Four of New Zealand’s best scenic railways

4 New Zealand Scenic Railways

The TranzAlpine

The TranzAlpine is probably the most popular among New Zealand scenic railways. It links Greymouth to Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island is understandably popular with tourists. Year round, thousands make the trip across the Southern Alps via Arthur’s Pass to enjoy some of the country’s most outstanding scenery from the comfort of their train seat. With views of dramatic river gorges, tranquil Lake Brunner and a stop at New Zealand’s highest settlement on the way, this is really one visitor experience that you won’t want to miss while you’re there.

New Zealand Scenic Railways: KiwiRail engine pulling the TranzAlpine
KiwiRail engine pulling the TranzAlpine

The Auckland-Wellington Northern Explorer

As far as a small country like New Zealand could do an epic journey, the Northern Explorer is it. Over four hundred miles of track take you through some of North Island’s most impressive vistas. You’ll travel along spectacular coastal scenery, past the towering volcanoes Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu and through thick native rainforest. The built landscape is just as impressive, as the train utilises engineering masterstrokes like the Rauimu Spiral, overcoming a 139 metre height difference and the historic Makatote Viaduct spanning the gorge of the same name. Huge panoramic picture windows mean you don’t miss a thing. Once you reach Wellington, a ferry across to Picton enables you to continue by rail on the Coastal Pacific as far south as Christchurch, from where you can connect to the TranzAlpine to take you over the Southern Alps.

New Zealand Scenic Railways: Northern Explorer on Hapuawhenua Viaduct by By Johnragla CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Northern Explorer on Hapuawhenua Viaduct: Photo JohnraglaCC BY-SA 3.0

Glenbrook Vintage Railway

Where the Northern Explorer has scale, the Glenbrook Vintage Railway has charm. Located south west of Auckland, this is the place to go if you’re a steam buff. This heritage steam engine hauls its wood panelled carriages at a leisurely pace through less than ten miles of pleasant rural scenery from Glenbrook to Waiuku. But this journey is as much about the era of steam as it is the countryside through which the train passes. You’ll get a real sense of what it takes to run a steam railway, have a tour of the Pukeoware workshops where renovations take place and get to chat with the volunteers who keep the trains running.

New Zealand Scenic Railways: Glenbrook Vintage Railway
Glenbrook Vintage Railway: Photo by GPS 56 / CC BY 2.0

The Taieri Gorge Railway

The preserved Taieri Gorge Railway connects Dunedin to Pukerangi (or further on to Middlemarch on selected days in summer) from where you can catch a bus onto Queenstown. One of the highlights of this trip is to depart from Dunedin’s photogenic railway station, which dates from 1906. After a short stretch of railway shared by freight, the train branches off into the Taieri Gorge. This narrow and deep cleft in the landscape, cut by the Taieri River, is transited thanks to the construction of ten tunnels, as well as many bridges and viaducts. You can also take the Seasider tourist train from Dunedin to Palmerston, operated by the same company.

New Zealand Scenic Railways: Taieri Gorge Railway at Wingatui Viaduct by Ulrich Lange, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Taieri Gorge Railway at Wingatui Viaduct: Photo Ulrich LangeCC-BY-SA-3.0

About JuliaHammond


Julia Hammond is a Geography teacher turned travel writer with a passion for places. Winning Mail Travel's Deep South competition was the catalyst to write for a diverse range of publications including Bradt's Bus Pass Britain Rides Again. She’s written Kindle guides to Cape Town, Peru and London for Unanchor and advice on Savannah for Wanderlust. When not travelling, she can be found at home in Essex planning her next trip, her two golden retrievers curled up at her feet.

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