The TranzAlpine is the finest train journey travellers get to embark on in New Zealand. With its striking composition of countryside pastures, alpine terrains and ice-fed lakes, one could even go as far as placing it among the most scenic routes in the world.
National Geographic Traveller seems to agree: in 2017, the magazine placed the TranzAlpine Railway quite highly on its list of the world’s best train trips, next to the likes of Russia’s Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian and The Ghan, which traverses Australia’s Alice Springs as it makes its way from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south.
Covering a distance of 223 kilometres (139 miles), the TranzAlpine meanders inland as it makes its way from Christchurch and the Canterbury Plains into the stunning Southern Alps and towards the South Island’s rocky West Coast. It’s a daily trajectory that starts bright and early, departing Christchurch at 8:15am and arriving at its final stop, Greymouth, at around 1:05pm. The train then takes a one-hour break before making its way back home – leaving Greymouth at 2:05pm to finally re-enter Christchurch at 6:15pm.
Arthur’s Pass, which sits just past the halfway point of the trip before the train enters the Otira tunnel, is a popular stopover among the railway’s travellers. Rather than going all the way west, many active souls choose to hop off the train to hike the national park’s alpine tracks for a few hours, and then catch the TranzAlpine back into Christchurch.
It’s also interesting to note that the train traverses 16 different tunnels on its five-hour trip. Of these, the Otira tunnel is the longest: in fact, the 8.5-kilometre (5.3-mile) passage was the world’s second-longest when it was completed in 1923. The other 15 are much shorter, and are mainly scattered across the elevated plains of Craigieburn as the train ventures northeast from Christchurch towards the Waimakariri River.
The TranzAlpine has been doing its rounds for more than 30 years. Its very first trip was on Nov 22, 1987; the train was an upgrade to the previous Christchurch-Greymouth services, with refurbished carriages and panoramic windows fitted onto carriages so that passengers could fully enjoy the emerging landscapes.
It didn’t take long for the TranzAlpine to become a desirable tourist attraction. The journey experienced a rapid surge in popularity from the 1990s onward; by the early 21st century annual passenger numbers were peaking at 200,000. There was a small decrease in train travellers after the Christchurch earthquakes, but in recent years the TranzAlpine has pretty much picked up where it left off: in the first half of 2017 alone, the train carried approximately 100,000 passengers.
TranzAlpine is operated by The Great Journeys of New Zealand, the aptly-named tourist arm of KiwiRail. The Coastal Pacific train journey between Blenheim and Kaikoura is another of KiwiRail’s South Island routes – unfortunately it has been suspended until late 2018 while the rail line is undergoing repairs (the area was severely damaged during the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake). Other trips organised by the company include the Northern Explorer, which connects Auckland to Wellington, and the Interisland Ferry service which departs from the capital into the South Island port town of Picton.