10 New Zealand Train Trips & Rail Attractions You Shouldn’t Miss

New Zealand experienced the same decline in its rail passenger network that many countries saw over the second half of the last century. But that doesn’t mean Aotearoa has nothing to offer rail enthusiasts. Indeed, some of New Zealand train trips and attractions are world-renowned and there is much to delight visitors with an interest in rail travel.

In recent years NZ Rail has transformed sections of the Main Trunk Line, the main North to South rail route, and the line built to transport the South Island’s coal through the Southern Alps into scenic journeys that delight visitors.

Combine that with kiwi-ingenuity-built rail-based visitor attractions that make use of remaining and disused branch lines and you have a rich diversity of experiences that you can include in your New Zealand tour experience. Here are some of our favourites…

1. The Northern Explorer

Returning in September 2022, The Northern Explorer is one on NZ Rail’s Great Journeys. Traversing the North Island and connecting Auckland and Wellington this is a 640 km feast for the senses. It offers a chance to relax and experience the scenery of the central North Island in the comfort of specially designed carriages.

Travelling south from Auckland the train takes you through the sprawling suburbs of New Zealand’s largest city before you cruise through the fertile green of the Pukekohe area and south to Hamilton in the Waikato. From here the Main Truck Line parts company with the main highway and heads into the densely packed hills of the once remote King Country and into the central Volcanic Plateau.

Enjoy stunning views of the Tongariro National Park after your train climbs the engineering wonder of the Raurimu Spiral. Then pass through more hills as you descend through the hills of the Rangitikei and northern Manuwatu taking in views of quintessential North Island hill-country farms. You’ll cross multiple soaring viaducts following the Rangitikei River south before you cross plains to Palmerston North.

From here its across the relatively flat southern Manuawatu to the towns of the lower North Island and down to the coast. The scenery doesn’t let up as the train follows the coast before it cuts through some more hills to central Wellington.

2. Glenbrook Vintage Railway

Just South of Auckland in Glenbrook you’ll find The Glenbrook Vintage Railway. Combining a museum and railway, this is a “must-do” for anyone interested in historic rail journeys. The heritage steam railway travels through the fertile rolling hills that produce a large percentage of the vegetables, especially onions and potatoes, that Aucklanders eat.

The fully working railway — a testament to decades of work from a team of volunteers — runs over 7.5km between Glenbrook and the township of Waiuku. You’ll travel in one of 17 in-use historic carriages behind either a steam locomotive or one of four operational diesel locomotives.

The operational rolling stock is a fraction of the rail vehicles the railway offers visitors. Anyone with an interest in history will enjoy the railway’s fleet of 87 vehicles. Explore amongst seven steam & eight diesel locomotives and 32 carriages. Ranging from a hand crane dating back to 1878 to a 1981 guard’s van, the fleet is diverse and offers a fascinating insight into New Zealand’s transport history.

3. Driving Creek Railway

Heading south-east from Auckland, no visit to the stunning Coromandel Peninsula is complete without a visit to Driving Creek Railway. This charming little railway stands out amongst the peninsula’s beautiful beaches, remnants of an intriguing history and majestic native bush. It is one of Coromandel’s most popular attractions and offers something to enjoy for young and old.

Enjoy a one-hour round trip on NZ’s only narrow-gauge mountain railway through replanted native forest up to the “Eyeful Tower” viewing platform to enjoy a great view over Coromandel Town, harbour and beyond.

A bird sanctuary, art gallery and Driving Creek Café, which is just a 200m stroll away, make Driving Creek a great place to spend a little time. And a convenient shuttle from the information centre in Coromandel, 3km from the railway, makes it easy to find & visit.

4. Awakeri Railcarts

New Zealanders have a fine tradition of preserving, repurposing and reusing historical infrastructure. Glenbrook is a fine example. Iconic attractions like the Kawarau Bridge Bungy Jump make use of old bridges. And many old rail lines, like the famous Central Otago Rail Trail, now serve as bicycle trails. Some that haven’t lost their rails now enjoy a new life thanks to a bit of Kiwi ingenuity.

Near Whakatane in the East Coast’s Bay of Plenty you’ll find Awakeri Rail Carts, a great example of that ingenuity at work. Retired locomotive driver Paul has restored a disused stretch of track and gives visitors a chance to drive specially designed rail carts in a guided rail adventure.

Drive yourself along the historic Taneatua Branch Line, bypassed by the modern rail network, with complete freedom to stop whenever a view deserves a photo.

5. Forgotten World Rail carts

Interested in spending a bit more time in a rail cart? Head toward the central North Island to Taumaranui, once an important stop on the Main Trunk Line, and head further off the beaten track to find The Forgotten World and Forgotten World Adventures.

Hidden in the lush green hills of the King Country you’ll find ghost towns that are remnants of hardy pioneer lives lived in these hills. You’ll also find the opportunity to discover untouched New Zealand landscapes by air, boat and rail.

The disused line here offers 142km of track to explore, between Taumaranui and Stratford, and the Forgotten World team combine rail cart travel with jet boating and helicopter trips in experiences lasting anything from five and a half hours to four days. A visit to The Forgotten World is, ironically, unforgettable.

6. Coastal Pacific Rail Journey

South Island rail-related attractions start just after you step of the ferry in Picton, at the northern end of the island. The Coastal Pacific, returning in September 2022, is connected to the Northern Explorer by the stunningly scenic Cook Strait ferry journey. The three and a half hour mini-cruise joining NZ’s two main islands offers a chance to see Wellington from the sea and enjoy wonderful views of the Marlborough Sounds.

Here the Main Trunk Line continues its southward journey toward Kaikōura and Christchurch. You’ll understand why the track, begun in the 1860s, only fully competed the link south in 1945 as you take in the dramatic scenery.
The Coastal Pacific dates back to 1988. Along with the TranzAlpine, it is a remnant of once popular passenger services that linked Picton with Invercargill in the far south.

This is perhaps the most picturesque section of the old Main Trunk line. It follows the Pacific Coast closely for much of the 348km journey south to Christchurch. You’ll marvel at rugged coastlines and cross remote beaches while looked over by mountains that seem to rise directly from the sea in places. This truly is a trip of breath-taking beauty.

There is more to the line than the stunning Kaikōura Coastline it traces south, with its thriving marine life and whale watching. It starts south through Marlborough vineyards, before the coastal section and cuts through rolling hills of North Canterbury to Cheviot and more vineyard views. And the last section crosses the northern Canterbury plains before it rolls into Christchurch

7. Nile River Canyon Train

If you choose other modes of travel and the western coast of the “top of the south” you’ll still have a rail attraction to enjoy.

The Nile River Rainforest Train is a short interpretative train journey through primeval sub-tropical rain forest. Seated in small open sided carriages the ‘train’ takes you into the The Paparoa National Park and through the locations for The Lost World film. Trips depart daily and are timed in conjunction with the scheduled Caving Adventures.

Your destination is the magnificent Nile River Canyon and the “Soft Rock” Terminal. Take a short 200 metre forest walk to the Nile River Suspension Bridge. If there’s time, continue to the entrance of the Nile River Glow Worm Caves.

8. The Tranzalpine

A little further south and linking Greymouth on the West Coast and Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city, on the east through Arthur’s Pass, is the Tranzalpine’s route.

Recognised as one of the world’s great rail journeys, the Tranzalpine is perhaps the jewel in New Zealand’s rail crown. The 223 kilometre (139 mile) trip takes around 5 hours one-way.

From Christchurch you cross the wide-open Canterbury Plains toward the Southern Alps. The route follows the aqua-blue Waimakariri River west before you start the climb into the mountains. The next section is a symphony of engineering wonders and draw-dropping views as the train passes through tunnels and over mountain passes.

Traversing the Southern Alps on a train designed to allow you to make the most of majestic scenery is a truly awe-inspiring experience. It’s, simply, a “must-do” for anyone visiting NZ.

Many South Island coach tours include this iconic NZ rail journey and it is a key part of the experience on many rail and coach tours.

9. Christchurch Tram

If you’re in Christchurch before or after your Tranzalpine experience there is a little on-rail journey that shouldn’t be missed either.

The Christchurch Tram combines history and sightseeing as it traverses central Christchurch. The beautifully-restored heritage trams are one of the city’s best loved attractions. They’re also a great way to get around central Christchurch’s attractions.

Hop-on/hop-off tickets allow you to visit the central city sights at your leisure and the friendly and knowledgeable drivers keep you updated about the latest city changes in their informative live commentaries.

Explore the best of the central city from the 17 stops enroute which include: the Canterbury Museum & Botanic Gardens, Turanga and Margaret Mahy Playground and the many retail stores, bars and eateries at The Terrace, Cashel Street & Riverside Market, Arts Centre and New Regent Street offer fantastic shopping and dining options for all.

Pleasant Point steam train

The Pleasant Point engine steaming along its line

10. Pleasant Point Rail Experience

The Pleasant Point Museum and Railway is a heritage railway located at Pleasant Point station in southern Canterbury, inland from Timaru in South Canterbury. The station served the small country town of Pleasant Point when it was an important stop on the Fairlie Branch line.

Today there is 2km of track along the former branch Line. And another group of dedicated volunteers keep the Railway’s locomotives, carriages, and railcar in top order.

Throughout the year, you will hear a whistle or a horn as trainloads of passengers from around the world ride the rails at Pleasant Point, a picturesque spot between the mountains and the sea.

Touring NZ With Train Trips & Attractions

While New Zealand’s passenger rail network is not as extensive as it was and in no way rivals the networks of more populace places it is extraordinarily rich in scenic train trips. NZ Rail’s longer journeys and short trips throughout the country make Aotearoa a great place for rail enthusiasts or anyone who enjoys the views railways can offer.

Add the commentary and local knowledge many of these experience include and rail attractions offer a great way to see and learn about some of New Zealand’s most stunning landscapes and scenery.

Many of the trips and attraction listed here are included in New Zealand tours or key components of rail-themed tour experiences. Whether you’re looking to combine coach and train travel or simply enjoy some historic rail experiences during your New Zealand visit, there’s bound to be an NZ tour that will offer you what you want. Talk to one our tour specialists about Aotearoa holidays that include train trips and rail attractions.