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The Rail Network

New Zealand Transport
Trains in New Zealand

The railway runs the length of the country, from north of Whangarei as far as Bluff in the south. 

The New Zealand rail network has:

  • 4,128 kilometres of rail line
  • 506 kilometres are electrified
  • 2100 level crossings
  • 1787 bridges
  • 150 tunnels (totalling 80 kilometres in length).

Building the railways

The first railway lines were built in the South Island in the 1860s. The government wanted railways to:

  • Carry products from farms, forests and mines to markets and ports.
  • They also wanted to provide access to land bought or taken from Māori, so Pākehā could settle it.

On the straight and narrow

To make it quicker and cheaper to build rail lines the government chose to build narrow tracks. This meant the rail lines were close together at only 1.067 metres apart. Because New Zealand has narrow tracks, steep slopes, tight curves and narrow tunnels it has been difficult to build more railway lines.

Main trunk lines

The South Island’s main trunk line, from Christchurch to Invercargill, opened in 1879. Back then it took 11 hours to travel from Christchurch to Dunedin. In 1945 a line from Christchurch to Picton was finished.

It took 23 years to build the North Island main trunk line. It was finished in 1908 so people could travel between Auckland and Wellington. This trip took 18 hours. Engineers had to find a way to cross the steep slopes of the central North Island. A line that looped back upon itself and then spiralled around with the aid of tunnels and bridges was built. Known as the Raurimu Spiral, this rail line is an engineering masterpiece.

Steam, diesel and electric trains

The railways were steam-powered until the 1950s. The last steam service was in 1971. There were some electric-powered trains from the 1920s and 1930s. From 1949 there were diesel engines.


New Zealand’s railways mainly carry freight, including coal, timber, farm animals and produce. Until the 1980s, laws protected the railways with rules that meant freight had to be carried by rail rather than on trucks.


Rail travel used to be very popular. Trains took children to school, people to work, and day-trippers to beaches, parks and racecourses. Later, private cars became common, and air travel got cheaper. Fewer people used trains. Many services were cut back, and some lines closed.

Railway stations

By the early 1950s, there were more than 1,350 railway stations in New Zealand. Stations were busy places with people and goods on the move. Big cities built large stations. From the 1950s many lines and stations closed. In 1993 the railway system was sold to a private buyer. But in the 2000s the government bought the railways back. There is now more interest in using rail to transport goods and people – why do you think this is?

Ready for a quiz? Try the 'Rail Network' activity.

Audio Māori keywords: 

Imagine if there were no railway lines in Aotearoa New Zealand. How do you think this would affect you?

New Zealand's mountainous environment makes it difficult to build railway lines. Image: TrackSAFE.

There are over 4,100 kilometres of rail line in New Zealand and 2,100 level crossings. Image: NZ Rail Photos.

The Raurimu spiral was built to allow trains to travel on the steep slopes without the need for more expensive viaducts and tunnels. Image: Jenny Scott.

The railways were mostly steamed powered until the 1950s when diesel engines started to replace steam engines. Image: TrackSAFE.

The Northern Explorer carries passengers between Auckland and Wellington. Image: TrackSAFE.

New Zealand Transport
Trains in New Zealand