Trainfinder Wellington: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
4 lines, 326km, glorious beaches, graffiti drama and not enough fences
Throughout 2018, Angus Kidman is undertaking the Trainfinder challenge, visiting every city in Australia and New Zealand with a suburban rail network and travelling across the length of every line in a single day. Learn about why he's doing it and what's involved.
How much train travel are we talking here?
Wellington has four suburban train lines, all of which run north from the main station in the city centre. The Johnsonville line is straightforward, but the others have quirks. The Upper Hutt line continues on to Masterton for a handful of services a day, and I included this in my trip plans for two reasons. First, it's feasible (unlike trying to go to the Sunshine Coast while in Brisbane). Second, Masterton turns out to be a twin town to Armidale NSW, where I grew up, so it would seem churlish to skip it.
Closer to town, the Upper Hutt line also sports a short branch line to Melling. The Waikanae service terminates in (as you'd expect) Waikanae, but it is generally referred to as the Kapiti line.
Wellington is the simplest network I'll traverse on my Trainfinder journeys this year, except in one crucial aspect: the tickets. Smartcards haven't yet been introduced for the train network (they are being slowly rolled out on buses). Everything is still paper tickets, and for the most part, you buy them from conductors on the train. Wellington station itself has a ticket window, but almost every other station is unstaffed. No ticket machines here!
The practical upshot of this is that over the course of the day, I'll end up needing separate tickets for every journey. There is a Day Rover ticket available that covers multiple journeys, but I can't use it before 9am or for my trip to Masterton, so it won't be enough on its own. I do grab a Day Rover for the final journey for the day because it's cheaper than two single tickets, but this isn't (yet) a system designed to encourage repeat usage.
Covering the whole of the Wellington train network took me around 6 hours and 40 minutes on Friday 27 April. Here's what went down and what I learned.
The 5:32am is the first service to leave Wellington on a weekday morning. As far as I can tell, I'm the only passenger on board. Clearly this is a positioning service to get the train from the central city depot to the edge of the network, so it can bring early-morning commuters in. As a result, I have a gloriously empty and relatively modern carriage all to myself.
Wellington trains offer a mix of traditional two-on-each-side seating and longitudinal benches, some of which can be folded up to accommodate wheelchairs or prams.
The downside of such early morning trains is that there's not much to see in the darkness. Platform signage is pretty minimal, the indicator boards inside the train don't show the name of each station, and there aren't any audio announcements. So the only way to tell where you are at this point would be to refer to the timetable.
But even that's a gamble because despite there being no other trains in sight and no delays for any passengers to board, we still arrive in Johnsonville a few minutes late. This turns out to be the pattern for the entire day.
Oddest station name on this line: Simla Crescent (shades of The Lion King)
The thing that immediately strikes me at Johnsonville is how amazingly open the station is. Forget ticket barriers: the platform essentially opens onto the car park. You'd expect that in really remote areas, but in Wellington it turns out to be the normal practice everywhere. Even the city station has one platform set up like this.
It's a fast turnaround at Johnsonville, and at least half-a-dozen passengers get on board. First surprise: my ticket into town costs more than the exact same journey coming out. "I don't understand it, I don't understand how the public's supposed to know," my conductor grumbles.
More usefully, the on-board indicator signs are now working, and we get an audio announcement before pulling into each station. The train is not exactly full by the time we reach Wellington, but there are enough passengers on board to justify running the service
This leg of the journey goes fairly wrong. My original plan was to jump on a 6:55am service to Melling, and return on the 7:16am. That would have given me enough time before my next train to grab breakfast somewhere in the CBD. I crave bacon.
However, while the 6:55am is on the indicator boards, it never departs from platform 7. When I locate the train, one carriage is entirely covered in graffiti and every door is locked. No announcement is made, but just before the scheduled time, the train rumbles out without a single passenger on board. I'm not the only person to miss out.
Having already waited some 30 minutes, that means I have to waste another 20 before the next Melling service departs. Some frantic timetable checking confirms I'll get back from Melling in time, but without a whole lot of room to spare.
The 7:13am does at least depart more or less when it should. By the time we reach the end of the line, there's actually a glimmer of light, which means I'll be able to see stations properly for the rest of the day. Even in the dark, the ocean looks tempting in a way I've rarely seen on trains (outside of those in Devon).
Oddest station name on this line: Western Hutt (shades of Jabba The Hutt)
Lots of passengers board at Melling to head back into town for their workday slavery. Confirming that timeliness is not going to be a feature for the day, we arrive back into town about five minutes late. I'm thinking I'll still have time to grab a proper breakfast before my next service at 08:21am. But that's before I've seen the ticket queue.
Remember, there are no machines here. While all three ticket windows are open, I'm worried that I won't get a ticket before the 8:21 service, which would basically scupper any chance of getting to Masterton today.
In the end, it's breakfast that gets scuppered. By the time I have my ticket (a special discounted Wairarapa Day Excursion), there's only just time to dash into the supermarket nearby and grab some food to eat on the train. The supermarket is branded New World, which makes me feel old, since Coles New World was the brand Coles operated in during the 1970s and early 1980s.
As befits a train that serves regional areas, the Masterton service is a bit more spacious, and even offers a fold-down table for laptop lovers and habitual kebab gorgers.
While it would effectively serve as an express service to Upper Hutt, it's not timed in a way that would make that useful for workers. Indeed, by the time we pass through Waterloo, a substantive station with a transport interchange, it's essentially too late for commuters and the platforms are empty.
Past Upper Hutt itself, there are lots of tunnels and frequent signal outages. But I'm not complaining because the scenery is gorgeous.
Confirming that Wellington trains are deeply old-school, the conductor marks my ticket by punching holes in the year, month and date. I've never had that happen to me in my adult life on a commercial railway. Heritage railways do it for the charm, and this trip itself is charming.
Oddest station name on this line: Waterloo (shades of ABBA)
I have long enough in Masterton to walk downtown and grab a picture of the town hall. While the population is similar and there are some nice tree-lined streets, I wouldn't say the resemblance to Armidale is striking.
Back at the station, a decent crowd has gathered to head into town for Friday afternoon. The station staffing has sensible hours, half an hour before every train departs, and there are employees on hand.
Confirming an ongoing pattern, the conductor commiserates with almost every passenger who boards about how confusing the fares are. I tune out and enjoy the mountain views. You won't be surprised to learn that we're late back into Wellington, but I'm too serene to care much.
If you're paying close attention, you'll notice that there's a substantial gap between the last journey and this one. This was for entirely sensible reasons. I had afternoon tickets to The Jim Henson Retrospectacle, so trains had to take a backseat so I could see Grover. I make no apologies.
A practical advantage of this delay is that I get to experience a train during rush hour, something that hasn't really happened so far today (other than during the queue for tickets this morning). As you'd expect with a 5pm service, there are plenty of homeward-bound commuters on board. Indeed, this is the first train I've seen all day in which basically every seat is taken. That makes it harder to take in the ocean views, but it seems churlish to complain.
Oddest station name on this line: Linden (shades of LBJ)
I had figured this final journey would be fairly empty. I was wrong. Plenty of Wellingtonians were headed into town to catch a game at Westpac Stadium, which is adjacent to the station.
"I didn't realise the train was so fancy," one fan observed. "I always drive."
What I learned
Straight up, I get why driving would be an appealing option, especially if you lived in the south of Wellington. Between the old-fashioned ticketing, the relatively infrequent services and the lax approach to timetables, it's going to a long time before trains are a major mode of transport for all Wellingtonians.
That said, it was a delightful day. The scenery really is amazing in parts and crowding was never a problem. I doubt any other trip during Trainfinder is going to be this relaxed.
Next up: I head to Adelaide, a city where conductors are very much not present. Wish me luck!
Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears regularly on finder.com.au.
- Trainfinder Sydney: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Perth: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Auckland: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Newcastle: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder London: Visiting every London airport by train in a single day
- Trainfinder Adelaide: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Brisbane: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder: Travelling every suburban train line in Australia and New Zealand
Pictures: Angus Kidman