Ingrid Travels on KiwiRail

Staff member: Ingrid // Trip date: Sep 2013


Back in 2007 I travelled on the TranzAlpine train, the most popular of the scenic trains in New Zealand. I remembered it as a beautiful journey but in an old train with not particularly enticing food options on board. KiwiRail commissioned a company in Dunedin, NZ to build brand new carriages for them and in November 2011 they were launched firstly on the newly named "Coastal Pacific" and then followed by the TranzAlpine & newly named Northern Explorer which was originally called The Overlander.

I arrived in to Wellington to begin my journey on the new KiwiRail Scenic trains. Wellington airport is small and easy to get around. Needless to say it was probably even more empty than normal the day we were travelling as Wellington had experienced a sizeable earthquake the day before we flew in. Our flight was pretty empty and there weren't many people around the airport considering it was mid afternoon on a Saturday. Getting from the airport in to the CBD is very easy and quick. The Airport bus costs just $9pp and only takes about 20 minutes. In fact as it happened we were staying at the Novotel Wellington and there was a bus stop basically right outside the door.


Northern Explorer


My first train experience was to be on the new Northern Explorer. The old Overlander service used to run daily and take almost 13 hours. They have managed to cut 2 hours off the travel time by cutting out some smaller stops along the way and with the new carriages have provided a much more tourist oriented journey and run 3 times a week in each direction.


The train departed from Wellington station at 7:55 on Sunday morning. We took a 2 minute taxi ride down to the station which is right on the edge of the CBD, very close to the famous Beehive (NZ Parliament building.) We had already received our tickets by email before our departure and all we had to do is go to the ticket window at the station to collect our boarding passes with seat number allocations. Our tickets stated that we were required to be at the station a minimum of 20 minutes prior to departure and I would definitely recommend ensuring you follow this as we did notice that about 15 minutes prior to departure they packed up the check in desk as the staff manning it were the same staff travelling on the train with us. We were allocated 2 window seats opposite each other in a group of 4. The staff member who checked us in kindly informed us that the train was not going to be busy today and we would not have anyone else sitting next to us in the group of 4 so were welcome to spread ourselves out. There was a place just near the entrance to the platform where staff took our big bags to check them in for the day in the luggage car. So we only took our small daypack on board with us. There was a café & small supermarket that were both open at the station so if you wanted to stock up on snacks or coffee before boarding this was possible. However I must say the food in the onboard café was great, more about that later.

We settled in to our seats at the beautiful big panoramic windows to watch the world go by. As we pulled out of Wellington station voice over announcements informed us where we could find the cafe carriage & open air viewing carriage on board as well as toilets, emergency procedures and how to operate the in seat audio commentary. Staff came around shortly after to check tickets and give everyone headphones for the audio commentary. Each seat had its own headphone socket and you could choose to use either those provided or your own if you preferred. Whenever audio commentary was about to start you hear a short ding and the TV screens mounted on the roof of the carriage would show up with a green line across the top of them. Then you would have about 30 seconds before the commentary started to get your headphones on and ready. We thought the in-ear commentary was fantastic as you had the choice on whether you wanted to listen to it or not. The commentary itself was really informative as it gave you not only historical background as we passed different sites & towns along the way but also told you ancient stories about the places and how they came to be, according to Maori legend.

As the Northern Explorer wasn't overly busy the day we were travelling staff came around mid-morning to see if anyone wanted to pre-order lunch or dinner from the cafe car which they would then bring around to you at your seat. We didn't bother doing this and just went to the cafe when we were hungry. We ate breakfast on-board and there was a good selection of food available. They had a coffee machine for coffee, tea & hot chocolates as well as a good selection of hot & cold breakfast options. Hot options are simply warmed up in the microwave as they don't have a kitchen on board. All food is made by "Wishbone" which is a famous NZ brand of pre-cooked/packaged food with cafes/shops across NZ. I enjoyed a bircher muesli with yoghurt & mixed berries on top whilst my husband had a hot chorizo & egg breakfast wrap.

We had just three stops between Wellington and our first destination of National Park. The scenery was gorgeous, following the coast out of Wellington, then through the old towns, past smaller mountain ranges and then eventually in to the Tongariro National Park with its four huge volcanoes. The train arrived five minutes late at 1:20pm in to National Park station and we had already organised a transfer with our accommodation the Chateau Tongariro. So they met us on the station platform and transferred us the 20 minute drive to Whakapapa village at the base of Mt Ruapehu. We spent two nights at the Chateau enjoying the open fires in the lounge, high tea in the grand old dining room, played golf at the highest golf course in NZ & did some "tramping" around the base of the mountains for spectacular snow-capped views of Mt Ngauruhoe & Ruapehu.

From the Chateau it was a transfer back to the station and on board the Northern Explorer once again on our way to Auckland. By stopping in National Park for the two nights we effectively split the trip in two as it was another 5 ½ hours on to Auckland. When the train pulled in to the station we were waved up to the front carriage where we once again deposited our large bags for stowage in the baggage car and showed our tickets to receive our boarding passes with seat numbers. This time we received two seats next to each other. All the groups of two seats face forwards throughout the journey. The only time you may be seated backwards is in the groups of 4.

There was a cafe at the station at National Park but we chose to wait until we got on board the train to eat as we wanted to try another selection of the food. This time we tried a butter chicken as well as a macaroni cheese pasta dish along with a Monteiths beer & Jack Daniels & Coke. The train is fully licensed so whilst you cannot bring your own alcohol on board to consume they have a great selection available at very reasonable prices. A bottle of Monteiths was only NZD$7 and very nice to enjoy whilst we travelled down the Raurimu spiral. A rail engineering feat the spiral goes down by 132m in just 6.8km's with a series of curves, bends & a complete full circle at one point. It's quite amazing to see the track going down the mountainside as you travel from the top. I spent most of the time out the back in the open-air viewing carriage so I could take some great photos along the way. I think most of the train had the same idea as it was pretty crowded. I was happy though that the train was two carriages longer that day than it had been on Sunday (more travellers so they add more carriages) as it meant I could get some great photos of the front of the train going around the bends.

We had a delay about half way to Auckland when it turned out that someone had been working on the signals earlier in the day and accidently cut a wire which meant the tracks had to be manually adjusted so we could continue on our way. This ended up taking almost half an hour which meant when we finally pulled in to Auckland's Britomart station we were around 22 minutes late. The staff were absolutely fantastic in communicating this throughout the journey, giving us constant updates as to what our arrival time would be and also assisting people where possible with giving them directions to hotels, ferries, buses and the airport. Britomart station is much bigger than Wellington as there is a huge suburban train network in the Auckland region so the main concourse has quite a few shops & cafes to choose from. There are also lockers available if people need to store bags. We were catching a ferry to Waiheke island so we simply walked out of the station and across the road to the ferry terminal. The bus terminal with the airport bus is also next to the ferry terminal so it is very easy to get anywhere from the train station.



After spending a couple of nights on beautiful Waiheke island it was time to fly down to Christchurch. Since the 2011 Earthquakes, as everyone has heard, Christchurch is being slowly rebuilt. The main square was reopened just a few weeks before our arrival and a couple of other city hotels opened in the same week we were there. There are still very limited options in the city centre and to be honest not a lot to do. Over the past two ½ years since the Earthquakes the central city area of bars, restaurants etc...have all moved to the outskirts of the city where all the motels etc... remained for the most part less damaged than the central city area. So whilst we had booked a hotel in the CBD (one of the very few open) we actually discovered on arrival we would have been better off at one of the motels on the outskirts as it would have been much closer to the restaurants & bars.

The TranzAlpine departs daily at 8:15am from Christchurch Railway station which is located outside the city centre, in Addington. Our hotel informed us that there is a free shuttle service which is run by Canterbury Shuttles and visits all the major hotels in the Christchurch area however the pickup was super early from our hotel so we decided to just take a taxi ourselves. The taxi took about 15 minutes and cost just under $20. We arrived at the station 30 minutes before departure and found we had plenty of time to check-in and receive our boarding passes with seat numbers. There was no open cafe at the station.

The TranzAlpine carriages are exactly the same as the Northern Explorer new carriages with in-ear audio commentary working the same way. The TranzAlpine is a return day trip so many people choose to either do a single one way trip between Greymouth & Christchurch or V.V or like us they just do it as a day trip from Christchurch. By far, the most scenic side of the train for viewing is the right hand side leaving Christchurch. This was the side we were seated on. You can request this when you check in at the station. There are of course no guarantees if the train is quite full but you can always ask.

The Open Air viewing carriage was actually at the front of the train behind the locomotive on the way to Greymouth which meant you couldn't see out the back of the train like we could on the Northern Explorer however that changed on the way back to Christchurch when it was once again at the back of the train.

A great touch on the TranzAlpine is the fact that at the first stop of Springfield in the morning they pick up a batch of freshly baked muffins from the lady who runs the station cafe. That day they were raspberry and white chocolate. Needless to say when the announcement came over as we left Springfield that the muffins were available to purchase at the cafe car I was there in an instant. They made a delicious morning tea.

The train journey starts by travelling over the Canterbury plains where you see vast expanses of farmland, sheep & cattle. You can also see the snow-capped mountains getting closer and closer which make for some great photo opportunities. Once the train enters the mountain range there are some many viaducts it travels over, blue rivers running through the gorges & we were also lucky enough to be there in the middle of wattle season so the contrasting colours were wonderful.
At the moment KiwiRail is concerned about ventilation issues in the Otira Tunnel and is preparing to do some work on it so at Arthurs Pass station everyone had to get off the train (luggage is all left on board) and we got onto coaches which took us over the mountain, across the viaduct to pick up the train again in Otira. The journey on the coaches took about 20 minutes and to be honest actually means you see a lot more than you usually would going through the tunnel. So we didn't mind having already done the tunnel on the train six years ago. The train still travelled through the tunnel with the crew on board and was already waiting for us at the station in Otira when the coaches arrived. This did however mean a 15 minute delay into Greymouth. Usually the train would arrive at 12:45pm then depart again at 1:45pm allowing an hour for people doing the return journey to get off the train and get some lunch in Greymouth. We were actually pleasantly surprised that even though we arrived at 1pm they still allowed us a full hour stopover and delayed the departure of the train until 2pm. We found a lovely little cafe just 2 minutes walk from the station for some lunch.

Seeing as we had already listened to the on-board commentary on the way to Greymouth we decided to spend some time taking photos from the Open Air viewing carriage on the way back. Late in the day the cafe offered some sandwiches at half price for anyone who was still feeling hungry. Another point I would make would be that there are times on board the train where due to reception in the mountains the cafe may not be able to take eftpos/credit card transactions so be sure to have some cash with you just in case.

We made up time on the way back to Christchurch and despite once again needing to get off the train to board coaches we still managed to arrive into Christchurch only 10 minutes later than scheduled. For anyone with checked-in luggage there is a conveyor belt at the start of the platform next to the exit for the station where you can collect your bags. There are no free shuttles back to the hotels. You have the option of public bus, taxi or shuttle bus. We opted for the shuttle bus which cost $16 for two people. To be honest I think I'd just take the taxi again next time as for the extra few dollars it is much quicker than getting taken half way around Christchurch dropping everyone off if your hotel is not the first on the list.


Train Overview

The new carriages are equipped with everything you might need, power points at each seat, coat hooks, reading lights, toilets at the end of every carriage, forward facing seats, shelves above seats for small bags, moveable headrests, panoramic windows and tables at the back of seats of those in groups of 2 and in the middle for a group of 4. There are also menus with all the options at the cafe car, an onboard magazine with suggestions on different things to see and do at each of the train destinations and around NZ. Each train had three attendants on board, one manning the cafe and two who checked tickets, baggage and answered any general queries throughout the journey.
Our time on both the Northern Explorer & TranzAlpine was fantastic. I absolutely love the new carriages and think they make a real difference to the old ones they had previously. It is really a state of the art travel experience now, particularly with in-ear audio commentary available on all the journeys. I noticed that some people just kept their headphones on the whole journey, whilst others were a bit like us, just put them on when they felt like listening. The KiwiRail Scenic journeys are something I would recommend that everyone do when visiting NZ. Whilst many have heard of the TranzAlpine fewer are aware of the Northern Explorer and if you have the time I think it is a really worthwhile experience and a great way to see more of the countryside between Auckland & Wellington. If you have the time I would also highly recommend a stopover in National Park for some amazing walking tracks and great skiing/snowboarding in winter.


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