Whangarei's old railway station welcomes about one passenger train each week, with tourists shunning the winding bus trip over the Brynderwyns in favour of a more nostalgic journey.

Chartering a train, as a group of 88 who arrived in the city yesterday afternoon did, is not as uncommon as one would think, said train manager Ken Tawharu, arriving on KiwiRail's Silver Fern railcar.

"It's instead of buses - people decide to go by rail," Mr Tawharu said.

"I've been up here three times in the last few weeks."

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The 84 tourists and four support staff were spending the weekend in Northland visiting Russell, Cape Reinga, Hokianga and the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi.

The Northern Advocate arrived too late to get a photograph of the Silver Fern arriving - it was 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Asked whether he had ever heard of a train arriving early before, Mr Tawharu said he was "not going to go there".

The group had paid "a shade under $5000" to join the Dominion Post Readers' Rail Tour, now in its 26th year.

Tour leader Paul Elenio said while most of the group were not so-called "foamers" (train lovers), most were retired people with "an interest in the nostalgic past".

"The aim is to get together a group of like-minded people. Thirty per cent have done it more than once," he said.