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Train travel around New Zealand, is it worth it?

July 21, 2010

At fifteen minutes to mid-day I was told to wait. Drizzle started playing out a tune on the shelter’s glass roof, a gentle pit-pat, pat pat pat. I became the raindrop to kill time and curb my annoyance until impatience snapped me out of my Zen state, back into reality.

“It’s never on time!” came a voice from inside the musical shelter.

She was an elderly woman, well dressed and exasperated from the long wait and drudge of train travel. In New Zealand train travel leans towards the romantic notion of discovering scenic landscape unseen from the roads below, the notion that only the best adventurers travel this way and I fell for it.

I was about to board a train to Auckland eight hours away by rail (six by car), thinking I would fall in love with this part of the country all over again, grab some fantastic images and meet some people along the way. All for $49 NZ dollars.

by Cate

The reality was very different. An old noisy diesel engine pulled a handful of carriages through small towns, rural farmland at snail pace. My carriage showed signs of a weary life, in need of refurbishment or better, retirement. The air was stale, the food expensive and the non-stop commentary put a stop to any form of quiet contemplation. It was not a super smooth technological savvy train journey I had become accustomed to in Asia. There were parts of wonder and gasp, but more often the landscape came under the ‘drole’ category. If you have seen one sheep, you pretty much have seen them all.

by Cate

Train travel in New Zealand can be a mixed play on your emotions, a fun loving tourist orientated experience, or an unwilling chore that must be endured from start to finish and all the way in between.

While road journeys are seemingly endless in this small country, New Zealand’s rail journeys consist of three main trips: Overlander (Auckland to Wellington), Tranz Alpine (Christchurch to Greymouth) and Tranz Coastal (Picton to Christchurc) and three privately run trips: Capital Connection (Wellington to Palmerston North), Wairarapa Connection (Wellington to Masterton) and Taiere Gorge Rail — tourist line south from Dunedin.

Not all rail travel in New Zealand is bad, in fact there are journeys that when taken at the right time (outside school holidays) can claim to be truly beautiful. When I travelled through the South Island in a 2008 visit back to New Zealand, I boarded the Tranz Alpine at Greymouth on the West Coast and headed across the Southern Alps ending up in Christchurch on the East Coast.

This journey crosses viaducts built over bottomless gorges, climbs over snow-clad mountains before descending into Jack Frost bitten valley floors. Geared up for tourists this trip is worth every dollar handed over. Comfortable, clean, with good food and warm heating, the journey began two hours later than expected due to frozen signals, which meant travelling across some of the most scenic places in New Zealand in the dark.

What to expect

  • Plan for delays particularly during the mid summer and winter months. Trains have to move slow due to the condition of the tracks.
  • Plan to push for viewing space on the train’s viewing platform which may seem like a wonderful idea but isn’t. There is usually only one narrow platform packed with mid-life pushiness. Photos are difficult to master as the train lurches and pulls its way along.
  • Plan for plenty of time – if time is not on your side think about taking the bus instead. Apart from the commuter runs, these train journeys are long and slow.
  • Plan to get annoyed – yep there will be someone with a grating voice that doesn’t stop using it until the trip ends.
  • Plan for your children – most kids I have seen on board trains WILL BE BORED. No lie given their limited attention span and their inability to get off the train.

Recommend:

If you really want to experience something different in a country that has seen so much marketing hype head south to Dunedin and take the Taiere Gorge Train. You can use this as a connection to Queenstown as well  or return back to Dunedin and head south to the relatively untouched Catlins.

Check out the video produced by a train lover Mr Yowie (you will need to click on the YouTube link).

Even though I’ve seen pretty much all of this area, I haven’t seen this place with its steep gorges and narrow cuts, almost like going back into time.

A steam engine occasionally pulls this train, a must for steam engine buffs.

Caffeinated Traveller

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16 Comments
  1. July 21, 2010 3:18 pm

    How funny, I was just mulling over “overrated” things I was told to do in NZ and I’d put Christchurch to Greymouth by train on the Tranzalpine on that list! And ugh the observation platform, a nightmare! It was a big socked in the day I did it, but I thought the pricetag was just gigantic considering the amenities.

    The Taeri Gorge, however (as you said) was spectacular, from the twee train with its antique fittings to the fact that we got to see helicopters dousing the rest of the forest fires that were still burning (this would have been in late Feb, probably the 25th). And it’s the pick up point for the end of the Otago rail trail, and they take bikes, so it worked out really well for me to give my legs a rest! (I’d come down from greymouth and around to the beginning of the train.

    Glad to make your acquaintance, and if you’re ever in Santiago, pop in and I’ll tell you where to get your caffeine on. I’m addicted, myself. One of the best things about New Zealand? the flat whites!

    • July 21, 2010 4:48 pm

      I agree about the amenities and yes the price is overwhelming for a train trip! And a non luxury one at that. I think when I did the Tranz Alpine it was just after a week of snow storms in the region, incredibly cold but also incrediby beautiful. I also went during the school holidays – never again!
      Good to hear that you enjoyed the Taiere trip, one I regret not doing as yet.

      Nice to meet you as well Eileen, love your blog and humour, you live in a wonderful part of the world (jealous!!)

  2. July 21, 2010 7:11 pm

    With my tendency for motion sickness, I’ve never romanticized train travel. I do like the concept though and a tour through Auckland sounds lovely, in theory.

    • July 22, 2010 10:24 am

      I guess buses also pose a problem for you. High speed trains run very smoothly you wouldn’t know you were riding at 400 Kms and hour like the one in Shanghai, but the trains in NZ are slow and lurch and yes, you do know you are riding one.

      I think driving is actually a nicer way to see NZ.

  3. July 22, 2010 10:13 am

    It’s been years since I’ve been on a train, but I keep thinking we need to try it again since my daughter loves that kind of thing. Apparently, there’s an Amtrak route from San Antonio to Austin (about 2 hours), but I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed. Maybe we just need to try it anyway. Sorry you didn’t have a better time!

    • July 22, 2010 10:26 am

      Hi Sarah, it’s like the Amtrak train in Florida and Tri Rail. I know I’ll be disappointed but if I don’t try it out I’ll be forever wondering. Give it a try if you’re expectations are low already you may not be so disappointed 🙂

  4. July 22, 2010 10:46 am

    My experience tells me to take a train only when I am not in a hurry. It stops at every station, and share with others on a single railway.

    Anyhow, it is fun to travel on a train, sometimes.

    • July 22, 2010 5:36 pm

      That’s it Rainfield! take the train when you’re not in a hurry. Even if you can take a rapid express Bullet Train, you spend time waiting either at the beginning or at stations along the way. But I do like trains particulary luxury. I wouldn’t decline a Trip on the Oriental Express….

  5. July 22, 2010 5:41 pm

    I’m a bit train fan. Overland, less stress, and easier on the body I feel. Delays don’t bother me, probably because I’m always late myself 🙂

    • July 23, 2010 11:03 am

      Anil, I think you are at one with the world and don’t let minor things disrupt you. A good way to travel.

  6. July 23, 2010 6:44 am

    I’m a bit sad to hear that you did not have the best of journeys on the Overlander. We did it in the summer and had a good experience although I’d not rate it in my top ten travel experiences! There was no commentary when we did the route in the 2008 so it was a relaxing trip.

    We actually missed the Taiere Gorge Rail when we were in NZ which I’m gutted about. I’m currently into my third year of not flying so not sure if I’ll ever get back to do it :(. Anyway I thought you might be interested in a website I set up a few months ago called http://www.flightlessTravel.com. One of the reasons for setting up the site was to try and capture real experiences not just marketing hype!

    • July 23, 2010 11:05 am

      Tom I guess we have different expectations, I can ride the slowest grungiest train around Vietnam and think it’s amazing, but don’t expect to do the same thing in my own country. I do like the concept of your site (added it to my blogroll as well!).

      Hope you can make it back to NZ soon.

  7. July 23, 2010 1:22 pm

    I’ve only driven in New Zealand but would love to take the train sometime. Sorry your experience was rather ghastly. I envision a peaceful, lulling journey through beautiful spaces. Hopefully things will get better soon. 🙂

    • July 25, 2010 3:19 pm

      Driving would be one of the better ways to go depsite the roads being small and narrow.

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