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Aboard New Zealand's Most Beautiful Rail Journeys


Gary Walsh explores how New Zealand rail journeys can reveal the finest perspectives of this beautiful landscape. 

When it comes to a New Zealand tour, nothing can beat a classic rail journey. From the picture windows of a train, New Zealand’s spectacular scenery is a moveable feast. Up and over the dramatic mountainous spine of New Zealand's South Island, first through rolling farmland and then into a world of stark, snow-dusted, craggy peaks before descending to the wild west coast. Or along the lovely Kaikoura Coast on a ribbon of rail between tall cliffs and sparkling sea. Exploring New Zealand by train is guaranteed to leave you in awe of this diverse land.

Train buffs turn slightly giddy at the mention of the likes of the TranzAlpine, and the Coastal Pacific, both of which are in the discussion for a podium finish when the world’s finest train journeys are judged. And, as is the New Zealand way, even the more modest rail trips the country offers have a quirkiness that makes them irresistible.

View of Tranzalpine Train on Waimakariri Bridge, New Zealand
The train journey to rule them all is the TranzAlpine, which bridges the east and west coasts of South Island, beginning in cosmopolitan Christchurch and taking five hours to travel a little more than 200 kilometres to the old mining town of Greymouth. It tracks the glacier-fed Waimakariri River before boldly launching into the crossing of Arthur’s Pass in the heart of the glorious Southern Alps.
View of Tranzalpine Train alongside Waimakariri River in South island, New Zealand
The Coastal Pacific completes the South Island collection, running from Picton, where it connects with the Interislander ferry from Wellington, through to the wide-open Canterbury Plains and Christchurch. It hugs the coast for most of its path, with the Pacific rollers almost lapping at its wheels, and offers a chance to view whales and other marine life as it meanders southwards.
A more gentle environment surrounds the historic Glenbrook Vintage Steam Train, which travels sedately through the rolling farmland of the Franklin countryside south of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. And steam of a different sort – that from the geysers and mud pools of Rotorua – greets you on the eccentric Rotorua Rail Cruise, on which you pilot your own little train through the landscape of thermal wonders. Those clever Kiwis always seem to think of everything.

View of Glenbrook Steam Train in North Island, New Zealand

And while there is no journey attached, a visit to the Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherston north of Wellington is a must for rail fanciers. Here sits the only remaining Fell steam locomotive in the world. This ingenious little engine, which dates to 1877, pulled carriages up the steep Remutaku Incline using a unique method of four wheels gripping a raised central rail. It’s the little engine that could.

When it comes to choosing a mode of travel, you can't beat the magic of a classic New Zealand rail journey.

Need to Know

Here are other experiences Aotearoa, the 'land of the long white cloud’, has in store when you ride the TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific railways, on your 15 Day New Zealand Rail Adventure

Cruise the full length of Milford Sound, a stunning fiord surrounded by forested mountains and waterfalls. 

Visit Rotorua’s Te Puia Cultural Centre for an insight into Maori culture, and later enjoy a traditional Hangi feast

Enjoy a guided tour of Wellington, plus free time to explore the city at your own pace. 

Spend a night at beautiful Lake Tekapo and visit the highly photogenic Church of the Good Shepherd.