New Zealand doesn’t have many public railways, the network is mainly used for freight (if seemingly used at all) but the ones it does have are pretty good. Other than the commuter lines around Auckland and Wellington there’s only really five of note…
TranzAlpine – Christchurch to Greymouth
The best known route, deservedly so as it crosses the width of the South Island through Arthur’s Pass, offering pretty spectacular views, particularly in winter. A day trip out to Greymouth and back, with time for a quick lunch there, is arguably one of the best things to do from Christchurch.
Driving Creek Railway – near Coromandel Town
New Zealand’s first and best known full time potter Barry Brickell is also a keen railway enthusiast. So much so that he built pretty much by himself a narrow gauge railway ascending 165m above sea level through dense Coromandel bush. Great experience, rewarded with stunning views from the Eyeful Tower at the top of the track.
Taieri Gorge Railway – Dunedin to Middlemarch
I’ve done this twice now and it is pleasant but pretty low key compared to the rest of what the South Island can offer. Arguably a more scenic day trip from Dunedin would be to drive around the Otago Peninsula. Having said that the railway is the perfect way to end the Central Otago Rail Trail.
Coastal Pacific – Picton to Christchurch
Hugging the coast line pretty much the entire way this is a beautiful way to see the upper east side of the South Island. Look out for NZ’s main source of salt near Picton and seals sunning themselves on the rocks along the way. Having just driven this route though traveling by car does allow you to stop at the Oahu Point seal colony and explore the Kaikoura Peninsula properly, if in less comfort than the train.
Northern Explorer – Auckland to Wellington
The longest if least exciting route, traversing the length of the North Island in twelve leisurely hours. Beats a nine hour drive by virtue of comfort but flying on a clear day is arguably a more scenic way to see the North Island. The many, many cows you’ll see on route might be a bit more difficult to spot though…