The good, honest, real deal, fun-time trains on the Main Trunk Line are the way to travel, writes Matt Heath.
Trains are the way of the future. Great for the planet and the soul. I'm not talking about the City Rail Link type train. I've got a sneaking suspicion that'll be obsolete by the time it's finished. What with the coming robotic electric car revolution. How long will it be before computer co-ordinated driverless pods rule the city. Roaming around sensing where you are via app. Just jump in and they'll co-ordinate, and run straight through intersections at 100km/h. Eliminating human inefficiency, city congestion and accidents.
For me the good, honest, real deal, fun-time trains are on the Main Trunk Line. The Northern Explorer. What a way to travel. The ultimate relaxing, classy way to get up or down the Island. May these proper intercity trains live forever.
Last Monday I jumped on at Strand Station bound for Ohakune. Off on a week of skiing with 20 close friends and 2 enemies. When you board a train the good times start straight away. You're on holiday as soon as you sit down. Facing buddies in booths. Walking around freely. Enjoying the glamour, romance and convenience of the dining car. Served by friendly men and woman in suits. Better still the train offers you the freedom to grab a bottle of wine and get a mild head of steam up at your seat. Sit back and enjoy the panoramic views.
The open-air observation carriage is a great way to see the inner workings of South Auckland backyards, not to mention the beautiful array of exotic gorse species that line the track. We even got to stop, mix and mingle with some track workers who were sitting in their truck doing nothing.
Flights to Wellington are cheap and the roads south of Auckland are pretty damn good. But the train is something special. You don't have to do the driving, there's no airport security to go through and no seat belts to restrict your movements.
Historical intercity rail has been hugely significant for New Zealand. The country opened right up when Wellington and Auckland were finally connected in 1908. Imagine how hard it was hacking through the King Country to lay the line back then. Poorly paid workers fighting the elements by day and sleeping under trees at night. I know all this from the wonderful train headphone commentary by Raylene Ramsay from Coast Fm (one of the best voices in the country).
Train bathrooms leave plane and bus facilities for dead.
While the physical history of the railway line is massively interesting there's been significant events in individual passenger lives too. A close friend of mine made a significant breakthrough under a table in the caboose of the northbound train in the mid-90s. While a family slept round a table, underneath them a boy became a man and a young lady became a woman. This is the kind of freeform the railways allows.
Raylene Ramsay makes much of the Raurimu Spiral and the nine viaducts (which are certainly feats of Kiwi engineering genius). But for me the bathrooms on the modern train are just as impressive. A button opens a curved, futuristic Star Trek-style door. When you walk in, it's spacious and well fitted. In size, form and function train bathrooms leave plane and bus facilities for dead. I should know — I spent a full 30 minutes in there dealing with a week-old chilli I ate the night before. That's the thing with the railway. It allows you to do what you need to do in your own time.
There are good trains and bad trains. Ones we need and ones we don't. The Northern Explorer is one of the good guys. If you're heading to Ohakune for a ski or a board just jump on, relax and learn. If you're fanging up from Welly do the same. Take a group of mates or family, it's easy. Sit back, relax, put your feet up, have a drink and marvel at how punishingly grim it would have been for the 19th-century battlers who had to build the bastard for us.