When I did a lecture-tour for the New Zealand Decorative & Fine Arts Societies [http://www.nadfas.org.uk/default.asp?section=209&page=1179] their travel co-ordinator Jenny offered me the option of travelling from Hamilton to Wellington (that is, much of the length of the North Island) by air or by rail.
For me that’s a no-brainer. There’s no finer way to see a land than through the window of a railway carriage.
Until 2012 [see below] the Overlander took twelve hours for the full journey from Auckland to Wellington, 9½ hours from Hamilton southwards. It’s a comfortable, leisurely trip, at the time using rolling stock very similar to the TranzAlpine.
Mark Smith, the Man in Seat 61, points out that this is the journey that inspired the film producer Peter Jackson, who first read J R R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings on a train on the North Island Main Trunk Railway and returned to the region to shoot his film trilogy Lord of the Rings (2001-3).
The journey is an unmissable opportunity to sense the scale of the North Island. The line climbs into the volcanic centre of the island, and then drops into the precipitous Rangitikei gorge. Towards evening it finds its way to the west coast, where on fine summer evenings there’s a grandstand view of the sunset.
Driving a railway through the heart of the island took nearly a quarter of a century: construction started in 1885 and the last spike was driven in 1908.
The engineering is spectacular. The most memorable feature of all is the Raurimu Spiral, which lifts the line 132 metres within a distance of two kilometres, by twists and a spiral over 6.8 kilometres of track. It’s one of those stretches of railway where the train nearly meets itself coming back: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raurimu_Spiral.
Some of the viaducts on the final 1908 section are as impressive as those on the TranzAlpine line. The Makatote Viaduct [http://trains.wellington.net.nz/misc2/makatote_1983.jpg] is an original steel structure, 258 feet above the river-bed; the curved Hapuawhenua Viaduct is a modern concrete replacement, 167 feet high, built on a diversion from which the earlier steel viaduct is visible to the east of the line – http://www.ohakunecoachroad.co.nz/pages/hapuawhenua-viaduct.html and http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&sll=-43.221299,171.928037&sspn=0.002533,0.004967&ie=UTF8&ll=-39.385256,175.399566&spn=0.002687,0.004967&t=h&z=18.
The most endearing and surprising landmark on the journey south is at Mangaweka, where a DC3 aircraft rests beside the Hub Café: http://www.mangaweka.co.nz/dc3-aeroplane.html
New Zealanders customarily disparage their railways, which were built with difficulty and have been managed half-heartedly over the years. It’s as if the nation can’t decide whether rail is essential or superfluous to the task of transportation across the two mountainous land-masses.
The North Island Main Trunk Railway has been improved over the years by building deviations before and after the Second World War, and by a piecemeal electrification. The Wellington-Paekakariki section was electrified at 1,500V DC in 1940, and 255 miles between Palmerston North and Hamilton were electrified to 25 kV 50 Hz AC in the 1980s.
This means that the Overlander leaves Auckland behind a diesel locomotive, changes to electric power at Hamilton and back to diesel haulage at Palmerston North, running under electric wires it does not use from Waikanae through the Wellington suburbs to its terminus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Northisland_NZ_NIMT.png.
In 2006 there was a strong likelihood that the Overlander, the only remaining train between the North Island’s two biggest cities, would close completely: the service was reprieved three days before the closing date, and both the line and the rolling-stock were refurbished. As a result, passenger numbers rose significantly, and the length of the trains and the number of days’ service have repeatedly increased.
If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Update: In June 2012 the Overlander was rebranded, speeded up but reduced in frequency as the Northern Explorer: http://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/news/7164511/Dash-to-catch-the-last-train. The route and the scenery are just the same but the rolling stock is improved.
An excellent description and a practical guide to booking trips on the Northern Explorer is at http://www.seat61.com/Overlander.htm.