A Traveller's Guide to The TranzAlpine Railway, New Zealand

The Southern Alps as seen from the Springfield station in Canterbury, New Zealand
The Southern Alps as seen from the Springfield station in Canterbury, New Zealand | © Daniel Steer / Flickr
Photo of Thalita Alves
11 May 2018
View

If you want to immerse yourself in the contrasting landscapes of the South Island, a trip on the TranzAlpine Railway is the best way to do it. The five-hour journey is known for being the most picturesque in New Zealand — and there’s a good reason for it.

The train, which has been doing its rounds for more than 30 years, works its way inland as it travels 223 kilometres (139 miles) from the eastern coastlines of the South Island to the West Coast. Throughout the trip, a smorgasbord of geographic wonders come into full view: think glacial rivers, country pastures, rolling hills and dramatic alpine scenery.

View of the TranzAlpine train as it sweeps towards the mountains | © Bob Hall / Flickr

With so many natural gems on offer, it’s no wonder that the trip continues to attract visitors from all over the world. In fact, its fame is such that National Geographic Traveler magazine placed it among some of the finest train rides in the world, alongside the likes of the Glacier Express in Switzerland, Russia’s Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian and Australia’s The Ghan.

Remember that this is a very popular trip. In the early 2000s, some 200,000 passengers were boarding the TranzAlpine each year; in the 12 months to June 2017, more than 100,000 people took the journey. For travellers wanting to see a piece of the TranzAlpine action, this can only mean one thing: securing a ticket well in advance — especially in the summer months (Dec–Feb) when it’s the high tourist season.

View of the Canterbury Plains on the TranzAlpine journey | © Daniel Steer / Flickr

The route runs daily from Christchurch to Greymouth and back. It departs Christchurch Railway Station bright and early, at 8:15 a.m., reaching its final West Coast destination at 1:05 p.m.; a one-hour break follows before the train starts making its journey back home. If you travel from Greymouth to Christchurch, you’ll leave at 2:05 p.m. to reach the Garden City at around 6:30 p.m.

Ample seating and wide panoramic windows ensure that all passengers get a front-seat glimpse of the emerging scenery. If you want to stretch your legs at any time during the trip, there’s also an outdoor viewing carriage that provides uninterrupted vistas and plenty of photo opportunities.

You don’t need to bring any food on board, unless you’re packing provisions for a day trip. The licensed Cafe Carriage serves snacks, hot food, sandwiches, baked treats, coffee and even wine if you’re feeling extra indulgent.

The TranzAlpine train | © mat79 / Flickr

First among the trip’s scenic highlights is the extensive patchwork of the Canterbury Plains. The region is one of New Zealand’s primary agricultural spots, and the surrounding pastures are an epic sight throughout the seasons. As the TranzAlpine roams through the countryside, the town of Springfield comes into view — and with it comes the first glimpse of the Southern Alps, the breathtaking mountain range that cuts through almost the entire length of the South Island.

The Southern Alps as seen from the Springfield station in Canterbury, New Zealand | © Daniel Steer / Flickr

From Springfield, the trip meanders northeast to traverse the Waimakariri River gorge. The braided river is among the largest in the region and its bright blue waters will come in and out of sight as the train makes the ascent towards the Craigieburn Range. On the way, the TranzAlpine also traverses 15 different tunnels and four dramatic viaducts — among which is the Staircase Viaduct, which carries the rails across a staggering 72 metres (236 feet) above the stream.

The Staircase Viaduct | © Zureks / Wikimedia Commons

Towards the far end of Craigieburn Straight, the scenery changes once again. The high plains start spreading out, giving passengers a glimpse of Mount Binser and the edge of Arthur’s Pass National Park before connecting again with the Waimakariri River to reach Arthur’s Pass village. This is one of the most popular stopovers along the route; many visitors opt to disembark the TranzAlpine in Arthur’s Pass to explore its exquisite alpine terrains (there are quite a few walking and hiking trails around to keep them busy) and catch the train back to Christchurch later in the day.

Waimakariri River just before Arthur’s Pass | © Ewan Munro / Flickr

Now it’s time to cross over from Canterbury to the West Coast. From Arthur’s Pass, the train starts to descend through the Otira Tunnel, which covers a length of 8.5 kilometres (5.3 miles) and is the longest tunnel in the entire trip. The completion of the Otira Tunnel in 1923 was the final step in establishing the Midland Line in which the TranzAlpine travels.

TranzAlpine landscape near Otira | © Daniel Steer / Flickr

As you come out the other end, the vistas become remarkably different. The West Coast is renowned for its wet weather and vibrant green forestry; the descent towards Greymouth in particular is dotted by river valleys, mountainous hills and rocky riverbeds. Before reaching its final stop, the train makes a loop around the valleys to reach the town of Moana, right by the banks of Lake Brunner, connecting to the Arnold River valley before reaching the Grey River and arriving in Greymouth — thus concluding this leisurely, photogenic expedition.

Greymouth, New Zealand: the final stop on the TranzAlpine Railway journey | © denisbin / Flickr

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel – and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Epic Trips, Mini Trips and Sailing Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travellers and friends who want to explore the world together.

Epic Trips are deeply immersive 8 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and enough down time to really relax and soak it all in. Our Mini Trips are small and mighty - they squeeze all the excitement and authenticity of our longer Epic Trips into a manageable 3-5 day window. Our Sailing Trips invite you to spend a week experiencing the best of the sea and land in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm – and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Cookies Policy

We and our partners use cookies to better understand your needs, improve performance and provide you with personalised content and advertisements. To allow us to provide a better and more tailored experience please click "OK"