Northern Explorer train, New Zealand North Island: Spectacular axed train gets a second lease on life

In May 2021 I was travelling in a bubble: the short-lived Trans-Tasman travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand. I didn't know it would only stay open three months, but something told me to jump aboard the next passing aircraft to Kiwiland and start exploring while it was possible.

So I found myself travelling by train down the length of the North Island, an epic 11-hour journey aboard the Northern Explorer from Auckland to Wellington. As we left the city behind the landscape grew green and hilly, its contours partly obscured by mist, and I fell into conversation with a group of New Zealanders who were, like me, heading to Tongariro National Park for a short break. They loved train travel, they said, with its easy socialising, so had left their cars behind to reach the North Island's volcanic plateau by rail.

Ahead was a dramatic rail spiral that allows trains to rise up to the plateau, where sit its three great volcanoes: Mount Ruapehu, Mount Tongariro, and the dramatically conical Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies).

With this wealth of scenery the Northern Explorer's route is a marvellous train journey, one that has been enjoyed by Kiwis and visitors alike since the North Island Main Trunk line was completed in 1908.

However, in August 2021 the axe fell. As the nation was plunged into another COVID lockdown, rail operator KiwiRail suspended its long-distance trains. And in December, as the return of international tourism was in sight, it announced the Northern Explorer and the Picton-Christchurch Coastal Pacific would remain suspended until mid-2022, when they would return in a "modified form" that could include multi-day rail tours aimed firmly at tourists.

This possibility this was the end of same-day long-distance trains sounded an alarm bell for many New Zealanders, including Patrick Rooney, founder of activist group Save Our Trains.

"There's nothing wrong with tourist rail tours," says Rooney. "But they shouldn't replace passenger rail services.

"Flights connect our main centres, but many New Zealanders live in smaller regional centres that are nowhere near an airport. Rail tracks tie our towns, cities, and diverse landscapes together. It's a no-brainer that we should be using them."

Do locals really use the existing Northern Explorer for practical everyday trips?

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"Yes," responds Rooney. "Thousands of New Zealanders take the Northern Explorer to connect with family, do business, and take vacations. I took that service regularly to travel home to Ohakune from Auckland or Wellington on business trips. The main problem has been decades of underinvestment in the rail system, resulting in slow, expensive and infrequent services that only serve small areas of the country."

It's too simplistic to conclude people always prefer to fly. The great revival of sleeper trains in Europe over the past few years overturned a seemingly inevitable trend toward their demise – and was largely driven by the public's rising environmental concerns (sometimes referred to as the "Greta Thunberg Effect", after the young environmental campaigner from Sweden). Picking up the baton, the French government recently banned domestic flights over routes well-served by fast trains.

In New Zealand, too, there was a sharp reaction against the apparent end of same-day long-distance trains. After a concerted public campaign, KiwiRail announced in April that same-day services of the Northern Explorer and Coastal Pacific will resume in September 2022, with details of new multi-day tourist packages to be announced at a later date. So it seems that rail fans in New Zealand can have their cake and eat it too.

Why had the public responded so strongly to the threatened loss of regular city-to-city trains, I ask Rooney.

"People want real transport options," he responds. "There was a real fear that if we lost these long-distance services now, we'd never be able to rebuild the network."

It seems there might have been a Greta Thunberg effect at work in New Zealand too.

"It was great to see the level of support from young people," he agrees. "They've never experienced New Zealand's rail system in its original full glory, but they understood the role of rail in combating climate change and connecting people."

And travellers might end up with the best of both worlds, if both same-day services and multi-day rail tours come to pass.

"Some tourists prefer organised rail tours. Others just use trains to get from place to place. Personally, when I travel overseas, I love to travel on local trains. It's how I get to meet people, and sense the rhythm of landscape and culture."

As I resumed my Northern Explorer journey last year and rolled past imposing Mount Ruapehu, over many impressive viaducts, and along the spectacular Kapiti Coast into Wellington as the sun set, I felt much the same.

THE DETAILS

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greatjourneysofnz.co.nz

STAY

Adina Apartment Hotel Auckland Britomart offers comfortable accommodation near the Northern Explorer's departure station, from $228 a night. adinahotels.com

Chateau Tongariro Hotel has rooms with old-fashioned style at the foot of Mount Ruapehu, from NZ$158 a night. chateau.co.nz

Travelodge Hotel Wellington is in a central location, with rooms from NZ$259 a night. travelodge.com.au

RIDE

A ticket on the Northern Explorer from Auckland to Wellington costs NZ$219. See greatjourneysofnz.co.nz

The writer travelled courtesy of KiwiRail's Great Journeys of New Zealand, Visit Ruapehu, and TFE Hotels.