Thoroughly modern commuting

This is a guest post from reader Isabella

“You’re going to Auckland how?” said yet another person.

Why did it feel like I was doing something crazy? It was simply that in this day and age, I was eschewing flight in favour of going by train from Wellington to my conference in Auckland – and taking a ten-speed bike, no less.

After the nth explanation of why I was doing it (as an experiment, and ‘cause I could), I promised to write honestly whether my next Tamaki – Pōneke trip will be back on the plane, bikeless, like a normal person.

Northern Explorer At Strand

The Northern Explorer at The Strand station, Auckland (photo:

So here’s how, from my data point of one, the Northern Explorer stacked up vs the Boeing (and its buddies): on time, cost, emissions, and convenience.

If your boss or some other constraint forces you to fly, well, you have my sympathies. But if you have any say in how you get around, read on!

Carbon – way better

Emissions might not factor much in many people’s travel decisions, but I’ve always been (slightly) bothered by the carbon footprint of flying. Now I’m at liberty to choose how I travel, I thought I’d factor it in. Results are below (note that my loathing of long solitary car trips precluded driving).

Enviromark’s carbon calculator gives a Wellington CBD to Auckland CBD trip (one way):
Aeroplane + bus for the airport-CBD connection = 147.56
Aeroplane + taxi / Uber for airport-CBD connection = 152.7
Train (goes directly CBD to CBD) = 17.98

So from CBD to CBD, the Northern Explorer comes in at just under 12% of flying plus taxi/uber for the connections, or just over 12% of flying plus the airport buses.

It’s still dirty ol’ diesel but the emissions are tiny in comparison. I can “go around in a cloud of climate smugness” as a friend said.

Time – way longer, and great

This is the biggie.
From roll up (for checkin) to roll away (at the destination), the train is just under 12 hours – a full day. The opportunity cost of the time is what makes many people go “Oh hell no I couldn’t do that”.

Northern Explorer Smallest Seats

The smallest seats on the Northern Explorer

But for those of us whose office is mainly their laptop, it’s a different story.

Vodafone’s gappy provincial reception meant I couldn’t dial into one regular meeting. But once I switched off data, I had a rare and precious gift: several hours of truly thought-based work. It felt fantastically luxuriant to be able to think continuously – compared to the shallower, time-bound, interrupted thinking that’s so common (and much less productive).

Breaks were great too! Reading novels in the café carriage, downing (pretty decent) coffee, and wine, and Wishbone food, taking in fresh air and stunning scenery in the open-sided observation carriage.

Northern Explorer Ruapehu

Things to enjoy on the train: Ruapehu from the observation carriage

Northern Explorer Books

Things to enjoy on the train: Tools for relaxation

Northern Explorer River

Things to enjoy on the train: River gorge from the observation carriage

So – 12 hours, yes. But account for the productivity, the relaxation, and avoided airport connection hassles – it’s a great use of time.

Cost – comparable or less

For a return trip, the train was a grand total of $358.

($303 for tickets, including a checked bag and $10 each way for my bike, and $55 on food, wine and coffee).
That’s it! No extras. Here’s a table comparing my alternatives:

Main trip + connections: taxis + connections: Ubers + connections: airport busses PLUS bike costs Total
Air NZ: $209 $439 $329 $259 + $90 box & packaging $529 – $349
Jetstar: $139 $309 $229 $171 + $90 $399 – $261
Northern Explorer: $283 +20 $358 incl my gluttony

Whaddayaknow? The total cost of going by train is at the low end of the total costs of flying.

Destination convenience – a whole new world!

Gotta say it: doing short trips across Auckland’s sprawling centre(s) is infuriating. A bike makes it doable – one with a few gears, that’s easy to hop on and off, and has a decent rack. So Queenie the Morrison Monarch was coming along to make the destination better – and she would also tow my little Burley trailer with the check-in luggage. (Yes obviously four pairs of shoes for four days.)

Northern Explorer Bike and Trailer

Queenie and Burley trailer, homebound, with the loot from Auckland shopping

Getting there

Wellington end, 7.30am: cruise to the station. Check in bike and trailer. Settle in with coffee. Ahhhh.

Auckland end, 6.45 pm: retrieve bike and trailer. Don my lights. Follow another bikey person onto Beach Road, thence ten minutes (of protected cycleway gorgeousness) and I’m outside my Air BnB on K Road. Woohoo! Dump the luggage and hightail it to Coco’s Cantina.

Northern Explorer Fresh of train

Fresh off the train – an aperitif while waiting for my Air BnB host and getting excited about coming back for dinner

Homeward bound was even easier: downhill (early morning) means eight minutes to the station. I did have to ask some roadworking guys how to get into The Strand station – it’s not well signposted, and I didn’t pre-read the directions.

Northern Explorer Bike and Trailer Grafton Gully

So much protected cycleway serenity

But compared with the stress, cost and unpredictability of getting across Auckland to the airport – especially with a bike (and no don’t even ask about riding all the way), not to mention the hassle of re-assembling a bike and readjusting everything… train + bike is completely delightful!

Getting around

Auckland’s CBD is improving but is still oases of “place” in deserts of inhospitable stroad. For an out-of-towner, seeing friends and contacts (and shopping) around conference sessions is only really doable with a bike – avoiding hassle / lugging laptop and conference bag / Uber cost / asking people to come to you. (Not to mention night time – my lone female self safely biked back to my accommodation after nights out, where walking would feel very sketchy at several points).

And now it’s way safer and more relaxing to bike around AK, and improving all the time – the Quay Street cycleway actually opened while I was there. The incomplete cycling network wasn’t a biggie (and the bits that are done are great). With multiple transformations on my whim between lane-owning, traffic-pacing Friendly Cyclist, humble, courteous wheeled pedestrian, and true pedestrian (i.e. wheeling Queenie), Auckland city was my oyster.

I shopped, I coffee’d, I went for runs, I beer’d and dined, I conference’d, I mixed it all up and did it again, riding and walking and gently scooting, all over the city, usually grinning.

The verdict: for a trip of more than a day, train + bike = a great way to go. Definitely how I’m rolling for my next visit.

Northern Explorer Luggage Label