This review of New Zealand’s Tranz Scenic Overlander train line comes from my good friends Andrea and John Spirov of Inspiring Travellers.
Tranz Scenic Rail: the true Kiwi Experience
Travelling around New Zealand by public transport isn’t overly
recommended. Everyone we spoke to about our trip told us to hire a
car. We were, however, adamant that we didn’t want to deal with the
hassle of parking, insurance, petrol costs and looking after a car for
two and a half months. We were pleasantly surprised to learn about the
country’s three scenic train routes. Generally we’ll choose a train
over other forms of transport if the distances aren’t ridiculous. So
we booked ourselves onto the Overlander, which runs from Auckland to
Wellington. It not only got us from one end of the North Island to the
other, but also provided a truly Kiwi experience.
Check in and the Route
The Overlander runs along the Main Trunk Line, which was opened in
1908 and was a major player in the development of the North Island. It
makes its way across 352 bridges and through 14 tunnels. We completed
this 12-hour (681km) journey in two parts; the first day we travelled
from Auckland to National Park, which is a designated 30 minute stop
for the train service. As advised, we arrived 20 minutes early at
Britomart in Auckland to find a long queue on the platform. The
check-in process, though environmentally friendly (no paper tickets
are issued), could be much more efficient as guests check-in their
luggage one by one on the platform before being allocated seats. On
the day we travelled the train was completely full so this took a long
time. We departed 20 minutes late, which the crew attributed to work
being done on the tracks in Auckland.
Services on board
The Overlander runs in portions along the highway but otherwise allows
views of scenery that you can’t experience any other way. From time to
time a crew member would narrate the ride over the public announcement
system, explaining sights along the way and an excellent historical
narrative so we knew what we were looking at. In addition to the huge
panoramic windows and ample legroom, the train also has two communal
areas for passengers to congregate and enjoy the views: a lounge at
the back and an open-air platform at the front suitable for eight
people to stand.
Clean n Green
Like most public services in New Zealand, the train was very clean.
We’ve noticed that New Zealanders are environmentally conscientious:
everyone seems to recycle and we passed both a solar panel farm and a
hillside full of windmills on our journey. Each seat had a little
plastic bag for rubbish and staff came around frequently to collect
these. The train runs on diesel in part, switches to electric and then
back to diesel for the last stretch of the ride.
Scenic Views of Raurimu Spiral
We rolled along past farmland, country towns and bushland. Many stops
were made and the train travels very slowly in parts; just when we
thought we were gaining some speed, we stopped completely for more
track works (causing the train to arrive at National Park 45 minutes
late). It’s easy to understand why the excursion takes 12 hours. The
section from Auckland to National Park offers mostly pastoral scenery
until just before the main stop, when the announcer narrated during
the ascent up the famous Raurimu Spiral. Southbound trains climb 636
metres in only 52 kilometres, with the steepest gradient being 1 in 50
on the last 11 miles along the Spiral to the volcanic plateau. It took
great skill for the engineers of the Main Trunk Railway to overcome
the difficult terrain on which the line was constructed.
Volcanoes en route
We were greeted at National Park by the three active volcanoes, Mounts
Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Here we stopped to enjoy four days
of tramping and outdoor excursions before re-boarding the train for the
rest of our journey to Wellington. The train was late again but we
experienced more impressive scenery this time. We crossed viaducts and
gorges across the Whanganui and Rangitikei rivers. This was a longer
ride and we entertained ourselves by watching the sheep and rabbits
run frantically from the passing train (so many sheep!) We also passed
an old local who waves colourful flags at the train as it passes near
his home every day, which was charming. The final stretch of track
runs along the Tasman Sea, with views of Kapiti Island. Unfortunately
most of the trip from National Park to Wellington was very bumpy.
Better than driving
The Overlander’s primary value for us was that it’s a nice alternative
to the bus. Driving from Auckland to Wellington can take about eight
hours by car, so it isn’t too much longer to go by train. Parts of the
experience were challenging for us, especially considering the fare
cost. Much of the scenery was very special, but we weren‘t prepared
for what we later learned can be part of the culture here. Rules were
not enforced regarding unsupervised children, smoking on the outdoor
viewing platform and the amount of time a person could remain in the
lounge. In New Zealand, however, some rules are meant to be broken.
Food and Drink
The train is serviced by a food and beverage car, which is fully
licensed. We tried the sandwiches and wraps and thought they were both
delicious and excellent value. In the afternoon, sandwiches were
half-price. Alcohol is also a bargain with a Monteith’s bottled beer
costing only $5.50. Hot meals are available from soup to Butter
Chicken (apparently a Kiwi staple).
Scenic Rail Passes are available.
Senior, student, war pensioner, blind and backpacker fare discounts
About the authors
John and Andrea are a couple of thirty-something long-term travellers
and expats currently making their way around the world. Their blog
chronicles their own adventures as well as the Inspiring Travellers
they meet along the way.