The Most Iconic Rail Journeys in New Zealand
New Zealand offers its visitors a rare diversity of beauty spots, adventure and relaxation. It is a country seemingly made for touring, from the North Island and its volcanic beauty to the South Island with its glaciers, mountains and lakes.
A tour in a rented car or camper van are popular ways to get around, see the open road and take in the sights and sounds of this amazing place at your own pace. But one often overlooked method of seeing all that there is to see is rail journeys in New Zealand which allow you to discover spectacular panoramas that you simply cannot see from the road.
Fortunately, New Zealand is home to some spectacular train journeys which look out over unique landscapes on both islands. National rail provider, KiwiRail, offers passes to allow its customers to combine their travel plans on the various lines available and that’s great news for visitors seeking to explore.
The list below takes in some of the most fascinating beauty spots in the country and also stops at some stellar destinations.
Bizarrely, however, trains are not a regular means of transportation here, with the limited but stunning routes definitely designed with travellers and tourists in mind. New Zealanders typically travel around their country in planes or the comfort of their own cars, leaving the scenic rail routes that do exist for holiday makers to enjoy.
Expect to enjoy commentary throughout the trip describing the history of the line, the story of the country and the interesting points of view outside the windows. Expect observation platforms, too, allowing passengers to admire the landscape – not something you’re used to on the 7:55 to Paddington, we’re sure!
If your itinerary leads you to dotting around the country’s towns and cities in search of beauty and adventure, you might not expect the journeys between destinations to be the best part. But taking the train here will make you reconsider that – so kick back and relax as we take you through the most iconic rail journeys in New Zealand.
1. The Northern Explorer
Formerly known as the Overlander, the Northern Explorer is an original experience. Taking travellers from Auckland to Wellington (or vice versa), this is a chance to discover the heart of the North Island from the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin with large panoramic windows.
On the program here is King Country, the volcanoes of Tongariro, the volcanic plateau of the centre of the island and its torrents, bucolic meadows, viaducts, ocean and mountains.
To admire the panorama, which unfolds slowly before your eyes, choose the comfort of your seat, the coffee car or the open platform end of the train – perfect for getting lost in the moment or to take beautiful pictures. Headphones with English commentary, catering and snacks are available to enhance the experience.
The trains leave on Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings from central Auckland and arrive at 6:25 pm in Wellington. Going the other way, they leave Wellington at 7:55 am and arrive at 6:50 pm in Auckland on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.
That means you can stay the night and do the same trip back again the next day if you really want to. This train also makes several stops along the way, so this is a great journey to make over several days if you want to stop off at the volcanoes or hike through the mountains en route.
The stops along the way from Auckland include Papakura, Hamilton, Otorohanga, Ohakune, Palmerston North and Paraparaumu before arriving at Wellington.
But the most spectacular part of the route is in the desert of Tongariro National Park, in the midst of the volcanoes that served as backdrop for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. Indeed, this is the train route which gave director Peter Jackson the idea to transfer Tolkien’s universe to the cinematic screen.
You will recognise the landscapes if you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings and it’s very possible you’ll be bowled over just as much as Jackson was.
Expert Recommendation: Include the Northern Explorer train in an incredible 28 day Traverse by Train Holiday.
2. The Coastal Pacific Train
In the South Island, the Coastal Pacific connects Christchurch with Picton daily (though only from December to April in 2019) at 6:15 am. Comprising no less than 22 tunnels and 175 bridges, the remarkable landscapes of this ridiculously beautiful country stand in front of you between the Kaikoura Range, the Pacific Ocean and the Canterbury Plains.
Several stop offs can be found here, from Blenheim where you can visit the country’s famous vineyards or Kaikoura to observe the pods of dolphins and sperm whales that frequent the area.
Due to extensive line damage caused by the November 2016 earthquakes, the Coastal Pacific train service was suspended but is now back on the rails again offering its wonders and beauty to travellers once more.
The train, travelling from Christchurch, stops at Rangiora, Waipara, Mina, Kaikoura, Seddon and Blenheim before arrival at Picton and it’s possible to pay for the whole trip and make stops on the way.
Unlike the Northern Explorer above, this train only takes six hours, leaving you part of the day to explore Christchurch or Picton depending on your direction of travel.
Expert Recommendation: Include the Coastal Pacific Train in a fantastic New Zealand holiday like Train Trio.
3. The TranzAlpine Train
The TranzAlpine is the most popular line in New Zealand, making this another great South Island route that all travellers to New Zealand should experience! Not only to experience the very best between the east and west coast of the island, but also to discover the heart of the spectacular Southern Alps.
Starting from Christchurch, the train reaches Greymouth in five hours crossing the Southern Alps through a fantastic panoramic route. The landscapes of Arthur’s Pass National Park, the Otira Tunnel and the view from the top of the Staircase viaduct are all on offer.
Crossing the Canterbury plains, you’ll discover glacial lakes, alpine tunnels, breathtaking peaks, viaducts, narrow and winding gorges, lush forests and snow-capped mountains.
This is a beautiful route that won’t take up a whole day of your holiday, allowing you to spend more time exploring New Zealand on foot. On the way, stops at Kokiri, Moana, Otira, Springfield, Darfield and Rolleston mean that you can combine this with other plans easily.
You can also continue onwards once you arrive at Christchurch with a special bus heading further south to the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers near Queenstown, making your exploration of the South Island that little bit easier.
The landscapes traversed by the TranzAlpine train are of rare beauty. During the journey, the 8 km long Otira tunnel gives passengers a small rest from the sights just after lunch – but don’t fall asleep and miss the majestic landscapes which return again once the train resurfaces back into the daylight.
Expert Recommendation: Include the TranzAlpine train on our Ferries, Trains & Automobiles Holiday.
Smaller Train Routes in New Zealand
Whilst these three main routes are the most famous and interesting of New Zealand’s rail network, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other fabulous journeys to look out for. Here are two other underrated rail trips in New Zealand to make time for if you get the chance.
The Taieri Gorge Train
Departing from Dunedin, this scenic train route takes you to the Taieri River Gorge and is a spectacular journey through ravines, tunnels and viaducts.
A trip through this region will bring you through a succession of landscapes of blue lakes, desert plains, orchards, vineyards, mountains and gorges and is a quite incredible experience.
The Seasider Train
A return trip between Dunedin and Palmerston is another wonderfully scenic four-hour trip along the wild coast of the Otago Peninsula overlooking the Pacific.
Choose a trip aboard the Seasider to Palmerston, then connect with a ride to the Macraes Gold Mine and drive or get a bus to Pukerangi before boarding the Taieri Canyon train to Dunedin, arriving in the evening. It’s a trek, make no bones about it, but all efforts have their rewards!
This is a journey for those who want to see the breathtaking beauty New Zealand offers off the beaten track and although it’s a complicated one, it shows that the train rides aren’t just a way of getting from A to B, but can be the whole focus of a trip in itself.
The New Zealand rail network is not overly extensive and the frequency of trains can be low but they are 100% worth your holiday time.
For further travel options, consider the Interislander Ferry to cross the Cook Strait between the North and South Island and car hire for exploring further, like Franz Joseph, Fox Glacier and Queenstown.
It is definitely a good idea to plan your travel across New Zealand’s islands before you go to make sure you don’t miss the best bits and the best ways to travel between them.
Train travel is arguably more beautiful in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world and train routes are easily full tourist experiences all by themselves. Especially the highly recommended TranzAlpine train, which can be combined with other exciting modes of transport in our 19 day New Zealand Rail, Cruise & Coach itinerary.
For further information and advice on the best rail journeys, send your holiday enquiry to a New Zealand Travel Expert today.