Each working day more than 1,000 trains run over the tracks of the New Zealand railway system. These services range from long-distance express trains and railcars to suburban trains and local freight “shunts”. In the course of a full year they cover more than 15 million miles.
The fastest rail passenger services maintain time-table average speeds of 30–35 m.p.h. over the full length of their journeys, including all stops. Between stops, schedules call for average speeds up to 45 m.p.h. for steam-hauled passenger trains, and up to 54 m.p.h. for diesel railcars. On sections where conditions are favourable, maximum running speeds are 50–55 m.p.h. for passenger trains and 55–60 m.p.h. for railcars.
The most noteworthy passenger trains are the diesel-hauled “Night Limited” expresses which cover the 423 miles between Wellington and Auckland in 13 ½ hours, and the steam-hauled “South Island Limited” expresses between Christchurch and Invercargill, which are timed to run the 367 miles in 11¾ hours. Regular overnight express trains include sleeping cars, arranged on the British “corridor” pattern with transverse cabins each having two berths. Air conditioning is not installed on New Zealand trains, although the first-class reclining seat coaches employed on the principal Main Trunk express services have a pressure ventilation system. Dining or restaurant cars have not been provided since 1917, when they were withdrawn as a wartime economy measure. Instead, refreshment rooms are maintained by the railway administration at principal stations where trains are required, in any event, to stop for several minutes.
Diesel railcars have replaced conventional express trains – except at holiday times – on all except the two Main Trunk routes, and even then, in the South Island, they supplement the daily expresses. In some instances, notably on the Christchurch-Greymouth, Wellington – New Plymouth, and Wellington-Napier routes, railcars provide two return services daily. The latest are of the articulated type seating 88 passengers. Powered by two 210 b.h.p. underfloor diesel engines, they are capable of 65 m.p.h. and normally maintain schedules such as: Christchurch-Dunedin (229 miles) in 6 h 5 min; Wellington-Napier (197 miles) 5 h 45 min; and Auckland-Rotorua (172 miles), 5 h 10 min.
Although suburban passenger services are operated in the Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin metropolitan areas, by far the most intensive commuter services are those provided in the Wellington area, where a conveniently situated city terminal and fast multiple-unit trains on three electrified routes serving densely populated residential areas carry 16 million passengers annually. Unlike the suburban rail services at the other cities, those at Wellington do not have to compete with bus services, although considerable traffic is drawn away from rail by private and business automobiles, many of which travel into the city in the morning and home again in the evening carrying “expenses-shared” passengers. Wellington Railway-Station is the busiest passenger terminal in the country. Each day nearly 400 passenger services enter or leave the nine platforms, and on the busiest days some 50,000 passengers pass through the concourse. During the morning and evening peak periods the frequency of arrivals and departures reaches one train per minute.
The average rate of terminal-to-terminal movement of freight trains is rising steadily, thanks to the increasing use of diesel traction, and the statistical figure of 14 m.p.h. compares favourably with the corresponding averages of 10 m.p.h. for Great Britain and 20 m.p.h. for the U.S. The fastest freight trains are those which run overnight in each direction between Wellington and Auckland, and between Christchurch and Dunedin. Consisting solely of bogie vehicles and restricted in maximum loading, these trains run at speeds up to 50 m.p.h. and average some 27 m.p.h. throughout. Ordinary goods trains, which sometimes build up to a trailing load of 2,000 tons on favourable sections and run at maximum speeds of 30–35 m.p.h., maintain scheduled average speeds of 15–20 m.p.h. This includes all stops for shunting and all time spent waiting to cross other trains on the single-track main lines. A typical example of this class of train is the overnight freight service which covers the 197 miles between Wellington and Napier in 10 ½ hours.