After the peak years of the 1920s and late 1930s, tourist travel all but ceased during the Second World War. The difficult war years left New Zealand Railways (NZR) in a tattered, run-down state, and it took years to recover. Tourism and excursion trips slowly revived after the war, and some initiatives – such as the Snow Specials to Tongariro National Park and Arthur’s Pass, and Blossom Specials to Hastings and Alexandra – boomed in the 1950s. However, the increasing availability of private cars and the expansion of domestic aviation spelled the end of the glory days of rail tourism.
In the 1960s NZR sought to promote the scenic attractions of daytime travel on the North Island main trunk line, introducing a summer Scenic Daylight service in 1963. The following decade it developed its own heritage tourist venture – the South Island’s steam-hauled Kingston Flyer.
NZR’s new prestige passenger services of the early 1970s, including the Silver Fern and Silver Star, were also partly aimed at the tourist market. The Silver Star, a glamorous night train, offered business travellers and holidaymakers a new level of comfort on the North Island main trunk route. Despite skillful marketing and the quality of its facilities, the service was doomed by competition from the National Airways Corporation’s Boeing 737 jets.
By the late 20th century, with long-distance patronage flagging, rail passenger operators around the world were increasingly reliant on the tourist market. Since the early 1990s the popular TranzAlpine service between Christchurch and Greymouth has been marketed as one of the world's great scenic rail trips. Otago’s Taieri Gorge Railway, which operates from Dunedin’s historic station, has also become a successful tourist venture.
On the other hand, the daytime Overlander service on the North Island main trunk, which traverses some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery, only narrowly survived closure in late 2006. While supporters are confident that improvements in the service and stronger marketing can turn the main trunk into a popular tourist route, its future remains uncertain.