It was a chilly Monday morning as I made my way to Platform 3 at Auckland's Britomart transport centre.
At the top of the escalator the train station opens up like a huge cave, all stainless steel and neon, and there in the centre is the Northern Explorer, KiwiRail's new flagship passenger train.
There are TV cameras and news photographers everywhere as train personnel, VIPs, and tourism officials line the polished concrete platform.
The Northern Explorer comprises three carriages, a baggage car, a purpose-built cafe car and, behind the locomotive, the open platform car. That was where I would spend most of the next 10 hours photographing the scenery of our "Main Trunk Line".
In the vastness that is Britomart, the Dunedin-built Northern Explorer almost looks as if it has been plucked from a new model train set. The trains I caught back in the day from New Plymouth never looked like this.
Plush carpet, contoured velour-covered seats, HD screens hanging from the ceilings, panoramic windows that wrapped up the sides and part way over the roof, plus plate-glass doors that whispered quietly as they automatically opened to let you enter each carriage.
In the centre of the train was the cafe car filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and tempting treats on full display.
At exactly 0750 the Northern Explorer gently glides out of the Britomart station to the flashes of dozens of cameras there to record the event. It was likely the same 21 years earlier when its predecessor, the Overlander, embarked on its first trip. Sadly that is no more. The future of passenger rail aims squarely at the tourist market.
Only three official stops remain: Hamilton, Ohakune and Palmerston North. Refreshment rooms and toilets at other stations are no longer needed, because facilities are now on board, as are the attendants who cater to your every whim. Restricting the stops is designed to trim travel time to 10 and a half hours.
Other refinements include amenities for the disabled, a large toilet and a hoist system to allow access to the train for wheelchairs, and a moulded table for changing babies' nappies.
The normal toilets are plush and clean and remind you of airline toilets; when you flush, whoosh, bang and it's all gone.
Suburban Auckland whooshed by through an expanse of tinted glass as we tucked in to a coffee and raspberry muffin. At Papakura half the train emptied as VIPs and travel agents took their leave.
From Papakura the train picked up its normal speed passing through Pukekohe and out into the wetlands around Mercer. The Waikato River, the urupa on the sides of Taupiri Mountain and the bridge and main street of Ngaruawahia looked fresh and different from the train instead of via my usual indifference and dismissal during countless trips to Auckland by car.
At Hamilton there are more crowds and more cameras during a brief five-minute stop, and then we're off again at breakneck speed through the heart of the King Country.
The green rural heartland of Te Awamutu, Otorohanga, and Te Kuiti flash by and I brave the harsh cold in the open air observation car to photograph, not only the scenery, but also the other passengers caught up in the experience.
After crossing the first of several iconic viaducts, the Waiteti, the train snakes its way past Benneydale and into the first tunnel, the Poro- o-Tarao before we drop into, then through, Taumarunui, crossing the Wanganui River and climbing again toward National Park.
Here the real scenery starts. The natural wonders of the Central Plateau native bush, the mountains and the incredible engineering feats of our railway construction forebears are all breathtaking.
There is also the tragedy of Tangiwai and the very real evidence of the decline of once vibrant settlements and towns to comprehend.
The gentle climb to National Park via the world famous Raurimu Spiral is something everyone is waiting for. In tune to a commentary in real time our train begins the ascent from Raurimu village to the Central Plateau. Rising 71 metres our train effortlessly negotiates one complete circle, three horseshoe bends and two tunnels covering a distance of about seven kilometres. At the top you can see Raurimu village far below - about a kilometre in a straight line.
It was strange to see the track you had just crossed below you while on the other side of the observation car the track you were about to travel over was above but heading in the opposite direction. Confusing stuff and even harder to photograph.
At National Park station there was an operational stop where a new locomotive engineer, Eric, took over. I had the honour of travelling beside him up front in the locomotive for the next stage of the trip to Ohakune.
Watching him handle hundreds of tons of moving train on what seemed like two very thin ribbons of twisting and turning steel was inspirational.
Shortly before arriving in Ohakune we cross the gracefully curved Hapuawhenua viaduct and we tuck into a lunch of buttered chicken on rice and a nice cold beer.
For most photographers it's the photo they missed they always remember.
For me it was as we left Ohakune, the townspeople on the platform waving goodbye with carrots.
After leaving the Central Plateau our train enters the second scenery highlight for me, the stretch of track around the Rangitikei River with its high viaducts on the deviation near Mangaweka. The views from the observation car are breathtaking on both sides and the train deliberately slows to allow more time to savour the experience.
After crossing our final viaduct, the equally impressive Makohine, our train drops into flat countryside where it highballs its way along clear straight track.
This is when you notice the smooth ride, so smooth that it's easy to fall asleep if you close your eyes long enough.
We eventually pull in to Palmerston North amidst a colourful sunset and it's time for me to get off and drive back to New Plymouth. As the Northern Explorer disappears into the distance I rue the decision that removed passenger trains in Taranaki 30 years ago.
zJames travelled on the Northern Explorer courtesy of KiwiRail
- © Fairfax NZ News
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