Train travel is not a common mode of transportation in New Zealand outside of the bigger Auckland and Wellington areas. A small number of predominantly long-distance routes, on the other hand, offer a scenic and relaxing transportation option around New Zealand. One of them runs the length of the North Island, while the others pass through various parts of the South Island.
Train travel offers the advantage of allowing you to unwind in addition to connecting travelers to locations of interest. Because driving in New Zealand can be difficult due to the steep terrain and lack of freeways, having train travel in your itinerary will help you relax and take in the scenery.
1. Northern Explorer: Auckland to Wellington
The Northern Explorer is a journey that begins in Auckland and concludes in Wellington or the other way around. The route travels across the heart of the North Island and takes approximately 11 hours to complete, which is equal to driving the same distance (400 miles). The Waikato countryside, the King Country’s steep hillocks and woods, Tongariro National Park and its three volcanoes (Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe), and the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington are also picturesque attractions.
The Northern Explorer is a spacious train with tables and seats arranged around them. There’s an open-air observation platform, onboard restrooms (which are bigger than airplane restrooms), and a food and beverage cart. Because the food offered on the train is usually pricey and mediocre, bringing a picnic is a good idea.
Travelers on the Northern Explorer can disembark at stations along the way, such as Otorohanga for the Waitomo Caves or Ohakune for the Tongariro National Park, and either catch another train or rent a car to continue their tour. The train travels a few times per week in both directions all year.
2. Marlborough Flyer: Picton to Blenheim
The Marlborough Flyer, which runs between Picton and Blenheim in the Marlborough area at the top of the South Island, is the shortest (and most lovely) of the journeys on this list, covering only 18 miles. This trip takes less than 30 minutes by automobile, but nearly an hour by rail.
Even though the train only travels a short distance, riding it is an adventure in and of itself. The carriages are properly old, considering it is a steam train from 1915. Each carriage is supported by a local vineyard (Marlborough is New Zealand’s top wine producer), and tastings are distributed on board.
The Marlborough Flyer begins its journey in the lovely port town of Picton in the Marlborough Sounds, passing through seemingly endless fields of vineyards outside of Blenheim before arriving at Blenheim Station, which conveniently houses The Wine Station. Hundreds of local wines are available in self-serve machines at this innovative wine tasting bar.
The Marlborough Flyer can be taken one way in either direction or as a return journey from Picton after arriving on the South Island via the Interislander Ferry.
3. Coastal Pacific: Picton to Christchurch
The Coastal Pacific goes along the upper South Island’s east coast, covering 208 miles between Picton and Christchurch and stopping in Kaikoura around halfway. Because Kaikoura is a popular whale-watching destination, many travelers choose to spend a few days there before continuing their rail journey.
The Coastal Pacific, like the Northern Explorer, is pleasant and has onboard amenities. In an upgraded carriage, Scenic Plus Class offers freshly prepared cuisine and commentary. The Coastal Explorer is a seasonal tour that goes from early spring until mid-autumn (April). It takes place three times per week.
4. TranzAlpine: Christchurch to Greymouth
From Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west, the TranzAlpine runs across the hilly heart of the South Island. The five-hour drive begins in the vast plains of the Canterbury Plains, travels up the Southern Alps, and ends on the wild and rocky West Coast.
The TranzAlpine is a convenient method to go from coast to coast, which can be a difficult road to navigate. Greymouth is an excellent starting place for visiting the West Coast, which includes the Hokitika Gorge, Franz Josef, and Fox Glaciers, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, and Paparoa National Park.
Onboard amenities and comforts are offered, much like on other long-distance trains. Scenic Plus Class provides a higher level of service.
5. Taieri Gorge Railway: Dunedin to Middlemarch
The Taieri Gorge Railway is another tour where the goal is to enjoy the ride rather than travel from point A to point B. The trail passes through some typical big-sky Central Otago scenery, as well as the Taieri Gorge. The Taieri Gorge Railway begins in Dunedin, at the beautiful neo-gothic Dunedin Railway Station, and proceeds 47 kilometers to Middlemarch, which is known for its annual Singles Ball. The Taieri Gorge, cut by the Taieri River between the Taieri Plains and the high Maniototo Plateau, and the high rail bridge are the highlights of the tour.
Because Middlemarch isn’t very accessible for getting elsewhere in Otago, most travelers on the Taieri Gorge Railway return to Dunedin on the same day.
Dunedin Railways operates the Taieri Gorge Railway, as well as two other day-trip train rides from Dunedin: the Inlander (between Dunedin and Hindon) and the Seasider (between Dunedin and Waitati).