Riding the Rails, Kiwi-Style – a great way to see Beautiful New Zealand!
Paul and I have been to New Zealand several times, and we’ve visited some incredible spots in the past. Between 2015 and 2018, we had been to the Coromandel Peninsula, the Northlands, Dunedin, Central Otago, the Fiordlands, the Waikato, Queenstown, Auckland, Napier, Wellington and Marlborough. Because we are now slow travelers, we decided to visit friends in the Waikato first then spend most of the rest of our time in Wellington (5 weeks) and Auckland (4 weeks). But, we wanted to see some spots in the South Island we hadn’t seen before.
The best way to complete our experience of New Zealand, we figured, would be taking scenic trains in spots we hadn’t been before. This turned out to be a great idea.
New Zealand operates a rail line called Kiwirail. Among other enterprises, Kiwirail operates 3 scenic rides it calls “Great Journeys.” You can see the details of those journeys here. We decided we would take all 3: the Northern Explorer from Hamilton (where we were visiting friends) to Wellington; the Tranzalpine from Christchurch to Greymouth and back; and the Coastal Pacific from Christchurch to Picton. Then, we would ride the Interislander ferry across the Cook Straits back to Wellington. We've completed these trips, and we plan to ride the Northern Explorer back up all the way to Auckland from Wellington at the end of March for our final month of this New Zealand visit.
The trains themselves
Seats - The seats are pretty comfortable. There are a few seats surrounding tables at the end of the cars (2 seats on each side of the table) and the rest are bus-style seating. But, the seats are pretty roomy. You can’t book your seat in advance, you have to ask for your boarding pass at the station before the train leaves. I’m told you can request seats – near the scenery viewing car, or near the café car, for example – but we didn’t do that. The first train, we had 2 seats with strangers around a table. Our car was next to the cafe car (a bonus when wanting that first cup of coffee!) but several cars away from the open-air viewing car (a pain wanting to go back and forth to take open-air camera shots but also sometimes sit down). The second train, we had bus-style seats, just the 2 of us. Here, we were net to the viewing car but a few cars from the cafe car. In the third train, we lucked out and had 2 seats at a table, but nobody else was seated at the table. And, our car was between the cafe car and the viewing car! That was nice. It would nice if they had some tables for two. It was a bit uncomfortable around the table with strangers because these particular strangers didn’t talk much (note – they weren’t Kiwis!). The windows next to the seats are big and allow for maximum scenery viewing from your seats.
Audio - Each seat comes with a set of headphones that you can plug in. During certain times, the audio plays and provides a history of the region you are traveling through. There was a lot of focus on the building of the railroads. They were massive projects, especially in the mountains, and created cultures all their own. These trains were built in the late 1800s & early 1900s, just before the common use of automobiles, and were actually more in use in the early to mid 20th century than they are now. The audio also had stories about the history of the towns and regions, both Maori and European. This history was interesting. If we were coming to an especially pretty place, the audio also flagged that to allow passengers to go out to the viewing car. Some of the history was tragic - of note, several mining accidents in both the North Island and the South Island were sobering. There is a monument in Graymouth to those lost in mining accidents (photo under Tranzalpine journey below).
Food - The trains have a café car with so-so food. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t anything special. The items are a bit more expensive than a regular convenience store price but less than airport food. They had a range of breakfast items (yogurts with museli, scones, egg sandwiches, pancakes), and sandwiches or salads. There was ice cream and a variety of drinks, including espresso and alcoholic as well as soft drinks. The café car was open most of the trip. You should take cash since there is no internet in some spots.
Staff - The staff were knowledgeable and nice. You really get a feel for the safety aspects of running a train system. The day we traveled to Wellington from Hamilton was only a few days after Cyclone Gabrielle hit the North Island. Train staff had to clear parts of the tracks. Our Airbnb host works for the train system and half-way from Hamilton to Wellington he sent us a picture to show where our train was and how many complex factor train staff must manage when these trains pass each other. It was nice to know that we had a friend in the controls!
The cost & other travel considerations
The Northern Explorer from Hamilton to Wellington cost $219NZD per person (about $134 per person USD). This compares to a flight from Hamilton to Wellington at about $75 per person USD. However, we are avoiding air travel when we can for several reasons. Airline seats are uncomfortable for us. Checking our luggage is more of a hassle. Overall, flying is stressful. While the flight is much shorter than the train, you have to get to the airport a couple of hours in advance and airports are generally a bit farther from the central city than train stations. And, you miss the scenery! It turned out to be lucky we booked the train, because air travel was suspended the day we traveled in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle. The Northern Explorer from Wellington to Auckland we will take at the end of March cost the same price as the trip from Hamilton to Wellington. Flights from Wellington to Auckland at the end of March are about $100 USD per person (you can get cheaper flights but you would pay extra for baggage so it would cost at least as much or more).
The Tranzalpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth cost $219NZD each way (Christchurch to Greymouth then another $219NZD from Greymouth back to Christchurch) for a total of $440NZD per person (about $270USD per person). The only purpose for us of taking this trip was to see the sights so we would not have flown.
We flew to Christchurch from Wellington because we couldn’t book a ferry and train down on the same day. We were traveling in mid-February, which is still a peak holiday time in NZ, as it is nearing the end of summer. The flight from Wellington to Christchurch was $153NZD per person (about $94USD per person). The train back up (Coastal Pacific) cost $173NZD per person (about $106USD per person). The Interislander ferry cost $70NZD (about $43USD) per person. So the total train/ferry cost was $243 NZD per person (about $149USD). Therefore, it cost about $50USD per person more to take the train/ferry than to fly. The scenery and (mostly) less stressful travel was well worth the price (see problem with ferry in “timeliness issues” below).
The Northern Explorer was a bit late arriving in Hamilton and left about 30 minutes late. But, it had to travel from Auckland which had just been hit with a second cyclone in a few weeks. There were a few other slow-downs and we arrived in Wellington about an hour later than scheduled. This was not bad considering the weather concerns. The Tranzalpine was right on time, both ways. Likewise, the Coastal Pacific was on time. We arrived in Picton at 12:30pm and had booked the 6:30pm ferry to Wellington. The Interislander ferries had been experiencing problems all summer, especially after the first Cyclone at the end of January. Bad weather cancelled a lot of ferry crossings, and passengers were having a hard time getting from one point to the other. Additionally, some of the ferries had mechanical problems and were either out of service of hauling only freight. We felt lucky to be on the ferry we booked and that we left on time. The crossing was lovely and we actually arrived in Wellington about 30 minutes early. However, the ship that was in our berth had mechanical problems that could not be repaired, and we had to wait over 3 hours for it to be unloaded of its freight before we could dock. Needless to say, after a 13-hour travel day, it was miserable to wait 3 hours in the harbor when we could see the lights of the city. This also created problems for our Airbnb host who was waiting up to give us the key, and had to work early the next morning. These mechanical issues have been a big news item here all summer. The company is planning to open a new terminal and launch new ships in 2025, but in the meantime, the old ships appear to be breaking down frequently.
Scenery - This is the reason to take these trips - the scenery was outstanding on all three trains. New Zealand is a gorgeous country and the trains travel through beautiful spots. The viewing case is open air, which is great for fresh air and for photos. There were a few spots where it was crowded on the viewing car, especially on the Northern Explorer, which was full. Kiwis are nice and after getting a prime spot, they would often offer to back up and let someone else get in front. A lot of passengers got off at Arthur's Pass on the Tranzalpine, so the stretch from Arthur's Pass to Greymouth wasn't crowded at all. Likewise, the Coastal Pacific was uncrowded. The windows at the seats were also outstanding, created for easy viewing of beautiful landscapes.
Photos from the Northern Explorer
Photos from the Tranzalpine
Photos from the Coastal Pacific
Photos in Picton during our 5-hour layover
Photos from the ferry crossing
Overall, we love traveling by train. It is better for the environment, less stressful, and a great way to see places you have never seen or rarely see.