Wellington Scoop

A less than great journey


by Lindsay Shelton
We took one of KiwiRail’s Great Journeys at the weekend – the much-promoted Northern Explorer which runs three times a week from Auckland to Wellington. The experience was okay, but it fell a bit short of the promised greatness.

For a start, you can’t choose your seat.

The website gives you a printed booking confirmation with a bar code which you exchange at the station for allocated seating. No choice is offered.

We discovered that some seats had tables – that would have been nice. Others didn’t. We didn’t get a table.

The small print tells you that all large suitcases have to be checked in, so that the carriages don’t get clogged up with baggage. Fair enough. But the rule was exercised erratically.

Some people brought their carryon bags on to the train. Others were forbidden to do so, and had to leave their carryons in the baggage car. When they boarded the train, they were not happy to see that some had been allowed to do what had been not allowed for them.

The carriages are great, with huge windows and comfortable, reclinable seats.

Catering is good too – Wishbone have the food contract, and the menu has plenty of choice. The onboard staff were cheerful and efficient. And the outdoor viewing carriage provided a spectacular way of seeing the scenery – though the clouds didn’t lift till we entered the Rangitikei.

But in our carriage the audio-visual system was out of order. Travellers in other carriages were given audio-visual information about things to see during the trip. We missed out on this. Instead, we got some live announcements from a cheerful staff member whose messages were precise and helpful, even amusing, but who sometimes spoke too fast for those for whom English was not their first language.

Our carriage turned out to be a noisy one. A crowd of older women, apparently heading for a birthday celebration in Wellington, talked at a high level for much of the journey, even during the announcements. We wished that KiwiRail had copied the signs in European trains, which warn that noise levels should be kept to a minimum, for the benefit of other travellers hoping for a calmer experience.

The booking confirmation printout tells you to “please be aware that this service occasionally experiences delays of thirty minutes or more.” This didn’t seem to be a worry when we started our Great Journey. But we weren’t prepared for a much longer delay.


Our ancient diesel-electric locomotive was leaking water, which needed frequent topping up. This required unscheduled stops first at Te Kuiti, then at Raurimu, and then at Ohakune, where we were told that two replacement locomotives were being despatched from Palmerston North. We met them at Utiku – the fourth unscheduled stop – where one of them was attached to our train to get it back up to speed for the rest of the trip.

KiwiRail’s onboard magazine tells you the age of the interislanders (Kaitaki 1995), Aratere (1998) and Kaiarahi (1998) but doesn’t provide the same information about the diesel electric locomotives (DCs, DFTs, and DXs) so we could only guess whether age was responsible for the problem that delayed us. If only, we thought, electrification of the main trunk had been completed, so that delays didn’t have to factored into the travel.

Our scheduled arrival time was 6.25pm. This was adjusted first to 7pm, then to 7.30, and then onward to 7.45, 8pm, 8.10 and a final 8.15. Almost two hours later than schedule – hardly a great experience for locals or for tourists.


  1. luke, 7. November 2018, 9:37

    A shadow of its former self, overpriced, infrequent and slow. To think there used to be two trains daily and the record for quickest trip was set back in the sixties at only eight hours sixteen minutes.

  2. Jonny Utzone, 7. November 2018, 12:04

    Good article Lindsay – but what were the views like? [Low cloud most of the way, though this didn’t impact on the excitement of crossing the viaducts, and we had a glimpse of Ruapehu which was pleasing for a passenger who said she had never seen snow. The cloud lifted after Taihape and the Rangitikei countryside looked marvellous.]

  3. Alf the Aspirational Apterxy, 7. November 2018, 16:43

    It’s time to bring back steam on the main trunk line. A mighty, New Zealand made KA engine would have got you there on time.

  4. NigelTwo, 7. November 2018, 17:34

    @Alf. Not if you had to use the garden hose (above) to fill it up with water at each stop 😉

  5. Conn G, 7. November 2018, 20:17

    Interesting article. KiwiRail has problems like Amtrak, both need so much help and not only just upgrades. Their immense importance is for today’s tourists and the people who can’t fly and hate roads and buses. The whole world now seems to be keeping, upgrading and or extending their rail systems.

  6. Traveller, 7. November 2018, 21:15

    Those locomotives do not look like what you’d expect to be pulling a “Great Journeys” tourist train. Freight maybe. But not high-paying tourists.

  7. Peter G., 8. November 2018, 0:47

    I traveled Wellington to Auckland by the Northern Explorer a few years ago, when the journey terminated at Britomart, and the enjoyable trip was trouble-free and on time. The locomotive was a DFT all the way. Interesting to note that your lead photograph of the stopped loco was under the electric overhead – what a shame they weren’t using one of the soon-to-be-refurbished EFs on the Frankton – Palmerston North section – no problem running out of water!

  8. Ross Clark, 8. November 2018, 5:23

    The state of Kiwirail’s locomotive fleet seems quite parlous as a whole. Views?

  9. City Lad, 8. November 2018, 19:09

    A meat pie and NZR cup of tea at Palmerston North used to be an added attraction when travelling by rail. During winter, the Taihape station kept their fire hoses running to avoid them freezing. And there’s no doubt steam and smoke added to the ambience of travel in those early days too. The survival of rail in this modern era will be 100% electrification of the main trunk line. Hope the new Government achieves this soon.

  10. Conn G, 8. November 2018, 20:11

    I agree with City Lad. The Te Rapa to Pukekohe section needs to be announced ASAP when its electrification is going to occur? I’m sure this will then set the motion for Te Rapa to Mt Maunganui, which is now such a busy freight line. Perhaps both strategic infrastructure projects will be actioned well ahead of the next general election?

  11. Tony St. Pierre, 9. November 2018, 13:42

    I suggest everyone who is interested in reviving NZ rail should watch Japan Railway Journal (50+ episodes). This series will tell you anything you need to know about how to turn clapped out railway systems into thriving and efficient endeavors, especially for tourists but with the side benefit of keeping local lines open for business. It always pains me to see the wasted resource of the line to Rotorua for example which could be turned into a wonderful scenic tourist venture with a little imagination and enthusiasm (and I don’t mean carting!)

  12. Wellington.Scoop, 9. November 2018, 17:48

    Wikipedia advises: The New Zealand DF class locomotive is a class of 30 Co-Co diesel-electric locomotives built by General Motors Diesel of Canada between 1979 and 1981. The first 20 members of the DF class arrived in New Zealand in 1979. The next ten DFs arrived in 1981. Between 1992 and 1997, all the locomotives were rebuilt as the DFT class, a turbocharged version of the DF.

  13. Gillybee, 11. November 2018, 13:37

    Where’s the vision fellas? Prioritising electrification of the main trunk line is absolutely essential not just because it’ll be nice for tourists, but to ease the destruction taking place on our road network up and down the country.

    80% of the NZTA budget goes on repairing our state highways which (built of light pavement) weren’t designed to cope with the heavy trucks pounding up and down our roads every day (and whose operators don’t pay their fair share of the upkeep)

    Rail for haulage and trucks for distribution is the future for NZ. Better for the climate and a much more pleasant driving experience for all.

    What’s not to like?

  14. Victoria, 16. November 2018, 10:15

    It always disgusts me how expensive that service is, and to think that it isn’t even that great considering the prices?! I completely agree with Gillybee. EVERYONE would benefit from funding being put into the train service rather than the roads. I also hope that they bring in discount services for locals/ regulars/ off peak.