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Train travel in New Zealand

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New Zealand by rail can be a great way to see both the North and South Islands. New Zealand's passenger rail lines include Great Journeys of New Zealand, and heritage and steam lines throughout the country. Commuter lines take travelers to the suburbs of Auckland and Wellington.

Pros & Cons[edit]

A TranzAlpine train arriving at the Arthur's Pass station on the South Island. The TranzAlpine route is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world, and Arthur's Pass National Park is a favorite stop.

The advantages of train travel in New Zealand are many:

  • You can enjoy the unique New Zealand scenery, including some vistas inaccessible 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, explore the town, then continue your journey the next day.
  • Snacks and drinks are available onboard.
  • New Zealand trains are designed with photographers and sightseers in mind, with outdoor viewing platforms and huge, panoramic windows in each train.
  • Long-distance trains have GPS-triggered onboard commentary, explaining the history and sights of each area.
  • You can enjoy the ride without the hassles of driving

There are three major disadvantages of train travel in New Zealand:

  • Lack of Routes - there are basically only 4 passenger train routes in New Zealand, with a couple of others (Auckland-Rotorua and Christchurch-Dunedin) cancelled in recent years.
  • Travel Time - Trains can only go up to 100 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 a bus or drive a car. For example the Auckland-Wellington route takes 10 hours, while you can drive it in 8 or less.
  • Reliability - the Auckland commuter network in particular is renowned for delays and cancellations, usually due to train faults.

Passenger Rail Lines[edit]

On both the North and South islands, long distance passenger rail service is provided by Great Journeys of New Zealand. The main passenger lines are:

The Northern Explorer provides service on alternate days from Auckland to Wellington and Wellington to Auckland.

The TranzAlpine, one of the most popular routes, provides service between Christchurch and Greymouth, including a stop at Arthur's Pass National Park.

Great Journeys of New Zealand 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).

Wellington's commuter rail operator, Metlink, operates the Wairarapa Connection between Masterton and Wellington, with between 2 and 6 services in each direction depending on the day of the week. Tickets for these services can be purchased on the day, at the station or on the train, though seating for this service is on a first-come, first-served basis, and is not guaranteed. All day return tickets and group passes are available. Although the trains do not travel fast, they are a good way to relax with friends and family.

Station stops for all lines, with links to relevant city articles, are as follows:

Northern Explorer Auckland - Papakura - Hamilton - Otorohanga - National Park - Ohakune - Palmerston North - Wellington

The TranzAlpine Christchurch - Rolleston - Darfield - Springfield - Arthur's Pass - Otira - Moana - Kokiri - Greymouth

Capital Connection (KiwiRail Scenic - Commuter Service - 1 return service on weekdays only) Palmerston North - Shannon - Levin - Otaki - Waikanae - Paraparaumu - Wellington

Wairarapa Connection (Metlink Commuter Service - between 2 and 6 return services daily.) Masterton - Renall Street - Solway - Carterton - Matarawa - Woodside - Featherston - Maymorn - Upper Hutt - Waterloo (Hutt Central) - Petone - Wellington

Riding the Trains: What it's really like[edit]

Interior view of an Overlander train, with panoramic viewing area in the rear.

New Zealand trains are slightly narrower than American trains owning to the narrow gauge of the rails. There are four seats across the aisle. The narrower size of the trains in 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. All other suitcases or bags must be checked and go in a separate baggage car. You will need to check your bags upon boarding the train and pick them up immediately upon getting off at your stop.

All trains have a snack car, serving sandwiches, meat pies, snacks, beverages and wine. All trains also have restrooms with flush toilet and sink at the end of each car. Trains are also heated/air conditioned as needed. Smoking is forbidden anywhere on the train.

Lounge area located at the end car of Overlander trains. The U shaped seating allows for views from 3 sides of the train.

The three long distance trains all received new locally built scenic carriages in recent years, designed especially for tourists. The carriages feature HD TV screens with a map of the route, headphone sockets which deliver commentary during your journey and a large onboard cafe.

The trains also have an outdoor viewing platform, either at the front or rear of the train. The viewing platform 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 and chilly. The viewing platform is the size of the entire carriage, with plenty of space. For safety sake always keep your arm, head, etc. inside the train.

If you are getting on a train from anywhere other than its starting point, it is a good idea to call the Great Journeys of New Zealand recorded arrival times information line at 0800-ARRIVAL. Trains almost always do start on time, but delays at intermediate stations often occur. Calling ahead to see what time the train is expected is a good idea can save you from waiting.


KiwiRail Scenic is the only operator of long distance passenger train service in New Zealand. It's contact information is as follows: [1]

Telephone: +64 4 495 0775 (from outside New Zealand)

Telephone: 0800 TRAINS or 0800 872 467 (from within New Zealand)

Updated Information on Timetable and Delays: 0800 ARRIVAL (within New Zealand)

Telephone reservations are available from 7:00AM to 7:00PM daily.

Great Journeys of New Zealand travel centers are located within the Auckland Strand, 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 may also be purchased online, from the KiwiRail Scenic web site, or by phone.

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