Train travel in New Zealand
This article is a travel topic
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 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 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.
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 Northern Explorer provides service on alternate days 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 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:
Wairairapa Connection (Tranz Metro 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
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.
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 KiwiRail 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
KiwiRail Scenic is the only operator of long distance passenger train service in New Zealand. It's contact information is as follows: 
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.
KiwiRail Scenic-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 KiwiRail Scenic web site, or by phone.