There are no bullet trains in New Zealand. Rail is not a fast track from point A to point B. Rather, it is a chance to do less and take in much more. Whether you’re seeking the spectacular or the quirky, the vintage or the most modern, New Zealand has a rail journey that will satisfy the most ardent trainspotter.
The 10-hour Northern Explorer between New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, and its capital, Wellington, is a red-carpet tribute to the epic feats of early engineers. The 680-kilometre line traverses wild ravines, steep ranges and fast-flowing rivers which were all challenges to railway pioneers. Passengers reap the benefits of its engineering brilliance as the tracks corkscrew skywards through the bush on the Raurimu Spiral, or cross hair-raising high viaducts before heading down to hug the coastline of the Tasman Sea.
Driving Creek Railway
Like the train in the classic children’s tale The Little Engine That Could, Driving Creek Railway punches well above its weight. Hand-built by the late potter and conservationist Barry Brickell, the railway is an iconic feature of the Coromandel Peninsula, which is known for its creamy beaches, crimson pohutukawa flowers and arty communities. The railway – New Zealand’s only narrow-gauge mountain track – zigzags its way up a hillside through three tunnels, over five viaducts and The 680-kilometre Northern Explorer line traverses wild ravines, steep ranges and fast flowing rivers which were all challenges to railway pioneers
Bridges, around two spirals, along five switchbacks and past a churning waterwheel. It’s an outdoor gallery for some of Brickell’s sculptures set against a backdrop of the thousands of native kauri, rimu and totara trees he planted on his property.
When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on 14 November 2016 caused cascades of rock and earth to tumble on to the railway line that linked Christchurch and Picton, many doubted the track could be restored. But they were wrong. The Coastal Pacific line has rightfully reclaimed its status as one of the world’s most stunning rail journeys. The six-hour trip tracks the Pacific Ocean – where whales and seals frolic – and skirts the Kaikoura ranges and the pink Lake Grassmere. Blenheim is a popular stop for wine tastings. Note: This rail journey runs from September to May with the coming season launching on 27 September 2019.
Forgotten World Adventures
New Zealanders have a strong entrepreneurial streak, so it’s not surprising to discover some bright spark took a disused railway line and a bunch of golf carts and built a thriving business. Forgotten World Adventures is the ultimate slow train, running from Okahukura in the North Island’s Central Plateau to Stratford (in Taranaki) via Whangamomona (population 40), which declared itself a republic 30 years ago. The golf carts have been adapted to run on rails and are self-drive. Some excursions finish at the Whangamomona Hotel, which claims to be the most remote pub in New Zealand.
Arguably the most scenic railway in New Zealand is the 223-kilometre TranzAlpine, which travels from Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island through the snow-capped Southern Alps to Greymouth, a town once rich with gold, coal, and timber. One of the track’s most impressive man-made features is the 8.5-kilometer Otira Tunnel, once the longest tunnel in the Southern Hemisphere. Even this pales in comparison to the views of the natural world seen through the train’s panoramic windows: the green-gold pastures, the steep gorges and finally the misty forests of the west coast.
Taieri Gorge Railway
The mood of travellers on the Taieri Gorge Railway is always euphoric as they clack-clack across viaducts as tall as skyscrapers and tootle past sheer rock faces dotted with gravity-defying goats. In 1879 construction of a railway line to service the Otago goldfields began but it was too late for the mining boom, so it was used by farmers and orchardists. Volunteers now maintain the wood-lined, plush-seated carriages. The half-day return trips begin at Dunedin’s beautiful Edwardian station and travel to Pukerangi or to the end of the line at Middlemarch.
There are untold reasons to visit Marlborough: the artisan food and wine for starters. Plus there’s the jaw-dropping beauty of the Marlborough Sounds. Another is the Marlborough Flyer, which takes passengers on a sumptuous nostalgia-fuelled 30-kilometre steam train ride through vineyards and farmlands between Picton and Blenheim, where you can stop for shopping and head out on wine tastings, before riding the rails back to Picton. The Marlborough Flyer was named one of Australasia’s 10 Best Train Journeys by the UK’s Telegraph newspaper in 2018.
Glenbrook Vintage Railway
Nothing beats the romance of a vintage steam train. At Glenbrook Vintage Railway, a 90-minute drive south of Auckland, hissing hunks of hard metal power along a 15-kilometre track through farmland from Glenbrook to the historic town of Waiuku on the Manukau Harbour. The hour-long round trip can also be done in the reverse direction. The attraction is maintained and staffed by costumed volunteers. During its operating season (October to June), the railway carries about 30,000 passengers, some old enough to remember steam engines while others were raised on Thomas the Tank Engine – but all are equally stoked.