Starving on the main-trunk line

A few weeks ago I ‘treated’ my daughter to her first big train trip – on the Overlander – in what proved to be a scenic experiment in illusion and culinary depravation.

it goes over land
it goes over land

The Overlander is an epic journey (by Kiwi standards) through the heart of the North Island, travelling between Wellington and Auckland.

Along the way you pass the Central North Island ski towns of National Park and Ohakune. You also see sweeping views of New Zealand farmland, corn fields, a wind farm, the volcanic plateau, Mount Ruapehu, the world famous Raurimu Spiral and plummeting river gorges – all from the trains panoramic windows or open air viewing deck (complete with diesel soot and, later, tinnitus).

Naively, perhaps, I leapt on expecting a three-star dining car serving delicious coffee and cakes in modern railway mugs with Nanas wearing teatowels. But instead I was greeted with bored looking kidults stuck behind a fortified pie cart complete with instant watery coffee in a flimsy paper cup and dangerously oversized date scones.

Really, I was in shock. I had gotten on the train without espresso coffee – I was a transitory prisoner!

worse coffee in the land
worse coffee in the land

Last year when they threatened to close-down the Overlander train (which has been running for 99 years) there were riots in Te Kuiti and the Green Party almost imploded – but fortunately for sake of the heartlands the owners they decided to keep the service running – subject to self-sacrifices and cold hard cash from tourists and the New Zealand public.

While the scenic views are all that they promise (well, between Porirua and Taumaranui anyway), the service leaves a lot to be desired.

While reeling from the shock of having my first instant coffee in years I kept reminding myself I still had the ‘leisurely’ stop-off for lunch to look forward to. The stop-off is about half way in National Park at the old railway station which has been converted into a pretty funky little cafe (by backwater standards).

Over the loudspeaker the Overlander staff hyped up customer expectations into a frenzy… “We’re sooo excited because we know you’ll lap-up the views while you lap-up a steaming hot volcanic latte, and relax over your al-fresco lunch – you’ll have plenty of time to stretch out, relax enjoy your meal with our leisurely 40-minute stopover”.

lunch at one metre an hour
lunch at one metre an hour

But, on arrival we were greeted with a massive queue of smug-looking people.

The Auckland train has arrived just a few minutes prior. My hungry daughter and I stood for nearly an hour in line while those at the front got seats, were served hot plates of cooked food, coffee and pink fairy cake.

Over the loudspeaker the Overlander staff promised “You will all be served! Don’t worry – we know you’ll enjoy your lunch   because we’re enjoying ours right now!”.

The cafe counter was only just in sight when the train staff were ushering people back onto the train which was already an hour late when we arrived. With about 30 people left in the queue they waited an extra 10 minutes and tried to rush us through – but we only had time to grab some pre-cooked soggy chips.

Some of the cafe staff were stressed out beyond belief (one was sneaking after-dinner mints but was spotted by my daughter so gave her one to keep her quiet – this was the most nutritious thing she had all day).

All around me in the queue people were complaining under their breath – if this is normal no wonder the train service was/is under threat!

all a bored!
All a bored! happy joyful staff serving microwaved mush and nescafe at the Overlander food counter

The queue worked out a masterplan to stop this from happening again… This involved a simple idea of stopping the Wellington train in Ohakune (just 20 minutes down the line) and giving us lunch there – while stopping the Auckland train at National Park as it usually does – that way never the twains shall meet.

3 Things Tranz Scenic Should Do

Get Real!
Were the staff pre-recorded? They reminded me of apprentice hairdressers reading from an auto-cue. They kept over-promising and under-delivering and didn’t blink. While they did try to ease the massive lunchtime stuff-up by reassuring us it would “all be OK” – it was obviously a hopeless case for the last 30 people in the queue (which included staggering elderly and flailing young children).You should have given these people some sort of compensation – or at least a muffin.

Cater to the Coffee Snobs and Bring Back the Mugs
The coffee on budget airlines is better, and flying is cheaper. Why would your customers want to spend over 12 hours drinking over-priced rubbish? Good coffee is something New Zealand has going for it – 150 trapped people will consume a fair bit of deluxe coffee over a 12-hour period! And bring back the mugs! And while we’re at it – bring back the dining car!

Enter the 21st Century
A week prior to my journey I had decided to cancel my return trip (I decided I was buying a car in Auckland and driving home). Could I get a refund over the internet or phone? No – don’t be silly. I had to traipse to a ticketing office in person. Then I had to wait while the officer found a paper form – which I then had to fill out in detail. I was then told I would have to wait up to two weeks to get the refund. What’s going on here – am I in 2007 or 1907? Did you know other businesses simply reverse the charge in just a few seconds using an EFTPOS terminal?

Did I mention I quite like trains? Really, I do! But Tranz Scenic need to do a whole lot better if they’re going to woo people back to rail – it’s simple…

  • Run on time.
  • Serve satisfying food and drinks.
  • Don’t treat customers like cattle.

I wonder if Gordon Ramsay also fixes trains? They need him…