Driving in New Zealand can be challenging because of the mountainous terrain and lack of highways, so including a train journey as part of your itinerary can allow you to relax and soak in the beautiful landscapes.
Northern Explorer: Auckland to Wellington
The Northern Explorer starts in Auckland and ends in Wellington, or vice versa. The route cuts through the center of the North Island and takes about 11 hours to complete, which is a comparable time to driving this same distance (400 miles). Scenic highlights include the farmland of Waikato, the dramatic hillocks and forests of the King Country, Tongariro National Park and its three volcanoes (Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe), and the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington.
The Northern Explorer is a comfortable train with seats clustered around tables. There’s an open-air viewing platform, onboard toilets (which are more spacious than airplane toilets), and a dining cart serving food and drinks. The food served on the train tends to be overpriced and underwhelming, so it’s a good idea to bring a picnic (BYO alcohol is not allowed, however).
Travelers on the Northern Explorer can get off at stations en route, such as at Otorohanga for the Waitomo Caves or Ohakune for the Tongariro National Park, and continue on another train a few days later, or pick up a car and continue the journey from there. The train runs in either direction a few times per week, year-round.
Marlborough Flyer: Picton to Blenheim
The Marlborough Flyer is the shortest (and the most charming) of the journeys on this list, as it travels a mere 18 miles between Picton and Blenheim, in the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island. By car this trip takes less than 30 minutes, but the train ride takes about an hour.
While the train travels a short distance, riding it is an experience in and of itself. As as it’s a steam train from 1915, the carriages look appropriately vintage. Each carriage is sponsored by a local winery (Marlborough is the largest producer of wine in New Zealand) and samples are given on board.
Starting in the beautiful port town of Picton in the Marlborough Sounds, the Marlborough Flyer travels past the practically endless fields of vineyards outside Blenheim before stopping at Blenheim Station, which conveniently houses The Wine Station. This innovative wine-tasting bar offers dozens of local wines in self-serve machines.
The Marlborough Flyer can be traveled as a return trip from Picton after arriving in the South Island on the Interislander Ferry, or one-way in either direction.
Coastal Pacific: Picton to Christchurch
The Coastal Pacific travels along the east coast of the upper South Island, covering the 208 miles between Picton and Christchurch, stopping roughly halfway in Kaikoura. Kaikoura is a popular whale-watching destination so many travelers take the opportunity to stop there for a couple of days before continuing the train journey.
Like the Northern Explorer, the Coastal Pacific is comfortable and comes with onboard amenities. Scenic Plus Class provides freshly prepared food and commentary in an upgraded carriage.
The Coastal Explorer is seasonal and runs from early spring (September) until mid-autumn (April). It runs three times a week.
TranzAlpine: Christchurch to Greymouth
The TranzAlpine cuts through the mountainous center of the South Island, from Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west. The 139-mile journey takes five hours to complete and starts in the flat expanses of the Canterbury Plains before traveling up over the Southern Alps and ending on the wild and rugged West Coast.
The TranzAlpine is a handy way of traveling from coast to coast, which can be a challenging route to drive. Greymouth is a handy jumping-off point for exploring the West Coast, where the Hokitika Gorge, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, and the Paparoa National Park are highlights.
Like the other long-distance trains, amenities and comforts are available onboard. Scenic Plus Class offers an upgraded service.
Taieri Gorge Railway: Dunedin to Middlemarch
The Taieri Gorge Railway is another journey that’s less about getting from point A to B and more about enjoying the ride. The route travels through some classic big-sky Central Otago landscape, as well as the Taieri Gorge itself. Starting in Dunedin, at the famous neo-gothic Dunedin Railway Station, the Taieri Gorge Railway travels 47 miles to the small town of Middlemarch, locally famous for its annual Singles Ball. The highlight of the trip is the dramatic Taieri Gorge, carved by the Taieri River, between the Taieri Plains and the high Maniototo Plateau, and the high railbridge.
Most passengers on the Taieri Gorge Railway return to Dunedin on the same day, as Middlemarch isn’t very conveniently located for traveling elsewhere in Otago.
The Taieri Gorge Railway is run by Dunedin Railways, which also offers a couple of other day-trip train rides from Dunedin: the Inlander (between Dunedin and Hindon) and the Seasider (between Dunedin and Waitati).