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Jim Eagles: Romance of rail back on track and picking up speed

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Remember the days when rail was king? When almost everyone travelled round the country by train? When a network of railcars and express train services criss-crossed the country? When rail travel inspired songs about "Taumarunui on the main trunk line" and "the inter-island steamer express"?

When references to railway rockcakes and railway pies were an essential part of every comedian's repertoire and guaranteed to bring a laugh?

I can still remember my first rail trip about 50 years ago when the family went by train from the magnificent Auckland Railway Station to the rural wilds of Pukekohe.

I have an image in my mind of being able to see the engine puffing away up ahead whenever the train went around a curve.

It must have been a big deal, otherwise that image wouldn't have stayed with me all these years.

Another vivid memory from a few years later is of travelling on the overnight train from Auckland to Wellington, on to the ferry to Christchurch, then by rail to Dunedin - and back again.

The journey was a nightmare. It was almost impossible to sleep in those uncomfortable seats, although some experienced hands took their sleeping bags and lay down in the aisles.

The stop at Taumarunui for a cup of tea in those chunky railway cups - and, of course, a rockcake - was a welcome break from the torture.

Now, hardly anyone travels long distance by train - and not many commute by rail, either.

These days, the roads are much better and most people have cars. Buses may be less comfortable than trains but they are more flexible. And flying is much quicker and usually cheaper.

But rail retains a marvellously romantic image that must be the envy of other forms of transport.

A few years ago I had a marvellous trip on the community-owned Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, from Haworth, in Yorkshire, where the Bronte sisters lived, through the countryside associated with E.E. Nesbitt's classic children's novel The Railway Children.

I had a marvellous time leaning out of the window, getting snowflakes and soot from the old steam engine on my face, pretending to be a guard, until other people got on the train and I had to behave myself. You'd never do that on a bus.

New Zealand has many similar organisations dedicated to preserving old trains and sections of rail and most organise regular trips. You'll find 36 of them listed at http://trains.wellington.net.nz/organisations.html.

I took my granddaughter to the Glenbrook Vintage Railway (www.railfan.org.nz) for one of its open days and the place was packed with people having a marvellous time going for rides and just marvelling at the magnificent old locomotives.

And rail tourism - as opposed to mere travel - is making a big comeback.

Great train journeys are thriving. Among them are the Trans-Siberian Express, from London to Vladivostock; the Canadian, from Toronto across the Prairies and the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver; the Trans-Mongolian Express, from Beijing to Moscow; and the Venice Simplon Orient Express, which runs between Paris and Venice, but also goes to Budapest, Istanbul, Prague and Rome.

Earlier this year, my wife and I travelled on the Eastern & Oriental Express, from Singapore up the Malay Peninsula to Bangkok, and revelled in the chance to experience the sights, sounds and cultures of Southeast Asia while enjoying old-world decor, service and comfort (www.orient-express.com).

After that we're keen to do another classic train journey - the Trans-Mongolian sounds good - when we have the time.

But you don't have to look that far afield for the chance to experience the special charm of rail.

Australia, which last year completed the link between Adelaide and Darwin only 145 years after it was mooted, has the Indian Pacific and the Ghan (www.gsr.com.au) which run through the arid heart of the island continent.

TranzScenic still runs daily services between Auckland and Wellington (the trip takes 12 hours and costs from $150 return), Wellington and Palmerston North, and Picton and Christchurch. Then there's the marvellous TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth over Arthurs Pass (www.tranzscenic.co.nz)

In addition, for nearly 50 years travel industry veteran John Ward has been running special one-off trips, often to parts of the country where passenger rail services no longer operate, and he says these days the trips are selling out faster than they ever used to.

Many of the people who go on such trips are rail enthusiasts. "But often," he says, "we get people who have never travelled by rail before and they're amazed at how pleasant it is ... and they want to come back again."

His latest venture - being organised in conjunction with the Herald - is a railcar weekend on November 5 and 6 to Rotorua (where there is not only no rail service but no track).

For the outing, the Silver Fern railcar will leave from the old Auckland Railway Station and travel via the suburban network to Pukeohe, then through Ngaruawahia, Hamilton, Tirau and Tokoroa to the railhead at Kinleith. The group will go by coach to Rotorua for sightseeing and an overnight stay, continuing by coach the next morning to Tauranga. Passengers will rejoin the Silver Fern at Mt Maunganui and travel by rail via Katikati and the Kaimai Tunnel back to Auckland.

The weekend will cost from $399 each, including accommodation, dinner and breakfast in Rotorua, morning tea and lunch on the train the first day, and afternoon tea the second day.

There are plans for a 10-day North Island tour next April, sweeping from Auckland to Palmerston North, Napier, Masterton, Wellington, Wanganui, New Plymouth and Taumarunui - sorry, no rockcakes - back to Auckland. He is also working on a 14-day South Island tour.

Ward says that the reason such trips are so popular is that unlike other forms of transport the journey is a major part of the experience.

"On a coach trip people usually can't wait to get to the destination. But on a train the trip is the destination in a way.

"People travelling by train are much more interested in the scenery than people in a coach.

"They are also much more likely to listen to the commentary and take in what is being said. They get far more involved in what's going on.

"There's definitely something about travelling by rail that affects people in a very positive way. You often hear talk about the romance of rail - and it's true.

"I don't quite know what the reason is, but rail is a special way to travel."

* To find out more about the rail trip to Rotorua contact Skytrain Travel at (09) 921 5100 or 0800 759 872, email travel@skytrain.co.nz, write to PO Box 12, Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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