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Train travel in New Zealand

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Train travel in New Zealand

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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.

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 Tranz Scenic, as well as heritage and steam lines throughout the country. Commuter lines take travelers to the suburbs of Auckland and Wellington

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 New Zealand trains have a guide on board who explains the history of each area as well as points out special things to see.
  • 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. In you are in a hurry to get somewhere, take a bus or drive a car. For example the Auckland-Wellington route takes 13 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 signal failures.

New Zealand Passenger Rail Lines

On both the North and South islands, long distance passenger rail service is provided by Tranz Scenic corporation. New Zealand has three main passenger lines.

The Overlander provides service on a daily basis from Auckland to Wellington and Wellington to Auckland. The TranzCoastal 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.

Tranz Scenic 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).

The commuter rail operator, Tranz Metro, 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 normally be purchased on the day, at the station or on the train. 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:

The Overlander Auckland - Middlemore - Papakura - Pukekohe - Hamilton - Otorohanga - Te Kuiti - Taumarunui - National Park - Ohakune - Marton - Feilding - Palmerston North - Levin - Paraparaumu - Porirua - Wellington

The TranzCoastal Picton - Blenheim - Seddon - Kaikoura - Mina - Waipara - Rangiora - Christchurch

The TranzAlpine Christchurch - Rolleston - Darfield - Springfield - Cass - Arthur's Pass National Park - Otira - Jacksons - Moana - Kokiri - Brunner - Greymouth

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

Wairairapa Connection (TranzMetro Commuter Service - 2 to 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

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. On the Northern island, seats all face the same direction, whereas on the Southern Island some seats face each other, convenient for a family or group of 4 to travel together.

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.

On the Northern island Overlander trains, the very last car of each train is arranged in a "U" shaped lounge seating. All three sides of the train in the lounge area are glass, providing great views in a relaxed atmosphere. Seats in the lounge area are not reserved; you can freely move to the lounge and back to your seat as you wish. When the lounge area is full, guests are encouraged to return to their seats to allow others to sit in the lounge.

The trains also have an outdoor viewing platform, usually towards the engine 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. On Northern Island Overlander trains the viewing area is small, just big enough for five or six people to stand. On the Southern Island, the viewing platform is the size of an entire traincar, 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 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 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.

Prices, in NZ$, are as follows:

  • 7 Day All services with one ferry journey $379 adult $265 child
  • 14 Day All services with one ferry journey $479 adult $365 child
  • 7 Day TranzAlpine, TranzCoastal services $279 adult $195 child


Tranz 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.

Tranzscenic-operated travel centers 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 online, from the Tranzscenic web site, or by phone.

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