22 November 1987 was the date of its first departure from Christchurch. To mark its 30th anniversary, operator KiwiRail organised a special trip for train staff, key tourism industry figures as well as members of the public – celebrations included a birthday cake and musical performances by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as passengers hopped on board.
Each individual TranzAlpine run covers a total of 223 kilometres (139 miles), traversing some spectacular countryside and alpine terrains along the way – it is these backdrops that make the ride so appealing.
It’s a daily route that departs from Christchurch in the morning, arrives in Greymouth in the afternoon and takes a quick one-hour breather before making its way back to its starting location. Passengers on the Greymouth-Christchurch trajectory will reach their final destination just in time for dinner, at around 6.30pm.
Famous passengers to have boarded the train over the years include Kate Winslet, John Travolta, several All Blacks rugby players as well as Bart and Homer Simpson, who travelled to the Canterbury town of Springfield on the TranzAlpine for the worldwide launch of The Simpsons Movie.
It begins its journey on the Main South Line, from Christchurch into the Canterbury Plains and into Rolleston, before meandering into the Midland Line which connects the Canterbury region to the West Coast.
The longest of which is the 8.5-kilometre (5.3-mile) Otira Tunnel, an iconic structure which marked the completion of the Midland Line and was also the second-largest tunnel in the world upon its construction in 1923.
The longest among them is the Staircase Viaduct, which carries the rails 72 metres (236 feet) above the stream bed as the TranzAlpine makes its ascent over the Waimakariri River gorge and into the elevated plains of Craigieburn.
The open carriage proved to be so popular that a handful of other upgrades soon followed: including the addition of eight new cars with full panoramic windows in 1994-1995, plus extensions to the open-viewing platform in 1995 and 1998 respectively.
Other photo-op favourites include the Canterbury locality of Cass and Lake Sarah, a high country lake near Craigieburn.
In fact, the railway journey is said to bring an annual tourism revenue of NZ$15 million to the West Coast region at large.
Hokitika is located 40 kilometres (24.9 miles) south of Greymouth which, alongside featuring a picturesque gorge known to attract quite a few visitors, is a key stopover point for travellers heading to notable West Coast attractions such as the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. In late 2017, local officials started campaigning for the TranzAlpine route to be extended into Hokitika, arguing that the infrastructure for it already exists and the town will offer a ‘more tourist-friendly’ experience to the region’s visitors.