From the early days of rail, excursion and special trains gave people new opportunities to visit beaches, lakes, parks, racecourses and shows. Aside from the charms of their destination, these trips were an adventure in themselves, offering passengers the chance to experience the novelty and thrill of rail travel, often for the first time. Crucially, excursions were also much cheaper than everyday full-fare travel.
Sunday excursion trains were run on the New Plymouth–Waitara line as early as May 1876, despite complaints from local churchmen that ‘pleasure parties going out on Sundays were the Devil’s travellers’. Even before lines were completed, excursions let people observe the onward march of progress. Crowded special trains ferried dignitaries and spectators to the sites of ‘first sod’, ‘last spike’ and station-opening ceremonies.
By the early 1880s New Zealand Railways was running regular excursions on New Year's Day, Easter Saturday, the Prince of Wales’ birthday and on the days of major shows and race meetings. On Easter Saturday 1904, trains from Dunedin ferried more than 3000 passengers to events and scenic spots near and far. According to the Otago Daily Times:
The principal attraction for residents was the race meeting at Mosgiel, to which about 625 persons journeyed by rail; and next in public favour was the show at Middlemarch, to which place some 200 people travelled … Seacliff appears to be a very popular holiday resort, and no less that 260 passengers journeyed there, while about 120 travelled to Waitati, and about 40 to Puketeraki, and a similar number to Warrington. A little more than 200 tickets were issued to Mosgiel Junction, the purchasers of some no doubt going to the races, and on the branch lines – Lawrence, Catlins River, and Otago Central – about 400 people were carried.