Auckland to Wellington with Kiwi Rail on the Northern Explorer
Saturday, 9 December 2023
During the course of 2023 I’ve been on trains in 12 different countries – in date order in Australia, South Korea, Japan, Canada, USA, England, Spain, Belgium, France, Monte Carlo, Italy and Switzerland. There could have been a 13th – Bulgaria – but there was a group of us and a minibus worked out better. I added a 13th train country with New Zealand’s classic North Island run.
▲ The Kiwi Rail Northern Explorer train service from Auckland to Wellington
The Man in Seat 61, the go to source for train information anywhere in the world, is an enthusiast, describing it as ‘an epic 681km (423 mile) journey across the interior of the North Island, through every kind of scenery from coastline to volcanoes to mountains, lush green farmland to thick New Zealand bush. It takes you the length of the historic North Island Main Trunk Railway, started in 1885 and completed in 1908, over feats of engineering such the Raurimu Spiral, Turangarere Horseshoe and Makatote Viaduct. It’s one of the world’s great railway journeys and one of my favourites, far more historically and economically significant than the branch line used by the TranzAlpine train on the South Island.’
My train journey did, however, start with a minor problem.
Finding the station.
The less-than-convenient Auckland station location has always been unpopular, it doesn’t run from the central Britomart Station. Since my departure was early morning I decided to stroll by the station on the afternoon before.
▲ And there it was, a classic, imposing Railway Station built in 1930 and intended to be as magnificent as the best stations of Europe and North America. Except it wasn’t. In the 1950s rail travel started to decline, with competition from cheaper buses and faster flights. Eventually the station was abandoned and today it’s flashy apartments.
▲ Never mind, outside there was this sign pointing the way. Except it wasn’t, I followed the directions into an industrial car park.
▲ Eventually I did find the Auckland Northern Explorer Strand Station, which was closed. It’s only open for departures and arrivals. The next morning it was open for my departure and if the station looks like it’s about the size of a shipping container that’s an accurate assessment because that’s exactly what it is, a shipping container. A bit of a change from that 1930 competitor for the finest stations overseas!
▲ Departing from the Strand Station in Auckland.
▲ Never mind once I got on board the train was fine. Modern, one class, a café car where they can sell you a beer or a glass of wine and heat things up for you. The train is quite small, just four passenger carriages, plus the café carriage, a baggage carriage at the back and …
▲… best of all a stand-up, open-air observation carriage where you can gather to watch the New Zealand scenery passing by. Just don’t hang out over the side …
▲… generally very green …
▲ … very lush …
▲ … and featuring lots of sheep
I broke the 11 hour trip at the halfway point, National Park, and went off to Whakapapa in the Tongariro National Park to do a little walking. Or tramping as it’s known in New Zealand.
▲ Here’s my train arriving at the National Park Station to convey me the rest of the way to Wellington. Half an hour late, so my final arrival was a little bit behind schedule.
The line features quite a few feats of railway engineering, constructing a rail line across the North Island’s rugged terrain was a considerable challenge and took a long time – 35 years – to finish. Just before National Park there is the winding curves, tunnels and loop-over-itself Rairimu Spiral. Then there’s the mighty curve of the Turangarere Horseshoe and a bunch of viaducts, the Makatote Viaduct is the biggest, but nothing to see.
▲On the other hand the Hāpuawhenua Viaduct is definitely worth seeing, we’re on the ‘new’ concrete version from 1987. The picturesque ‘old’ one is clearly visible off to the left and now used as a cycling route. For a spell it was bungy jumping pioneer A J Hackett’s first jumping venue.
The viaduct is just before Ohakune – ‘a place to be careful,’ because of some violent Maori event here. The Maori place names are often very colourful, closer to Wellington we pass through a number of places named after a Maori chief chasing his runway wife south. So you’ve got places with names like ‘disappointed’ because he realized he wasn’t going to catch up with her, she wasn’t going to come back.
We also passed over the Whangaehu River, site of New Zealand’s worst ever train disaster. On Christmas Eve, 24 December, 1953, a volcanic mudflow or lahar from Mt Ruapehu swept away a bridge pier minutes before the Wellington to Auckland express train arrived. If the lahar had turner up earlier there would have been time to stop the train. Or if it happened later the train would have already passed through. As it was the locomotive and most of the carriages toppled into the river, killing 151 of the 285 passengers and crew.
▲ Because it’s quite a small train you don’t get many opportunities to look back from the viewing carriage and see the rest of the train curving away into the distance. I took this shot between Ohakune and Taihape, towards the end of the trip. Another plus for the trip is that you get headphones to listen to a report which runs anytime you’re passing by anything interesting and worth looking out for. Remarkably few passengers seemed to take advantage of this entertaining account.
▲ … But finally, and quite safely, we arrived in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, where the station is just as magnificent as Auckland’s. Except it’s actually in use, you’re not arriving at another shipping container masquerading as a train station.