How to get around New Zealand by train

Travelling New Zealand by train is easy and it’s far and away the most scenic way to get around the country!

Many people don’t even realise that New Zealand has a functional passenger rail network but I’m hear to tell you that a train trip is a must-do on a New Zealand holiday. You’ll see sites that aren’t accessible any other way, like the stunning Raurima spiral, and you can avoid all the hassle of car parking and airport security.

If you’re planning your New Zealand trip and aren’t sure whether train travel is the way to go then scroll down for my pros and cons list.

train passing mount tongariro north island New Zealand
Source: Great Journeys of NZ

The intercity train network in New Zealand

Great Journeys of NZ is the main company running train services in New Zealand. They operate the main trunk lines running the length of the country (Northern Explorer, Coastal Pacific, TranzAlpine).

There are also some smaller networks around the Wellington Region (run by Metlink), Auckland Region (run by Auckland Transport), Otago Region (run by Dunedin Council) and between Auckland and Hamilton (run by Waikato Regional Council).  

Where can you get by train in New Zealand?

Believe it or not, you can get nearly anywhere in New Zealand by train, with a few connections.

The main train routes are:

  • Northern Explorer: Auckland to Wellington via Hamilton and Tongariro National Park
  • Te Huia: Auckland to Hamilton
  • Capital Connection: Palmerston North to Wellington via the Kapiti Coast
  • Coastal Pacific: Picton to Christchurch via Blenheim and Kaikoura
  • TranzAlpine: Christchurch to Greymouth
  • The Victorian: Dunedin to Oamaru

The availability of trains on the North Island is better than on the South Island, mostly because there is more demand and fewer mountains in the way.

Unfortunately, there are no trains to Queenstown because no one has spent enough money to build tunnels through the mountains.

northern explorer train to wellington
Source: Great Journeys of NZ

Booking New Zealand train tickets

For the Great Journeys of NZ trains, you can buy tickets at the website. You do need to buy online in advance as you can’t just show up with cash on the day. Tickets are released around a year in advance and can be bought up to the week of departure.

For the Hamilton-Auckland train and regional trains in Auckland and Wellington you can buy tickets at the main stations or using the pre-paid transport cards (AT-Hop in Auckland, Bee in Hamilton, Snapper in Wellington). Wellington and Auckland-Hamilton trains also let you pay on the train with cash but Auckland trains do not. Paying by pre-paid card is always the cheapest option.

How much does it cost to travel New Zealand by train?

Generally, there are two classes of tickets available: Scenic and Scenic Plus class. Scenic Plus is basically like business class on a plane with the main perk being better food. Scenic Plus isn’t always offered and can sell out quick.

Prices vary by route (shorter + cheaper) and time of booking (further in advance = cheaper), and travel time (weekdays are cheaper). Below are an indictaion of the current prices at the time of writing in Scenic Class.

Bus TripTravel TimeCosts (starts from NZD)
Auckland to Wellington10-11 hours$189
Auckland to Hamilton2.5 hours$15
Christchurch to Greymouth5 hours$189
Picton to Christchurch10.5 hours$177

Child, senior and student discounts are available.

Train tickets also don’t tend to go up that much so it can be cost-effective for last minute travel.

What to expect when travelling New Zealand by train

Train departures

Train stations in New Zealand vary wildly from the beautiful historic Wellington Railway Station to simple platforms on a random street. They are generally super central though so you’ll find it easy to walk, bus or taxi there and find accommodation nearby.

Smaller train stations may not have an indoor waiting area so just be aware of that if the weather is bad.

Trains tend to run on time/very close to time. The exception is when you’re getting on partway through a bigger route (such as boarding at Kaikoura between Picton and Christchurch) and/or the weather is bad.

Regional trains can often be replaced by buses when there is bad weather or track repairs in progress so be ready for that possibility. Buses don’t typically take much extra time.

I recommend showing up 15 minutes before your scheduled departure time, or at least 30 minutes if you have luggage to check.

train station with train at platform in Kaikoura nz
Kaikoura Station Source: Great Journeys of NZ

Food and drink on New Zealand train trips

There is a cafe car on board to Great Journeys of NZ trains that serves full meals as well as snacks and drinks (including alcohol). I’d describe the quality as slightly above aeroplane level. If you book a Scenic Plus ticket you get restaurant-style meals delivered to your seat

Other trains do not have food or drinks for sale but you can bring along any food of your own and eat it onboard.

Luggage on New Zealand trains

Great Journeys of NZ tickets allow you to bring two ‘carry-on’ and one ‘checked’ bag. The checked bag has to be checked in at the station along with any wheeled carry-on, while smaller carry-ons stay with you. 

On the regional trains, you can take whatever luggage you like, but bear in mind these are largely commuter services so there aren’t many (or any) luggage racks.

Wifi on trains in New Zealand

Technically all trains have wifi but in my experience, it’s pretty terrible so if you desperately need internet on your trip you’re better off buying a local SIM. Even then, there is no reception on some of the remoter areas the trains pass through.

Types of trains around New Zealand

Great Journeys of NZ trains are designed for tourists so they have spacious carriages and lounger-style seats, typically with a 2×2 seating configuration in rows.

Regional trains have less comfortable seats, more like bus seats, in a mix of configurations, typically with lots of aisle space for standing or bags,

There are no sleeper trains in New Zealand, but none of the routes run at night anyway.

train seats in a carriage of the northern explorer
Source: Great Journeys of NZ

Pros of travelling New Zealand by train

  1. Best way to see all the scenery as you travel
  2. Train stations are central so you don’t have the hassle of getting to/from an airport.
  3. No airport security or waiting around at departure gates
  4. Much more comfortable than bus travel with spacious carriages and decent food

Cons of travelling New Zealand by train

  1. It’s not the fastest way of getting from A to B (but at least as fast as the buses)
  2. It can be very pricey for a one-way trip, especially if you travel in peak season (December – February).

Local tips for train travel in New Zealand

  • Book as far in advance as possible – The earlier you book the cheaper is the general rule.
  • Join the email list – sometimes they give you loyalty discounts or early access to sale fares.
  • If you’re a fussy eater then take snacks – the food selection onboard is ok but if you have dietary requirements you might struggle.
  • Take the opportunity to stop-off en route – just make sure to book your stop-offs when you buy the tickets, there’s no option to change plans on the day.
Christchurch station
Christchurch Station Source: Great Journeys of NZ

Frequently asked questions about travelling New Zealand by train

Does New Zealand have a railway?

Yes, New Zealand has a rail network with a couple of different intercity train routes.

Are there overnight trains in New Zealand?

No, unfortunately, but there are daytime trains.

Are trains expensive in New Zealand?

Yes, trains aren’t the cheapest way of getting around, prices are similar to airfares.

Can you take a train between the North Island and South Island?

No, you have to get off the train in Wellington and take the ferry then board another train in Picton. Ferry tickets can be included with some train fares.

In Short: Getting Around New Zealand By Train

So, can you travel around New Zealand by train? Absolutely! The intercity network offers unforgettable journeys through New Zealand’s landscapes, showcasing the country’s natural beauty in all its glory. 

I hope this guide helps you with planning any New Zealand train trips or deciding if this is the transport you want to use. If you’re interested in reading more about other transport options, check out my New Zealand by bus guide.

More New Zealand travel guides

If you’re planning a trip around New Zealand, check out these other travel guides to help you plan your trip:

Happy travelling!

New Zealand Travel Resources

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