Travel topics > Transportation > Rail travel > Rail travel in New Zealand
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 Scenic, as well as heritage and steam lines throughout the country. Commuter train services operate in the Auckland and Greater Wellington region.
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.
- 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 a guide on board who explains the history of each area as well as 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 Rimutaka Rail Tunnel through the Rimutaka Ranges compared to having to drive the narrow and winding 15 km Rimutaka Hill Road over it (and then getting caught in Wellington rush hour traffic).
There are three major 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 2002 due to a lack of demand.
- Travel Time - Trains can only go up to 110 km/h 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 an plane or drive a car. For example, the Auckland-Wellington route takes 11½ hours, while you can drive it in about 9 hours.
- Reliability - the Auckland commuter network in particular is renowned for delays and cancellations, usually due to signal failures or the old trains used breaking down. Wellington's commuter fleet is more modern and generally more reliable, although delays and cancellations can still occur. The Coastal Pacific has occasionally been delayed due to fur seals sunbathing on the tracks near Kaikoura.
On both the North and South islands, long distance passenger rail service is provided by KiwiRail Scenic Journeys. New Zealand has three main passenger lines.
The Northern Explorer provides service three times per week from Auckland to Wellington and Wellington to Auckland. The Coastal Pacific provides service on the South Island from Christchurch to Picton and back, timed to meet one of the inter-island ferry sailings.
The TranzAlpine, one of the most popular routes, provides service between Christchurch and Greymouth, including a stop inside the Arthur's Pass National Park.
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 operated five services in each direction on weekdays and two services in each direction on weekends. Operated by Wellington commuter operator Tranz Metro, 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 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 Britomart - Papakura - 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. 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
Wellington, despite being smaller than Auckland, has the larger (in route kilometers) and the more patronised (in trips per capita) suburban system. 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 lack of electric lines 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.
The trains are part of the Metlink network and are operated by Tranz Metro. Single-trip tickets can be purchased from the conductor 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. Child fares are available to children aged between 5 and 15 years and secondary school students aged 16 to 19 who are in school uniform or present school-issued ID. Children under 5 travel free. Senior citizens (65 and over) travel free off-peak if they present a SuperGold card, but otherwise must pay adult fares.
Bicycles can be carried free on off-peak services on a first-come-first-served basis. Peak services operated by the silver "Matangi" electric trains will not take bicycles in the peak direction (to Wellington in the morning, from Wellington in the evening), but will be accepted space-permitting on Wairarapa Connection services and services operated by the light blue "Ganz-Mavag" electric trains.
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. Extensive track works and electrification in 2014-15 now means Auckland's network is rivalling that of Wellington.
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.
There are some shorter sections of railway which are more suited to a day out then as a regular form of passenger transport.
- Taieri Gorge Railway, ☏ . A sightseeing train trip travelling through spectacular scenery. It departs from the historic Dunedin Railway Station in central Dunedin and ends at the small village of Middlemarch. Departing daily it takes you on a journey through the rugged and spectacular Taieri River Gorge, across wrought iron viaducts and through tunnels carved by hand more than 100 years ago. Take your camera and lots of memory. The same company runs trips on the Christchurch line as far as Palmerston, about 2 hours away. These go about twice a week in the summer. Sadly this all that is left of rail travel in Dunedin, which used to have a daily service to Christchurch and Invercargill
Boarding the train
New Zealand trains are about the same size as British mainline trains, despite operating on a narrower gauge (1067mm compared to 1435mm 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 can 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.
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.
New Zealand Scenic Railpass
A scenic railpass provides unlimited access to all trains on the North and South islands for a period of one or two weeks. Passes can also include one ferry crossing between the North and South islands. A railpass can provide significant savings over purchasing tickets individually. It also gives you more flexibility: While reservations are recommended, you can get on or off the train as you like and as often as you like. However you should bear in mind the very restricted network, and that most services run only once per day or less often - you will need to plan your trip, as it is unlikely that you will get on two trains on the one day. An alternative to consider is a bus pass due to the much larger networks of Intercity and Naked Bus.
There are two type of passes, a fixed pass for 7, 14 or 21 days which allows you to use the train on each of these days, or a Freedom Pass which allows for travel on a number of days (between 3 and 10) over a 12 month period. A selection of the pass prices:
- 7 Day Fixed Pass: $599 adult, $419 child
- 14 Day Fixed Pass: $699 adult, $489 child
- 21 Day Fixed Pass: $799 adult, $559 child
- 3 Day Freedom Pass: $417 adult, $289 child
- 6 Day Freedom Pass: $774 adult, $540 child
- 10 Day Freedom Pass: $1290 adult, $900 child
Tranz Scenic is the only operator of long distance passenger train services in New Zealand. ☎ +64 4 495-0775 or, tollfree from within New Zealand only, 0800 872 467 (0800 TRAINS). Telephone reservations are available daily 07:00-19:00.
Updated Information on timetables and delays: 0800 ARRIVAL
Tranzscenic-operated travel centres are located within the Wellington and Christchurch train stations. At other stations, you can generally buy tickets, but through third-party reservation agents who may charge a slight additional fee. Tickets and railpasses may also be purchased on-line, from the Tranzscenic web site, or by phone.
Metlink is the public transport network in Wellington which manages the Wellington commuter trains as well as buses and ferries.
AT Public Transport (formerly MAXX) is the public transport network in Auckland which manages the Auckland commuter trains as well as buses and ferries.
Telephone:+64 9 366-6400, or 0800 10 30 80 for those outside the Auckland local calling area. M-F 06:00-21:00, Sa 07:00-20:00, Su and public holidays 08:00-18:30 Mobile website:. There are also iPhone and Android apps available: search "MAXX Transport" in the iTunes App Store or Google Play Store.