New Zealand Rail, owner of KiwiRail, heavily promotes its three train trips to tourists as “Scenic Journeys”. One is located in the North Island with the other two traversing the spectacular scenery of the South Island. These three services are the only ‘long haul’ train trips currently operating in New Zealand.


KiwiRail promotes the train connecting Auckland to Wellington as the Northern Explorer. The 634km (305 miles) trip has 7 stops.  Although the locomotive and general rolling stock are not as modern as European trains, specially built carriages with comfortable swivel chairs and panoramic side and roof windows have been added to each train to allow travelers plenty of room to view the countryside and photograph the images they have come to gaze at. GPS triggered commentaries keep each passenger informed about the various attractions as they are passed. An open air viewing carriage that allows the various aromas of the New Zealand country side to be personally experienced, is an ingenious concept added to the South Island trains.

Onboard Northern Explorer

Opening in 1908, the 11 hour trip connects the country’s largest city and the capital as it cuts through the centre of the North Island past gently rolling farmland similar to the English countryside. There is plenty of native bush, and a number of country towns along the way. Some of the country’s highest and longest viaducts also add interest to the trip.

Although the Wellington end of the rail journey travels close to interesting rocky coasts, the North Island lacks the spectacular landscapes found in the South Island. With tourism now one of New Zealand’s top money earning industries, I think it is just a matter of time before a train again travels along the South Island’s east coast south of Christchurch where the coastal scenery and inland landscapes, backed by the long spine of the spectacular Southern Alps, are way more interesting.


Traveling through the Tongariro National Park with its three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu, is generally regarded as the most spectacular part of the Northern Explorer trip. This is a plateau of extremes where snow covered fields banked by ancient lava flows and dense beech forests are seen side by side. The Northern Explorer section between Auckland and this Volcanic Plateau is the most popular with tourists who make it a day return trip.

The other highlight of a ride on this train is traveling around the Raurimu Spiral, one of the greatest engineering marvels in Australasia. This huge curve cut into the natural contour of the hillside, allows a train to climb 139metres (456ft)  from the Volcanic Plateau to the valleys and gorges of the Wanganui River. In 1898, a Public Works engineer proposed a line that looped back upon itself and then spiraled around the hilly country with tunnels and bridges, Though costly and labour intensive, the scheme was still cheaper than the previous plan to construct a series of viaducts. The curve is so tight that even today, there is no place to view the complete line.


Like the Northern Explorer, the Trans Alpine Express travels at a modest speed. This is due to the narrow gauge of the nation’s rail network and the age of the locomotives. The sedate movement is ideal for tourists to enjoy the famous New Zealand landscapes. The only modern trains in New Zealand are the European designed electric ones recently introduced to the Auckland commuter network.

Trans Alpine Express

The Trans Alpine Express connects the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch, to the west coast town of Greymouth. Introduced 30 years ago, this is a far more spectacular trip than the Northern Explorer because it passes through the dramatic alpine scenery New Zealand is famous for. In fact, the Trans Alpine Express is classed as one of the world’s great train journeys. The 10 hour return trip, which carried 141.000 passengers in the past 12 months, makes a stop at Arthur’s Pass, the country’s highest settlement, after it has chugged across the open plains of Canterbury.  As it heads west, the looming peaks of the Southern Alps create a special excitement for passengers on this train trip. Some of the peaks rise higher than 2000 metres and are snow covered for most of the year. This alpine area is mainly unexplored country which only adds to the attraction it has for overseas visitors.


Arthur’s Pass is a rough and ready alpine settlement and is noted for the cheeky Keas that like to steal food and shiny objects. This alpine parrot is regarded as the world’s cleverest bird species and is unique to New Zealand.

After Arthur’s Pass, the Trans Alpine Express passes through lush native forests and untamed wild west coast rivers before terminating at the west coast’s main town of Greymouth. During the 223km (139 miles) journey, the train passes over 4 viaducts and through 19 tunnels including the Otira Tunnel which cuts through the Southern Alps for a distance of  8.5kms (5.3 miles). Taking 11 years to build from 1907 to 1918, this is another great New Zealand railway engineering achievement (like the Raurimu Spiral) and is one of the best known rail tunnels in Australasia.

Trans Alpine Express beside the Waimakariri River


The Coastal Pacific is the third in the trio of Scenic Rail Journeys marketed by New Zealand Rail. It travels along the upper east coast of the South Island from Christchurch to the inter island ferry terminal town of Picton.

The Coastal Pacific trip takes just over 5 hours and has 5 stops along the way. The most spectacular part of the trip is between Kaikoura and Picton where the tracks hug the rugged coastline. In places, the Pacific Ocean seems to almost touch the train.

Coastal Pacific

The rest of the journey traverses the flat Canterbury Plains and is less interesting at the Christchurch end. In my opinion, Kaikoura is the most interesting stop as this seaside town has become a tourist destination in its own right mainly due to the world famous “Whale Watch”.

Some people, including myself,  want the re-introduction of the “Southerner” a train that once connected Christchurch to Dunedin and Invercargill. I think it offers even more dramatic coastal scenery than seen on the Coastal Pacific as it snakes over and through the cliffs around Otago Harbour, with the added bonus of arriving and departing from one of New Zealand’s most photographed buildings, the Dunedin Railway Station.

This TV commercial features the Northern Explorer and Trans Alpine Express. I can honestly say it’s the only TV commercial I actually watch each time it comes on. The scenery and classical music soundtrack make it a “must watch” for me. I’m sure you will agree when you see it:

Please leave a comment if you found this blog informative.

Ceidrik Heward

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