Could two of New Zealand’s most iconic trains hit the buffers?

Two beloved services have been suspended due to lack of visitors during the pandemic

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 21 January 2022 13:22 GMT
<p>Final departure? Coastal Pacific train in a wintry South Island, New Zealand</p>

Final departure? Coastal Pacific train in a wintry South Island, New Zealand

Fears are growing among rail travellers that two of New Zealand's iconic long-distance train services have been permanently axed.

New Zealand has been closed to almost all international tourists since March 2020.

As a result, the inter-city Northern Explorer and Coastal Pacific trains have been suspended due to lack of visitors.

The Northern Explorer is the only rail service between the capital, Wellington, and biggest city Auckland. It was formerly known as The Overlander.

The South Island’s Coastal Pacific connects Christchurch, the biggest city, with Picton – the port for ferries from Wellington on North Island. It allowed a rail-sea-rail journey between Auckland and Christchurch.

Both were suspended in August 2021 due to lack of visitors. But last month the state operator, KiwiRail, announced: “We have tried everything in our means to stay on track since Covid-19 rocked the world in 2020.

“With mixed emotions, we have paused our Northern Explorer and Coastal Pacific services while we look towards a new future.”

The operator, which markets the trains under the name Great Journeys of New Zealand, says it is planning a restart in July 2022. But it says: “Our new vision is to create multi-day experiences that showcase the best of New Zealand, both on and off the track.

“A multi-day experience will allow passengers to truly unwind and experience our relaxed New Zealand nature at the gentle pace it deserves.

“Staying overnight in rural towns and dazzling cities, visiting world-famous activities and charming local attractions, our dream is to showcase the best of New Zealand beyond the beaten track.

“These are the dreams we are currently researching.”

The statement appears to indicate an end to both trains as standard, inter-city services.

Mark Smith, the international rail guru known as The Man in Seat Sixty-One, said: “It will be the end of normal train service between New Zealand’s major cities – Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.”

He said the rolling stock will be used “for rarefied multi-day tourist-only 'land cruises’.”

A petition aimed at Michael Wood, the transport minister, has attracted more than 500 signatures.

It says: “We call on the government and KiwiRail to commit to maintaining existing inter-city passenger rail services.

“Furthermore, we ask for a comprehensive national strategy for future passenger rail services built around concern for climate action and economic development.”

KiwiRail says: “Our vision is to expand our experiences, so our passengers can see and do more in the regions we travel to and through.

“While both the Coastal Pacific and Northern Explorer train routes are acclaimed scenic spectacles, they are both long journeys deserving of more than a single-day experience.”

Prior to closure, the Northern Explorer covered the 423 miles between Auckland and Wellington in around 10 hours 45 minutes.

The 215-mile journey from Christchurch to Picton on the Coastal Pacific was scheduled to take five hours.

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