Chapter 5: Railfanning New Zealand

How can I say this subtly without being exiled from my homeland... oh screw it ... a handful of short dirty trains,  rocketing from cloud to cloud make NZ one of the more frustrating places to take train pictures. But also one of the most rewarding.

Updated Nov 2008

New Zealand's Railways in a paragraph or four

The first railways (not railroads thank you very much) in NZ began in the 1860s as either provincial efforts or as private enterprise on various track gauges. The government eventually took over most of these and started building a system to open up the country and drive regional growth based on three foot six inch track with a limited loading gauge. Of the main routes, the South Island Main Trunk (Christchurch to Invercargill) was completed in 1877, the North Island Main Trunk in 1908, the Midland line in 1923 and the line to Picton in 1945. The New Zealand Government Railways initially followed British practice (most early settlers were from the UK), then turned to the US before eventually designing and building most of its own steam locomotives, including the impressive K and J series locomotives, the zenith of steam in this country. The earlier Q class is generally credited as being the first 'Pacific' locomotive in the world. Alongside the Government owned railway system, there was also a myriad of branchlines, private bush tramways and some reasonably sized private 'shortlines', some surviving well into the diesel era... but that's another story.

Not unlike the rest of the world's railways, the 1950s-60s saw the system begin a downward spiral of downsizing, with the closure of many branch lines and replacement of steam by a smaller number of diesel-electric locomotives with the last holdouts being the steam heated South Island Main Trunk express trains which were dieselized in 1971. In the 1980s, the section of the North Island Main Trunk between Hamilton and Palmerston North was upgraded and electrified, joining a short section of the Midland line under the Southern Alps, which had been electrified since its opening in 1923 (de-electrified in 1998 - perhaps a little short-sightedly), and the Wellington suburban area which is well served by commuter EMUs. The newest diesel locomotives were purchased in 1981 at the end of a motive power renewal and rebuilding program that occurred in the late 70s. Some rebuilding and upgrading has occurred since then. Detailed information on NZ's diesel and electric locomotives can be found at Patrick Dunford's site.

In 1992, after years of multi million dollar losses, the Railways department became the New Zealand Railways Corporation, paving the way for an eventual sale to a consortium led by NZ merchant bankers and Wisconsin Central. Over the next ten years, Tranz Rail as it was known, slid further downhill in the public's eyes. Services were curtailed, some rail passenger services were terminated and the remainder sold off, maintenance was outsourced, while locomotive breakdowns, safety concerns, track problems and rumours of asset stripping and lack of capital investment abounded, which led to calls for the government to buy back the ailing network. That era's management favoured fast, shuttle-style container and unit trains, which saw the cosy overweight Railways department of the 1970s become a harsh and bulemic supermodel. The changes wrought by that regime virtually eliminated four wheel wagons, shunting, locomotive depots, goods yards, industrial sidings, anything else that could be scrapped or sold, and a huge amount of traffic somewhat questionably deemed 'unprofitable'. This massive and rapid culture change placed a strain on an under-maintained infrastructure and many employees and enthusiasts who still long for a return to 'the good old days'. 

In 2004, with Tranz Rail in a dire financial state, the Government bought back the track and after considerable investment, the network is now coming back up to standard under the Ontrack brand. At that time the rail operating company was sold to Toll Holdings of Australia and the track record (had to slip that pun in somewhere) improved for a while, however within a few short years an impasse had been reached over track access charges and with Toll refusing to invest in new rolling stock, the viability of rail's long term future again came into question, but this time under an increasingly green political spotlight. In mid 2008, the government announced it had bought back 'our railway' from the increasingly unpopular Toll holding company and will operate the system as a State Owned Enterprise called KiwiRail.

Time will tell what the future holds for NZ's railway system. 

Timing and weather

My favorite time for visiting NZ is late summer/autumn for the long days and best chances of sun, which translates to February-May for those not accustomed to the Southern Hemisphere. On the mainland (South Island), crisp winter days are also recommended (July-August) for beautiful clear days and snowy mountain backdrops when the rain stops. Spring wildflowers can be nice but the weather is very changeable through to mid summer. In fact the weather can be unpredictable all year round, with clouds (which are attracted to trains) and their contents being the main enemies. 

Weather predictions as you might have gathered are a lucky dip at any time of year, but check the weather section of , or one of the other weather sites before you go ...and regularly while you're there. Key to NZ weather maps: big 'H's are good, big 'L's are bad, any kind or 'front' is bad. Everything else is generally... bad.

Getting there and around for non residents

Unless you are coming from Australia or somewhere else close by, your international flight will probably arrive into Auckland.

NZ is a fairly small country about the size of the UK or California so it is easy to get around but some distances can be deceptive as NZ roads and the US Interstate system are at opposite ends of the paving spectrum. There is an ever decreasing network of long distance passenger trains that struggle to compete with domestic air travel, which is fast, frequent and fairly cheap by international standards, especially if you book on the web. The train trips in the South Island are recommended, but I could take or leave what's left of the North Island Main Trunk trains.

Obviously, you can drive around and this is the most flexible option for most people once you are in the general vicinity of where you want to explore. Rental cars are available from all the major players and plenty of smaller ones but it is wise to book ahead as the supply can be surprisingly tight during busy seasons. NZ drivers are generally calm and roads are mainly sealed-single-lane-each-way although there are plenty of unsealed gravel roads that the avid trainspotter may want to explore. If you are train chasing, be warned that the trains often travel faster than you will be able to as you avoid rock falls, black ice, herds of sheep/cows, tractors and Sunday drivers. Stick to the speed limit - it may be common practice to drive at 50% over the posted limit on the Long Island Expressway, but hand-held radar, fixed and mobile speed cameras, and eagle eyed policemen in marked and unmarked cars will nab you in NZ for doing a few km/h's over and the fines can be dramatic. Seriously. By the way, keep left, and the driver gets in the right side of the car!

One of the best drives in the world: Springfield to Otira and back. Another: Westport to Greymouth via the coast road (but no trains on that latter road except at either end) .

Accommodation is reasonable by world standards but not as cheap as it used to be thanks to the damn exchange rate. Plenty of backpackery outfits, reasonable motels, camping for the more adventurous, pseudo-luxury hotels for the less. Airport hotels are a complete rip-off in Auckland. 


Trains are usually few and far between, the weather can be changeable and the schedules can be messed up by tight connections and an aging loco fleet. For these reasons, if this is your first go, you will be better off chasing trains rather than sitting at one place unless you have a perfect spot in mind or you know there is a clump of trains coming.

Back in the days before the country lost its innocence, the Railways were run by a benign government department and anyone who took an interest in the trains was more than welcome to do so, particularly the further you went away from the main centers. However in the last ten years, corporatisation and workplace safety legislation has changed all that. Still, if the stars are aligned, you knock on the door and sign yourself in (rather than snooping around the locomotives hoping not to be caught), ask pleasantly, don't act like an idiot, and the staff aren't to busy, most loco depots will let you know what is happening. They might even photocopy one of their faxed 'running list' sheets which contain train times and loco allocations. Armed with one of these beauties you can usually find a suitable quarry to chase out and another to chase back. Alternatively, check the NZLocos Yahoo group for freight and passenger timetables. 

A scanner is extremely useful as well, because except for the passenger trains, the timetable is just a hopeful plan - more often than not, the train will leave before or after the time it says on that little piece of paper - NZ's railways don't muck around like they do in the US and when they're ready to go, they just go. If you want to see a certain train leave, you'll want to be there early and be prepared for a wait. One one recent trip, I missed two good freights because each left about two hours early. Adding to the mix, in summer months of recent years, schedules have been decimated by heat related speed restrictions imposed by a government safety body on areas with continuously welded rail in poor condition. With the government buy-back of rail and an infusion of much-needed maintenance money, this situation is improving.

A mentioned, a scanner is a must-have because in some areas trains move up to 100km/h or faster and can easily be lost (by you, not them). Click here for train control frequencies. The most useful ones are 151.950, 152.050, 152.350, 153.456.  Most of the CTC signaling that existed was ripped out in the 90's and most of the country is now ruled by train controllers sitting in little booths in Wellington giving out 'track warrants' over the radio. These are of course a bonus for railfans with scanners, as together with radio tests at the depots and communication with maintenance crews, in some parts of the country, trains must 'check in' at specified locations. Another little bonus for tracking your quarry, as unlike at Tehachapi, you can't just wait five minutes for the next one.


Available from many bookshops: NZ Railfan for the current NZ rail scene, interesting articles and lots of pretty pictures. The NZ Model Railway Guild's Journal at hobby shops if you are into modeling.  The NZ Railway Observer is harder to find and covers a more historical perspective. There are probably a zillion hobby shops worth checking out, but I usually pop into Ironhorse Hobbies in Christchurch and Mack's Tracks in Johnsonville (Wellington area). Adventure clothing shops in the main centers usually carry detailed topographical maps for the serious photo-spot spotter. Also, see the links page for some NZ railway related websites.


There is not much to worry about in NZ, with none of the snakes or poisonous spiders that inhabit less idyllic countries (like Australia), so feel free to trample through the undergrowth naked if you so desire. Technically there is one pseudo-poisonous spider, but they're as common as the abominable snowman. I think I saw a picture of one in a book once.

In summer you can get toasted pretty badly by the sun thanks to that damn ozone hole, so slip, slop, slap as the locals say. Petty theft is not as common as in other countries and people are pretty laid back, although it does happen, so don't keep that fancy camera and laptop in the back seat of an unlocked car. Rental cars carrying the expensive belongings of tourists can be easy targets for young yobbo hoodlums.

Bugspray is a must if you are heading to the West Coast of the South Island (west of Arthur's Pass). They have these wee midgy-things called sandflies that hang around rivers and creeks looking pretty innocuous until you get bitten by a few hundred of them and spend the next week itching yourself to death.


If you must, fast food (the staple of railfan cuisine) abounds in all the well known varietals, tailored of course to local tastes (less sugar, more salt) and with the addition of a few local delicacies such as the mince pie and battered fish and chips. 

But depending on the exchange rate, decent food can be quite cheap in NZ, especially if you are coming from the overpriced US or UK, so you must try the local restaurants for tasty food, wines and ales. Many restaurants are 'BYO' so you can bring your own wine from the supermarket, where there is a huge variety and of course the prices are lower. Your restaurant bill will show a corkage charge for this to cover the waiter unscrewing the cap and filling a dirty glass with your cheap plonk.

Tipping is neither recommended or expected although there's no harm in rounding the bill up a smidge for good service. Mainly because good service is quite rare. You may want to bring a flag to attract your waiter or waitress. While on the run, do step back in time by stopping at a small-town 'tea rooms' for a cuppa and a sandwich. The finest example , the Savoy Tearooms in my home town of Waimate, still has a picture of the Queen hanging on the wall.


If you still use that film stuff, you can get same day slide processing in the cities - look in the yellow pages and let your fingers do the walking.

Where to go and what to see

I'm sure this is going to offend pretty much everyone in NZ...  DB's trainspotting picks: Arthur's Pass, Wellington, Kaikoura. Comments welcome

  Scenery Trains Attractions, suggestions and comments.
North Auckland Nice, but I've never railfanned there. Few Bay of Islands and 90 mile beach for beaut non-trainy scenery.
Auckland and down to Hamilton Dullish, flattish, pastoral, open cast coal mines, gorse. Increasingly encroached upon by urban sprawl and roading projects. A nice bit of river on the way down to Hamilton Quite a few trains, coal trains from the Huntly area to the Glenbrook steel mill, Metroport container trains. Bizarre second-hand Australian commuter buzz bombs ply the rails in the metro area alongside funky refurbished push-pull trainsets recycled from old British Rail carriages. Take the ferry across the harbour to Devonport for an overpriced latte and panini, pop up the Sky tower and hang out at the casino with the dregs of NZ society, drive around the bays to hob-nob with those who must be seen. Visit the Viaduct Basin, hyped up ex-home of the Americas Cup and see scored of overpriced new apartments. See some trains in the fancy Britomart station downtown or from the overbridge at Westfield Yard (in dodgy South Auckland so try not to get murdered) if you are desperate for a train pic. I'm not a huge fan of Auckland. Sorry.
BOP etc. Nice, forests, mountains, a few coastal scenes... but I've never railfanned there. Plenty - loggers from the central forests, steel and container traffic to and from the Port of Tauranga. Trains: the logging routes for the serious railfan (Murupara/Kinleith). Touristy stuff: Rotorua - smelly, overrated, overpriced, touristy. Lake Taupo is more down to earth and fun. Not that I've been there in years. Mt Maunganui/Tauranga nice during the extended summers they have up there.
Hamilton - Palmerston North Fairly impressive in the middle of the island. Natural bush, volcanic cones and tussock, zillions of curves and grades, spectacular viaducts, generally good road access for the most part. The problem is... it's electrified, which means snapping pictures of humming orange boxes between traction poles.  Quite a few of them around, many move by night. Electric traction, with a few diesel hauled freights if shunting is required, eg pulp trains from Wellington up to Karioi and back, and (obviously) if the overhead is off.  It's relatively easy to follow a train all the way up or down the trunk. In fact I recommend you do that if you can find one and if the weather is nice. You can take plenty of pictures of trains on curves and viaducts without going too far from the car, but if you do want to explore a little, there are spots all over the trunk. Although access and views are sub-par, check out the Raurimu Spiral in the middle (NZ's baby Tehachapi).  Even if you don't see a train, the middle of the North Island is a nice drive, in fact the volcanic plateau is probably my favorite spot in the North Island. For non-trainy attractions, go skiing, visit Lake Taupo, go for a hike or a bike, drive the desert road, try not to kill yourself doing 'adventure sports'.
Wanganui, New Plymouth, Stratford line Nice, hilly, pastoral... but I've never railfanned there. The best bits (on the northern half) are largely inaccessible by road. Some nice easy shots with the volcanic cone of Mount Egmont as a backdrop A few - daylight milk trains at the southern end to Hawera during the warmer months. If there is 'trouble on the trunk', trains are diverted on to this line. Cows? The riverboat? Mount Egmont? Pass.
Hawkes Bay/ East Coast Nice coastal scenery if you can get to it. Very limited access to the very best bits. Haven't spent a lot of time there either. Some expert I turned out to be. Few. Milk trains at the bottom end of this line over the warmer months. Napier the art deco city, wine touring. The most readily accessible 'nice scenery' for trains would have to be the Manawatu Gorge, east of Palmerston North. Ormondville viaduct is impressive, as is the restored station yard. Lots of nice coastal scenery at the top end if you can find a train.
Wellington/ Manawatu/ Wairarapa A few nice spots around Wellington harbour, then mainly urban sprawl until you hit the lovely 'gold coast' beside Kapiti island. Fairly good road access to plenty of spots up to Levin, and north of that you're better off making a beeline to Palmy North or back to Wellington. The Wairarapa line doesn't see many trains unless there is work on the main trunk but is well worth a look with slower trains and plenty of easily accessible spots. Fairly frequent and trains are often banked in and out of Wellington for that added bonus. Sunday afternoon usually sees a few trains with better than usual power. Electrified commuter trains to Paraparaumu, Johnsonville and the Hutt Valley. Diesel hauled passenger trains north to Auckland and Palmerston North. Several diesel hauled commuter trains to Masterton. If you don't have a car, you can... sit at the impressive station building and watch the trains, overlook the freight yard and loco depot from the Wadestown hill, head up to South Junction (Muri station), watch trains from the dirt knob at Paremata or from the beach at Goat Point (Plimmerton station). In a car, there are plenty of spots on the coastal section - Porrirua up to Paekakariki, and a few overbridges and things further up. Forest Lakes is a promising but tricky spot north of Otaki. Wellington is a great city to hang out in between trains unless it is windy or rainy. However, on the other three days of the year, there are nice views, a fantastic waterfront, tons of attractions, restaurants and cafes.  My favourite NZ city. Best place to stay: one of the hotels on Oriental bay for city and harbour views within walking distance of the Courtney-Place-to-Cuba-St restaurant zone (mmmm, Satay Malasia, One Red Dog, Monsoon Poon and a host of others), Te Papa, the waterfront, Lambton Quay and 15 minutes from the airport. Pop up to the Mt Victoria lookout at night. If the weather is average, pop over the hill to the Wairarapa on the train on a Martinborough wine tasting package from Tranz Metro. Ask the tour guide to stop off at the "Fell" (the former steeep 1 in 11 gradient centre rail steam line that ran over the hills) Museum on the way back. Wine,  scenery and trains. Does it get any better than this?
Rail Ferry (Wellington- Picton) Wet. Great scenery through the Marlborough Sounds. Trains hidden from view in the bowels of the Interislanders. Not many trains to be seen, but a beaut trip if it is a calm sunny day. Sick bags optional on all other days.
  Scenery Trains Attractions, suggestions and comments.
Picton - Christchurch Plenty of photo opps and spectacular scenery between Blenheim and Kaikoura. Heading south, it starts as hilly, viney and pastoral, then dry and curvy, then hilly and grassy, then curvy and coastal, then flatter and distant. A few trains - mainly container traffic between the islands via the rail ferries. Usually two locos or more on the goods trains - find one and chase it. Single up-and-back passenger train getting up to and then out of Picton in the early afternoon. Trains - hang around Dashwood Pass south of Blenheim or around the coastal stretch north or south of Kaikoura if you know there will be trains around. The passenger train along this line is a worthwhile trip. Non trainy attractions: Nelson is a beaut sunny town, albeit off the beaten track, and train-less (now). Abel Tasman National Park is stunning. Whale watching at Kaikoura, wine touring around Blenheim (highly recommended) coupled with some decent casual restaurants there too... My recommendation: base yourself in Kaikoura and eat the fish and chips from the shop closest to the main road.
Midland Line/West Coast Stunning. Mountainous. Tussocky. Bushy. The best bits can't be reached by road, but there are plenty of great spots that can be. Go there. Did you hear me? Go there! Frequent (by NZ standards) coal trains of usually 2 DX locos and around 24-30 hoppers between Lyttleton and either Ngakawau (above Westport) or Rapahoe (near Greymouth). At least one return passenger each way to Greymouth. Heavy trains are banked through the Otira tunnel by three DX locos. Branch line local trains to Hokitika and Reefton (mainly gold ore traffic, believe it or not - Ronald Biggs where are ya?).  I love this line. Quite a few trains all day long if you are not distracted by the awesome Lord of the Rings scenery. The Cass Bank (Lake Sarah) and the stretch before Arthur's Pass will get you started, then the Otira valley west of the Alps or Moana. Stay the night at the Bealey Hotel out in the wop wops a few miles south of Arthur's Pass or in the Pass itself at a pub or hostel or over the other side at the Otira Hotel or Moana Hotel (that town is stunning). Beware of ice and snow in winter. On the west side of the hill, try to catch the banked coal trains departing Otira as they fight the 1 in 33 grade lifting a loaded coalie up to the tunnel. The banker locos are changed weekly - Sunday morning way back when I wrote this - which gives a nice bonus 5 loco lash up. The passenger train on this line is truly one of the great train trips in the world. Touristy things: The West Coast is full of history (by NZ standards) and character although it is not called the 'Wet Coats' for no reason. Lots of old coal mines and sawmills together with some rugged coastal scenery (check out the pancake rocks at Punakaiki north of Greymouth and stay a night at the new hotel there). Fantastic drive from Christchurch to Otira, especially over the Passes from Springfield to Otira (you can't see the train that much on the Arthurs Pass to Otira section, so you might as well look at the scenery and say hello to the Keas at the top). Fantastic, albeit long, drive from Greymouth down through the glaciers to Queenstown, NZ's tourist haven.
Canterbury Dull. Flat. Pastoral. Straight. Easy access for those dull road crossing shots. Infrequent, fast. Mainly single and sometimes double locos and small-medium length trains. 


Trains - Watch the coalies unload at Lyttleton, head out on the Midland Line. If you are driving south try to catch a train on one of the long bridges, but apart from that it's fairly featureless, but there are plenty of pacing opportunities. If you are staying in Christchurch, go up to the Port Hills and watch the smog roll in or have a glass of wine and a panini on the beach at Sumner. The settlements of Lyttleton and Akaroa are worth a visit. Tolsi: yummy Indian food on Manchester street.
Otago Hilly. Coastal. Curvy. Pretty good actually and there is road access (off the main road) to follow most of the main trunk. A few. Slow. At least when one shows up, and there are a few each way in the daylight, you have a good chance of being able to keep up with it and get some shots. Trains often banked between Oamaru and Dunedin, so that means two locos or more. The Otago Excursion Train runs its Seasider service from Dunedin to Palmerston at times. Trains - on a nice day, follow a train all the way - tons of good spots. The trains go slower here because of the grades and many have two locos or more (woohoo!). Follow the old road through Karitane and Warrington for some great photo spots but be careful keeping ahead of the train on the windy road. There are also some nice shots to be had between Dunedin and Port Chalmers. You can take an unsealed road across to Waitati also. Much slower than the Motorway, but quite a nice drive - map recommended. After hours, Dunedin is home of University students, student pubs, things Scottish, architecture (check out the railway station and Otago University's Registry building), albatrosses (out on the peninsula) and an ever growing mix of eclectic and cheap restaurants. Try the Otago Central train trip also. Go to Queenstown/ Arrowtown/ Wanaka for amazing views, adventure sports, skiing etc. There are no trains there, but it is a beautiful part of the country. And priced accordingly. If in Oamaru, have a meal at the Last Post and then see the Blue Penguins come ashore after sunset. If in between, and there are no trains, have a cuppa at the Moeraki Boulders.
Otago Central  Quite spectacular in an old-wild-west-rocky sorta way.

Impossible to see most of it by car. The excursion train trip usually has a photo stop, so that might be a better bet. 

This line was bought by Dunedin City after it was mothballed. The Otago Excursion Train Trust run a very successful passenger train over a portion of it with 'vintage' 1969 DJ class Mitsubishi bo-bo-bo diesel electric locomotives and a mixture of new, comfortable, warm, steel cars and old, draughty, restored, wooden carriages. The latter of which provide the best atmosphere. The Otago Excursion Train trust also operate excursion trains to other destinations from time to time.  Nice train trip. Pick an old car and stand out on the end platforms if its a nice day. Plenty of neat scenery and a few old gold mining settlements to explore. Head through to Queenstown/Arrowtown/ Wanaka and up the West Coast if you are a tourist, as it's an excellent drive, albeit bereft of trains. The Kingston Flyer steam train still runs as an isolated tourist attraction a wee drive south of Queenstown.
Southland Dull. Pastoral. Mainly flat with a few decent rivers and curves. Reasonable access for the most part. Infrequent. Longer. Containers. No comment. Southland is a nice place, and I know some lovely people from there. But if you are a tourist or a trainspotter, it may not be at the top of your list unless you are on your way to see the scenery in Fiordland, in which case, find a train and follow it. If you make it to Invercargill, leave your pretensions in the motel room and head across to Stewart Island on a wee plane or ferry and experience one of NZ's last remaining truly wild places. Communication tip: people from Southland tend to roll their 'r's. It's a Scottish thing.