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Feature Story: New Zealand's TranzAlpine Railway

On the River Bend

Railway in winter

Kiwi Rail
by Nicholas Walton

The TranzAlpine train, which passes through and below the mountain ranges of New Zealand’s South Island, remains one of the world’s most iconic rail journeys, discovers Nick Walton.

My breath fogs up the window and I have to bunch up my sleeve to wipe away the condensation that’s building the higher we climb, but the view is well worth the effort. Outside is a winter wonderland, a landscape of steep mountain sides, their peaks lost in low clouds, their flanks pasted with thick icing sugar snow that lies in clumps beside the railway line. I feel as if we’re at the top of the world as the train chugs and shrugs its way up the incline, climbing ever higher into the snowy mountains, children of all ages up and down the carriage staring out fogged up windows, noses pressed against the glass, eyes wide.

We all remember remarkable ‘firsts’ in our lives; it might be the first time you saw the ocean, the first time you heard Hendrix and All Along the Watchtower, the first time you flew in an airplane, or the first time you kissed your significant other. For me it was the first time I travelled on New Zealand’s TranzAlpine railway, a four and a half hour, 223 kilometer climb through the backbone of the South Island between the garden city of Christchurch and the weather-whipped town of Greymouth, gateway to the glaciers and ruggedly beautiful coastline of the west coast. My first time riding those rails was in 1988, only a year after the traditional Christchurch-Greymouth express trains, which had been operating since the 1920s, were replaced with a new tourist-friendly initiative designed to showcase the remarkable skyline and incredible diversity of the South Island. The old rolling stock was given a vibrant new blue paint job, larger windows and stylish dining cars were added and suddenly staff that had been working a line used almost exclusively by farmers, students and retirees headed to and from the ‘big smoke’ of Christchurch, had to cater to international travellers who had come to ride the rails, cross the line’s four towering viaducts and play “hold your breath” through each of the 19 tunnels.

I’ve always had a thing about trains, and I’m clearly not the only one. Thanks to the steady growth of the airline industry we can zoom between virtually any two destinations in the world in a matter of hours, but the elegance and nostalgia of train travel still appeals to travellers from across the globe, whether its riding the rails through the Canadian Rockies, the backwaters of Kerala or through the rural landscape of New Zealand. In fact, not long after it was launched the TranzAlpine was named one of the top ten day trip train journeys in the world, a distinction it’s proudly retained.

In the years since that first Grandmother-escorted winter journey I’ve travelled on the train twice again, as a teenager and as an adult, one way and return, in summer and winter, alone and with friends, and the magic remains. Under Kiwi Rail’s ownership modern rolling stock was introduced in 2012, with an advanced air bag suspension system for a quieter, smoother trip and non-reflective windows on both the sides and the roof to ensure captivating views. A 2-2 one class configuration ensures there is space for everyone and table seating for four is great for family or friends travelling together.

There is a sense of excitement in the air at Christchurch Railway Station as travellers congregate on the platform, finding their appointed carriage. With suburban trains dying out in the 1970s the TranzAlpine remains a minor celebrity in Christchurch and locals wave as the train chugs its way through suburbs of weather-boarded houses, children’s play sets in the back yards, past timber yards and country stores and then out across the flat Canterbury plains, in summer a brilliant palate of golds and greens, in winter a wide open landscape of dark earth and white snow, the lumbering line of ancient peaks that make up the Southern Alps crawling ever closer.

Most of my fellow passengers, in their rows of blue airline seats, are content to gaze at the scenery and daydream, plugged into the train’s GPS triggered commentary system, while others, myself included, bundle up and head to the open air observation car, certainly one of the best additions to the TranzAlpine. Our route slips between Lake Sarah and Lake Grasmere and then follows the course of the ice-fed Waimakairiri River, its mineral-rich waters turquoise and foaming white. We charge into the Waimakariri Gorge, crossing the braided river, its name meaning ‘cold waters’ in the Maori language, on a low slung bridge that cascades across white-hued river stones and a vivid streak of icy blue before reaching land again. Not long after we’re soaring over the formidable Staircase Viaduct, at 73 meters the highest viaduct on the line. It’s standing room only in the Observation Car as the last cool winds of winter bite at my cheeks and lips and blur my eyes but the view is completely mesmerizing.

There are chances to also step off the train, including at the journey’s summit, the tiny railway town of Arthurs Pass, where the train halts long enough for a few photo poses and a stretch of the legs. Arthurs Pass is only home to about 50 souls today but in the past was an important centre during the gold rush of the 1800s. Heading west again we dive into the Otira Tunnel, once the world’s longest, emerging high above the deep mountain valleys of the dramatic West Coast, passing through ancient rainforests and then thick groves of alpine beech on its decent towards Greymouth.

Everything is different on this side of the Southern Alps. It’s wet almost all year round as clouds from the Southern Ocean dump their rain on the climb over the peaks, and the golden plains of Canterbury are replaced by timeless rainforests, towering ferns and low cloud. This is coal country and the TranzAlpine pauses to let lumbering coal trains cross the peaks bound for the port at Christchurch. Our journey continues as the train curls its way around Lake Brunner on the approach to Greymouth. Here many passengers leave the train bound for the glaciers, national parks and coastal communities of the west. In March, the TranzAlpine is a popular way to reach the annual wild food festival at Hokitika. Others, on day trips, lunch on whitebait fritters and Bluff oysters at the local pub before making their way back to the station, where the eastbound train stands ready to start the long, steady climb, back into the alpine valleys and ancient peaks of the real Middle Earth.

If You Go
For more information on this and other rail itineraries in New Zealand, contact KiwiRail Scenic Journeys, Round-trip Christchurch-Greymouth fares from NZD $338 per person (or about USD $284 based on current rate of exchange).

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