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Click image for a larger rail map of all NZ to open in a new
New Zealand does not
have a lot of rail track, and even less in the way of passenger rail
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
passenger train service. In addition, terrain that is
often rugged and mountainous, plus a narrower than normal gauge
track (3' 6" instead of 4' 8½") 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
An Overview and History of Train Service in
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outdated carriages that can't be safely operated at higher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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
are NZ$129, with promotional rates as low as NZ$49.
are about NZ$118.
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.
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
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
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
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
Both journeys make nice half
day tours out of Dunedin.
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
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
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
Enthusiasts Society and
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
Some of the services that no
longer operate include :
Auckland Rotorua (The
Christchurch - Dunedin -
Invercargill (South Island Limited)
Dunedin - Queenstown
Wellington - Napier (The
Napier - Gisborne
Auckland - New Plymouth
Overnight Auckland -
Wellington (The Limited and The Northerner)
For more information
TranzScenic.co.nz website for more information about NZ's
scheduled trains, and to book tickets.
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29 Jul 2005, last update
21 Jul 2020