Great New Zealand train rides

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The TranzCoastal crossing the Waimakariri River. Photo: Tranz Scenic

There’s no more romantic way of travelling than by train. And while you can’t cross the length and breadth of New Zealand by rail, you can still see a fair bit of the country, and some of the world’s best scenery, from a train carriage.

Here’s a rundown of the main train trips run by Kiwi Rail through Tranz Scenic, plus some scenic and vintage train trips run by rail enthusiasts who dedicate enormous amounts of time and energy to ensuring things like steam trains aren’t relegated to history.

The Northern Explorer

Auckland to Wellington

The Northern Explorer’s journey takes you through the dramatic mountain country of the Central Plateau, with views of the volcanic peaks of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, snow-capped in winter. If you’re heading down for mountain adventures, you can get off the train at Ohakune and National Park. It also stops at Papakura, Hamilton, Otorohanga, Palmerston North, Paraparaumu and arrives in Wellington about 10 hours 35 minutes after leaving Auckland. Cross river gorges, journey through native forests and lush farmland, and experience the famous Raurimu Spiral.

The Northern Explorer operates 6 days a week and departs Auckland on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Departs Wellington on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

Where to stay

Auckland | Wellington

The Coastal Pacific

Christchurch to Picton

Ride the Coastal Pacific up the east coast of the South Island and you’ll be treated to views of the mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, at Kaikoura. The train stops at Rangiora, Waipara, Mina, Kaikoura, Seddon and Blenheim, and connects with the interisland ferries at Picton. It’s a scenic way to get up from Christchurch to stay in Kaikoura - which is famous for its whales, dolphins and seals to watch, and delicious crayfish to eat, if so inclined. The Coastal Pacific is a summer train and operates between September and May only. In 2015 the Coastal Pacific stops running on May 3rd, and starts again on 25th September.

Where to stay

Christchurch | Picton

The TranzAlpine Train

Christchurch to Greymouth

The TranzAlpine’s four-and-a-half hour trip travels through the patchwork farmland of the Canterbury Plains, follow the Waimakariri River via spectacular viaducts into the Southern Alps. Stop at Arthur’s Pass, then descend through rainforest past Lake Brunner, before arriving at Greymouth on the West Coast. It leaves from Christchurch and Greymouth daily.

Where to stay

Christchurch | West Coast

All aboard for the Kapiti Coast!

The long beaches, nature reserves and attractions of Kapiti Coast make it a very popular holiday spot for Wellingtonians. If you’re planning a Kapiti holiday, coming from Wellington, you can jump aboard the Kapiti Line, which runs very regularly (at 14 and 44 minutes past the hour for much of the day). It stops at Pukerua Bay, Paekakariki, Paraparaumu and Waikanae. Sit back, rush clicketty clack up the coast, and enjoy the views of Kapiti Island.

Where to stay

Kapiti Coast

Scenic train trips from Dunedin

Dunedin’s railway station is a much-loved and photographed Edwardian building. Dunedin Railways is based here, and specializes in scenic train trips, either through the Taieri Gorge, or up the coast above the Otago Harbour.

Train trips through the Taieri Gorge run most days; it’s a four hour return trip which starts from Dunedin Railway Station daily and travels through the spectacular Taieri River Gorge over wrought iron viaducts and through tunnels carved by hand more than 100 years ago. There are on-board refreshments, commentary and photographic stops, and a choice of renovated, heritage carriages, with viewing platform, or modern carriages. The train stops at Pukerangi, and operates most days. On a Friday and Sunday, travelers can enjoy an extra 19kms through Central Otago landscape, and an hour’s stop in Middlemarch. This can also be the first stage of a journey to Queenstown or Wanaka, with the remaining distance traveled by motor coach, - a great chance to see the landscape of the Maniatoto. Cyclists can catch the train to or Middlemarch, to bike the popular Otago Rail Trail.

The Seasider is a four hour return trip up the coast from Dunedin to Palmerston, running above Port Chalmers, along the beautiful Otago Harbour,  with views over the Pacific and Blue Skin Bay. The Seasider Highlights is a 90 minute short form version - view their timetable for scheduled days.

Where to stay

Dunedin

Steam train rides

The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway runs from Kawakawa to Taumarere, but will eventually connect with Opua, when the line is complete. The railway at Kawakawa was the first railway to be opened in the North Island and it’s pretty special still. Where else can you ride down the main road on a steam train? If you need a loo stop, the famous Hundertwasser toilets are right there. BOIVR runs four times a day on school and public holidays, and weekends. The round trip takes around an hour, and you can stop off at Taumarere for a picnic and take a later train back to Kawakawa if you wish. Cyclists riding from Opua on the easy, family-grade section of the Twin Coast Cycle Trail, can catch the train with their bikes, from Taumarere to Kawakawa.

Gabriel the Steam Engine runs Friday to Monday in the school holidays and at weekends during the rest of the year. Fredrick the Diesel Engine is in service Tuesday to Thursday in the school holidays, and every Friday outside of holidays.

Timetable: Kawakawa to Taumarere

School Holidays & Public Holidays - everyday: 10.45am, 12noon, 1.15pm, 2.30pm
Departs Taumarere everyday at 11.15 am, 12.30, 1.45pm and 3.00pm

Rest of the Year: Friday, Saturday, Sunday: 10.45am, 12noon, 1.15pm, 2.30pm
Friday, Saturday and Sunday departs Taumarere at 11.15 am, 12.30, 1.45pm and 3.o0pm

Where to stay

Bay of Islands

Glenbrook Vintage Railway - trains operate from Glenbrook Station, south of Auckland, on special occasions. Travel by coach from downtown Auckland to the GVR for rides aboard a special chartered steam train plus dinner in Waiuku. In summer there are occasional Thomas the Tank Engine days, which are wildly popular with children. Look at their website to find the next Thomas day, and get amongst the fun, with the Fat Controller, rides on the Thomas steam train and loads of activities.

Where to stay

Awhitu Peninsula | Auckland

More info

The Overlander, TranzCoastal and TranzAlpine - www.tranzscenic.co.nz
Glenbrook Vintage Railway - www.railfan.org.nz
Dunedin Railways - Taieri Gorge and more - www.taieri.co.nz
Bay of Islands Vintage Railway www.bayofislandsvintagerailway.org.nz
Great NZ Steam Journeys - www.greatnzsteamjourneys.co.nz

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tranz alpine
The TranzAlpine stops at Springfield, in Canterbury

Overlander
The Overlander crosses the Central Plateau between Auckland and Wellington

Piwa perched