Island from Christchurch to Picton and back, timed to meet the Interislander ferry service between Wellington and Picton.
The TranzAlpine, one of the most popular routes, provides service between Christchurch and Greymouth, including a stop inside the Arthur's Pass National Park. Passengers may pay extra to upgrade to Scenic Plus, in which meals made using local produce are included.
KiwiRail also operates a weekday commuter service known as the Capital Connection between Palmerston North and Wellington (departing Palmerston North in the morning and returning in the evening).
There is also the Wairarapa Connection between Masterton and Wellington, which operates five services in each direction on weekdays and two services in each direction on weekends. Operated by Wellington commuter operator Metlink, this train blurs the line between long distance and commuter rail - it operates a commuter-orientated timetable and doesn't have the snack servery, open air carriages, checked luggage or reserved seats of long distance services; but it has the luggage room, long-distance seats, tray tables, power outlets and toilets which commuter services in New Zealand don't have.
Station stops for all lines, with links to relevant city articles, are as follows:
Northern Explorer takes you in one day the 681 km (423 mi) length of the North Island Main Trunk between Auckland and Wellington. Construction of the line begun in 1885 and only completed in 1908, including marvels of Victorian engineering such as the Raurimu Spiral, Turangarere Horseshoe and Makatote Viaduct. As ever in New Zealand, this exhilarating journey traverses ever-changing scenery; from rocky coast to volcanoes through uplands, passing lush green pasture lands and thick native bush.
Auckland Strand - Papakura in South Auckland - Hamilton - Otorohanga (for Waitomo Caves) - National Park - Ohakune - Palmerston North - Paraparaumu - Wellington
The Coastal Pacific is a 5.5-hour 348 km (216 mi) journey along the Main North Line between Christchurch and Picton, connecting with Cook Strait ferries to Wellington. The line only opened to through traffic in December 1945, having been delayed by difficult terrain each side of Kaikoura, plus two World Wars and the Great Depression. The line was damaged in the 14 November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake and the Coastal Pacific service in December 2018 is running a little slower than normal. Picton - Blenheim - Seddon - Kaikoura - Mina (for Cheviot) - Waipara - Rangiora - Christchurch
The TranzAlpine is a 4.5-hour 223 km (139 mi) journey along the Midland Line between Christchurch and Greymouth. The train travels across the Canterbury Plains and up the Waimakariri Gorge into the Southern Alps, before tunneling underneath the main divide and travelling down river valleys to the West Coast. The Otira Tunnel (1923) under the main divide is 8.5 km long, with the Arthur's Pass end 250 m higher than the Otira end: some trains require five diesel locomotives to haul them up the tunnel, which explains why they close the viewing platforms.
Christchurch - Rolleston - Darfield - Springfield - Cass - Arthur's Pass National Park - Otira - Jacksons - Moana - Kokiri - Brunner - Greymouth
Te Huia (Commuter Service - two return services on M-W, Sa and three on Th-F) Auckland Strand - Puhinui - Papakura - Huntly - Rotokauri - Hamilton. This follows the route of the Northern Explorer between Auckland and Hamilton, taking 2 hours 40 minutes. The train has a cafe, useful for breakfast on the 6AM departure from Hamilton. There are connections to the Auckland rail network at Puhinui and Papakura, which may be convenient to use Britomart on Queen Street, rather than the more isolated Strand station. There is a significant discount for using a Bee card to buy your ticket, so use this rather than cash if you are going more than a single stop.
Wellington, despite being smaller than Auckland, has the larger (in route kilometers) and the more patronised (in trips per capita) suburban system. The trains are part of the Metlink network and are operated by Transdev. There are five lines serving Greater Wellington as far north as Waikanae and Masterton. Electric multiple unit trains operate all services except the Wairarapa Line service (also known as the Wairarapa Connection) between Masterton and Wellington, which uses diesel-hauled carriage trains due to the lack of electrified track beyond Upper Hutt.
Services typically operate half-hourly seven days a week on the Johnsonville, Kapiti, and Hutt Valley Lines. Melling Line services typically operate hourly on weekdays; the line does not operate on weekends. Services are more frequent at peak times. The Wairarapa line operates five-times daily (three peak, two off-peak) each way on weekdays and twice daily each way on weekends.
Single-trip tickets can be purchased with cash from the train manager on board. Ten-trip tickets and monthly passes for regular trips between two stations can be purchased at ticket offices at major stations and some retail outlets across the region. Day explorer and bus-train combined passes are also available.
Bicycles can be carried free on off-peak services on a first-come-first-served basis. Most peak services will not take bicycles in the peak direction (to Wellington in the morning, from Wellington in the evening).
After facing near closure in the late 1980s, Auckland's suburban network had a major turning point in 2003 when the new Britomart central terminus opened. As a result of extensive track works and electrification in 2014-15, Auckland's network has overtaken Wellington's network in passenger numbers.
There are four lines, stretching west to Swanson and south to Onehunga, Manukau and Papakura. Weekday off-peak services typically operate every 20 to 30 minutes. An hourly diesel shuttle service connects Pukekohe with electric trains at Papakura. An underground city centre extension, the City Rail Link, is under construction and is expected to open in 2025.
There are some shorter sections of railway which are more suited to a day out than as a regular form of passenger transport. These often operate preserved steam or diesel locomotives and carriage stock.
- 1 Dunedin Railways, ☏ . Based out of the historic Dunedin Railway Station, it runs tourist trains northward along the coast to Oamaru, and inland towards Hindon via the spectacular Taieri River Gorge. The Taieri River Gorge route once extended all the way to Pukerangi and Middlemarch, but these services have been cancelled due to COVID.
- 2 Glenbrook Vintage Railway, Onehunga, South Auckland. Runs on many summer Sundays and some occasional other days. 7-km steam railway.
Boarding the train
New Zealand trains are about the same size as British mainline trains, despite operating on a narrower gauge (1067 mm compared to 1435 mm in most of North America and Europe). The smaller size of the trains is reflected in the baggage policy. Although the trains do have overhead racks, they are really not intended for anything larger than a handbag or hat. If your bags can't fit in the overhead racks or by your feet, you will need to check them into the baggage van, and you'll need to pick them up immediately upon getting off at your stop. The baggage van will either be at the rear of the train or at the front directly behind the locomotive.
If you are getting on a train from anywhere other than its starting point, it is a good idea to call Tranz Scenic's recorded arrival times information line at 0800-ARRIVAL. Trains almost always do start on time, but delays at the middle stations do happen. Calling ahead to see what time the train is expected is a good idea can save you from waiting.
The Northern Explorer, Coastal Pacific and TranzAlpine all use the AK class carriages, introduced in 2010-12 to replace the old 1940s "56-foot" carriages. Each train includes a café carriage, an open air-viewing carriage, and a baggage/generator van. The Capital Connection and Wairarapa Connection use the S and SW class carriages respectively, both of which are refurbished 1970s British Rail Mark 2 carriages. Neither train has an open-air viewing platform and there is no café aboard the Wairarapa Connection (a cafe servery is fitted but disused). The services are hauled by diesel locomotives, although they may swap the diesel for an electric locomotive on the Northern Explorer between Hamilton and Palmerston North.
All trains in New Zealand are single class, with seats in a 2+2 layout. Seats come both in "airline style" with a fold-out tray in the seat in front of you, and in "table bay" with two sets of seats facing each other with a table between them. All long-distance trains are heated and air-conditioned. Each carriage is fitted with a toilet at one end of the carriage; a wheelchair-accessible toilet with baby-changing facility can be found in the café carriage. Toilet waste goes into a retention tank, not onto the tracks, so you may flush while the train is standing at a station.
All long-distance trains have a café carriage, serving sandwiches, hot meals, snacks, hot and cold drinks, beer and wine.
The trains also have an open air viewing carriage, at the opposite end of the train to the baggage car. The viewing carriage has a covered roof, but the sides are open air. It's the ideal place to take photos from the train, as taking photos through a window will result in glare. It's probably not the best place to relax, and can be quite noisy. For safety sake, always keep your arm, head, etc. inside the train. Due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, the viewing carriage may occasionally close during journey if the train is about to go through a long tunnel. These were closed for safety modifications and re-opened in June 2019 with higher handrails.
Smoking is forbidden anywhere on the train, including the open air areas. As all trains are licensed premises, you can't bring alcohol on board unless it is stored in the baggage car.
- Great Journeys of New Zealand, ☏ , toll-free: 0800 872 467 (in country only). Telephone reservations are available daily 8AM–5PM. The only operator of long distance passenger train services in New Zealand, run by state-owned KiwiRail. Updated Information on timetables and delays: 0800 TRAINS (0800 872 467). Great Journeys operated travel centres are located within the Wellington and Christchurch train stations. At a few other stations, you can buy tickets, but through third-party reservation agents who may charge a slight additional fee. Tickets and rail passes may also be purchased on-line, from the Great Journeys web site, or by phone. Note that the cheapest online fares are only available if you book using a computer in New Zealand (using a NZ IP address). These cheaper fares can be around half that quoted to overseas online bookers. On a longer trip, it may be worth waiting until you arrive in New Zealand to book trains (or geeks can use a New Zealand proxy server).
- , toll-free: 0800 801 700. M-Sa 7AM-9PM, Su and public holidays 8AM–8PM. The public transport network in Wellington which manages the Wellington commuter trains, buses and ferries. Service delays are also published on Metlink's Twitter account: @metlinkwgtn
- Auckland Transport (AT) Bus Train Ferry (formerly MAXX), ☏ , toll-free: 0800 10 30 80. M-F 06:00-21:00, Sa 07:00-20:00, Su and public holidays 08:00-18:30. AT manages the Auckland commuter trains as well as buses and ferries. iPhone and Android apps are available: search "AT Mobile" in the iTunes App Store or Google Play Store.