By rail across the Southern Alps

Arthur's Pass, South Island, New Zealand:  approach to Otira Tunnel

Arthur’s Pass, South Island, New Zealand: approach to Otira Tunnel

The TranzAlpine train-journey across the breadth of New Zealand’s South Island from Christchurch to Greymouth is not cheap, and it’s worth every cent.  Parts of the journey are spectacular, and the 4½-hour journey unfolds a variety of landscape across the divide between the dry eastern plains and mountains to the tropical, rainy west of the country.  The Midland Line depends heavily on its coal traffic.  The lengthy and heavily engineered route couldn’t possibly survive solely on passengers.

The most exciting part of the route traverses the Waimakariri and Broken River gorges through a series of tunnels and vertiginous viaducts including the Stair Case Viaduct, 240 feet high [].

The line climbs continuously to Arthur’s Pass (population 54), in the heart of the aptly-named Southern Alps, and plunges downgrade into the Otira Tunnel, 5.3 miles long, with a gradient of 1 in 33.  Built between 1907 and 1923, this was originally only workable by electric locomotives;  since 1997 trains have been diesel-hauled with a system of airtight doors and fans at the tunnel mouths to enable trains to expel their foul air.

The line skirts Lake Brunner, itself strongly reminiscent of the European Alps, and terminates at Greymouth.  This is the nearest large town to the Pike River Mine, where 29 miners were killed in explosions in November 2010.

The long main street is well geared to the daily one-hour influx of tourist train-passengers, and provides coach links to places along the coast that might once have been rail-connected.
Since I rode in February 2011, the odd-looking yet extremely comfortable 1950s TranzAlpine rolling-stock has been replaced by new ‘AK’ panoramic sightseeing stock.  New Zealand railways run on 3ft 6in-guage, so the carriages, rebuilt from older stock, are compact, yet there’s room for two seats each side of a central aisle and more than adequate leg-room.  The rear coach is an enclosed observation car.

In the middle of the rake is a generator car, with viewing platforms at each end for fresh air and photographers.  A further observation platform, with less panoramic views, is built into the end of the baggage car.  As the train approaches the major viaducts these areas become a species of genteel, geriatric cage-fighting.

The on-board team-members are friendly and eager to please, and service is excellent – plenty of food and drink to purchase, pauses for fresh air at major stops and an informative, well-scripted commentary.  (I’m fully tuned to the New Zealand habit of turning most vowels to a short ‘i’, but one young man on the TranzAlpine insisted on turning the ‘i’-vowels to apostrophes, describing the route as the “M’dln’d Line” and referring to “licim’ves” and “trick m’nance crews”.)

The central Christchurch rail terminal, opened in 1960 [], was sold off in the 1980s and demolished after the February 2011 earthquake, and the present rail station for South Island’s largest city is a one-platform affair in an industrial estate, a ten-minute drive from the centre.

My hotel promoted a so-called complimentary station shuttle.  There is no such thing.  Only at the end of the spectacularly relaxed journey out to the train does the driver reveal that it costs NZ$6 to return at the end of the day – the oldest con-trick in transport history.  The alternative taxi no doubt costs more, but nevertheless I didn’t like the feeling of being taken for a ride.

A detailed description of the route and advice about booking the TranzAlpine from outside New Zealand is at


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