High passenger numbers
New Zealanders were quick to climb aboard the railway bandwagon. Annual passenger journeys on New Zealand Railways (NZR) increased tenfold between 1878 and 1921 (more than three times faster than the population grew), and doubled in the first decade of the 20th century.
In the early 1920s, when New Zealand’s population was only just over 1 million, NZR was carrying 28 million passengers a year. After a downturn during the 1930s economic depression, passenger traffic reached an all-time high in 1943–44, when troop transportation and petrol rationing combined to push annual journeys to 38.6 million.
In rail’s heyday, holiday times were hectic. On Christmas Eve in 1938, 16 express trains (including eight bound for Auckland) swept more than 11,000 travellers out of Wellington in a single day.
Rail travel’s heyday
The first half of the 20th century is often celebrated as rail’s heyday or golden age. Most people travelling between major centres went by rail. Trains ferried children to school, suburban commuters to factories and offices, and day-trippers and sports fans to beaches, parks and racecourses.
The fastest and most comfortable passenger trains were mainline expresses, which limited their stops and often included sleeping and dining cars. The most famous was the ‘Night Limited’ express, which ran on the North Island main trunk line (NIMT) from 1924, cutting travel time between Auckland and Wellington to just over 14 hours. Much later, from 1971 to 1979, the luxurious all-sleeper Silver Star briefly revolutionised passenger travel on the NIMT.
The South Island main line had expresses from 1879, a 15-hour Christchurch–Invercargill through-train from 1904 and an 11-hour Limited from 1949. Auckland’s Rotorua Express (briefly the Rotorua Limited) was another prestigious passenger train. From the late 1930s diesel railcars, similar to buses on rails, also provided a quick and comfortable service on a number of mainline and secondary routes.
Probably the most famous passengers to travel on New Zealand’s railways were touring members of the British royal family. The Duke of Edinburgh rode on the Lyttelton line as early as 1869, and the Duke of Cornwall (1901), Prince of Wales (1920) and Duke of York (1927) all travelled extensively in their own luxurious royal trains. Queen Elizabeth II used rail rather less during her 1953–54 tour, though, and trains rarely featured in later visits.
At the other end of the spectrum were the humble ‘mixed’ (combined freight/passenger) train and the even more prosaic ‘goods with car’ (a freight train with one or two carriages tacked on), which provided the bulk of passenger services on rural branch lines until the 1950s.
Since the Second World War the great majority of rail travellers in New Zealand have been suburban commuters in Auckland and – especially – Wellington. Limited suburban services also operated in Invercargill (until 1967), Christchurch (until 1972) and Dunedin (until 1982).
Wellington has always been the rail-commuter capital. In 1938, after the completion of the Tawa Flat NIMT deviation, the old Johnsonville route out of the city was converted into an electrified suburban line, served by New Zealand’s first English Electric multiple units. By 1940 the NIMT route was electrified as far north as Paekākāriki (extended to Paraparaumu in the 1980s). In the 1950s electric multiple units were introduced on the increasingly busy Hutt Valley lines.
Between 1950 and 1993, as road and air competition intensified, annual rail passenger journeys slumped from 26 million to 10 million. For long-distance traffic the fall was even steeper, from 6.5 million to 391,000. A number of passenger services were withdrawn in the 1970s and 1980s. More recent casualties have included the Southerner (which ran from Christchurch to Invercargill) in 2002 and the NIMT’s overnight Northerner in 2004. In 2020, only three long-distance services remained: the daytime Northern Explorer on the NIMT, the Coastal Pacific between Picton and Christchurch, and the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth.
Overall passenger numbers have rallied since the low point of the 1990s. Fluctuating petrol prices, traffic congestion and concern over climate change have contributed to a commuter rail boom. Wellington’s passenger journeys topped 12 million in 2014/15, while Auckland’s reached 13.9 million, up from 3.2 million in 2002/3. In the second decade of the 21st century, more New Zealanders take the train than at any time since the early 1960s.
Although in per capita terms only about half as many New Zealanders travel by train today as in the 1950s, and only a third as many as in the 1920s, the proportion has almost doubled since the 1990s.