NZ Rail Tours – A Short History

With a recorded history of nearly 150 years, NZ rail tours have long been a part of New Zealand’s tourism landscape. In this article we aim to tell the story of how the idea of a New Zealand rail tour evolved and developed to what we know today.

As with many countries around the world, the industrial age brought rail travel to the masses and New Zealand was no different. From the commerce focused rail beginnings of getting goods to market and raw material to ports, passenger trains quickly became common across the country. In the age before road transport boomed, commuter trains flourished, trains connecting rural communities to towns and cities ran daily, and families and friends were able to visit each other quickly and easily across long distances. As the New Zealand rail network grew, so did the opportunity to use trains to holiday, and from here the New Zealand rail tour was born.

NZ Rail Tours
A popular 1948 promotional poster

NZ Rail Tours – Building a Network

Despite building rail tracks at the narrower 3 foot 6 inch gauge to leverage greater economy and flexibility, New Zealand’s rugged terrain meant progress to deliver a nationwide network was slow.

In 1880, New Zealand Railways operated over 1,900 km of track and the line between Invercargill and Christchurch was carrying almost 3 million passengers. It was only in 1908, however, that the North Island’s main trunk line was completed, close to 30 years after the South Island’s train corridors. At last New Zealand had a national railways system worthy of the name.

Despite these logistical restrictions, a marketeer can always paint a picture of possibility and this was clearly evident in a delightful poster, recording conceivably the earliest, if not first New Zealand rail tour in 1889.

nz rail tours loco journeys

This fun poster proves that much as today, where the railway didn’t reach there were plenty of alternative transport options to link countrywide itineraries. The template for NZ rail tours had been set.

In the early 1920s, for a country with a population of only 1 million, New Zealand Railways recorded 28 million passenger journeys. There can be no doubt that NZ rail tours were part of that mix for both domestic travellers but also appealing for those adventurous souls who visited from overseas.

But just as New Zealand’s tourism industry was coming alive with assets and attractions of contemporary quality, so the Great Depression of the 1930s struck having a profound impact on New Zealanders. Money was in significantly short supply and tours and holidays were off the agenda. New Zealand rail journeys were to experience a dramatic decline.

NZ Rail Tours – A golden Age

A new dawn broke over the country in 1935 with Labour coming to power and quickly pouring money into just about everything. The first half of the 20th century is often celebrated as rail’s heyday or golden age.

Most people travelling between major centres went by rail. The fastest and most comfortable passenger trains were mainline expresses, which limited their stops and often included sleeping and dining cars. The most famous was the ‘Night Limited’ express, which ran on the North Island main trunk line cutting travel time between Auckland and Wellington to just over 14 hours – perfect for enabling a New Zealand rail tour to visit more places within a single itinerary.

There were other readily identifiable points of interest in the 1930s that highlighted the popularity of travelling by train. In 1933, The Railway Magazine became a 64 page general-interest monthly publication with a circulation of over 26,000 across New Zealand. In 1936, so many people were enjoying rail tours and holidays by rail that the Evening Post (15.4.36) claims New Zealanders are ‘the greatest travellers in the world’

The Railway Poster effect

In an age before television, colour photography or even the internet, tourism publicity relied almost completely on the beautiful art of the value-for-money poster. Since 1915 the Railways Department had established a stand alone Advertising Branch and, reflecting a global fashion, this had evolved by the 1930s to deliver carefully crafted art works representative of stories and landmarks of the age. While not considered high art, the railway tourism poster offered wide public appeal all set within a style clearly fashionable to the time of printing.

New Zealand Railways Poster
A New Zealand Railways poster from 1921

The artists were able to deliver warmth, texture, context in their work, and importantly, the railway tourism posters weren’t just for advertorial effect, they were there to make people dream, something they still do today.

The vast historical catalogue of tourism posters provide a clear insight into New Zealand’s destinations of choice, each carefully capturing the viewers attention. With tourism assets such as hotels and attractions being rapidly developed during these years, a rail network peaking and still limited competition from road and air, a New Zealand rail tour was the only choice.

Best Reached by Rail
A railways poster promoting the luxurious Chateau Tongariro – “Best Reached by Rail”

NZ Rail Tours – The beginning of the end?

Big jets arrived from the other side of the world in the early 1960s and the embryo of mass tourism had been fertilised. In 1965, 122,000 visitors arrived in New Zealand, 20 years later that number had swollen to almost 600,000. Rather than bolster rail tourism, the modern touring companies sought the convenience of point to point coach travel. Competition from intercity bus services and the reduction in freight traffic meant railway lines started to close and by the 1970s, passenger services were being withdrawn.

Private enterprise was all the rage into the 1980s and 1990s and in 1993 NZ’s rail system was privatised, albeit within 10 years it was back in government ownership under the KiwiRail banner.

In the meantime, however, only three long-distance passenger services remained, the Northern Explorer between Wellington and Auckland, the Coastal Pacific between Picton and Christchurch, and the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth. Itineraries for NZ rail tours were as limited in their range of destinations as they had ever been – but these three New Zealand rail journeys were scenically, all of international quality.

Mount Tongariro
The Northern Explorer

NZ Rail Tours – Into the future

At the time of writing, there can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated border closures has gutted the New Zealand tourism industry and New Zealand rail journeys. Where exponential growth of inbound international visitors at the giddy heights of over 3 million people a year offered a bright horizon for all forms of transport, we now wait patently for tourism’s resurrection.

Still, there are positive signs for the future for NZ rail tours. The growing commercial consciousness that surrounds the world’s climate crisis has placed rail travel at a new level of popularity. More and more travel operators are adding rail segments into their New Zealand railway tour itineraries. Furthermore, not only does the government continue to heavily invest in KiwiRail’s scenic trains, but feasibility studies have been conducted to reactivate freights lines for passenger services such as Hokitika to Westport. Private enterprise has also once again entered the arena with the development of a luxury tourist train called the Antipodean Explorer that is slated to travel the length of the country.

Scenic Plus Class

Rail’s advantages over road transport in terms of fuel efficiency and environmental impact suggests that it will figure prominently in plenty of NZ rail tours for years to come.


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