If you are into excellent customer service this is the trip for you. I travelled on the Northern Explorer from Auckland to National Park, about half way to Wellington, on the central plateau and then from Wellington to Auckland on this great journey.
The train of 2 carriages, buffet car and open viewing car seems designed for tourists. The seats are spacious from which to see the country side, mountains and sea through large viewing windows which were clean. Headsets are provided so passengers can listen to the optional commentary identified on the map on overhead TV screens. The commentary provided information on the area we were travelling through, significant bits of history, the Maori history, railway history and at times the Maori creation story.
The buffet provided breakfast and lunch of soup, sandwiches, hot food and snacks with very drinkable railway coffee and wine. This was bought to our table by the ever helpful attendants. On both trips they were the most customer focused and hard working attendants I have experience on a train. They provided our boarding passes, checked tickets, serve the food, added to the commentary and unloaded the luggage. On our trip to National Park the train was about 50 minutes late due to a carriage being removed at Hamilton. The attendant asked if we were being collected by a car from the Chateau and said they would notify the Chateau of our delay.
For the technically minded the trip is 681 km, crosses 352 bridges, and goes through 14 tunnels. Even for the non technically minded like me I could not failed to be impressed by the Raurimu Spiral.
The scenery goes from farmland, to hills and mountains and on a clear day it is possible to see Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngharuhoe and Mt Tongariro, all active volcanoes. Then the white cliffs and viaducts and finally the Tasman Sea before arriving at Wellington.
The train runs from Auckland 3 days a week and returns from Wellington the following 3 days. It seems to be designed for tourists rather than locals to move from town to town. On this trip our carriage was less than one third full but costs about 3 times that of bus travel. I travelled from Napier to Wellington by bus as the passenger train from Gisborne to Wellington had been discontinued. The train was so much more comfortable. It would be a pity if this service were to be discontinued. The train from Picton to Christchurch in the south Island only runs from October to May.
At this point reviewers say that they travelled as a guest of. .. I paid for my own travel.