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The TranzAlpine train.

Is the TranzAlpine train the journey of a lifetime?

"Dramatic", "beautiful", "stunning."

All of these words describe the TranzAlpine train, one of The Great Journeys of New Zealand. National Geographic calls the TranzAlpine one of the world's greatest scenic train trips. So, we put the journey to the test with real New Zealanders. Asking the questions we all want to know, is it really the journey of a lifetime and did it live up to their expectations?

The Journey

The TranzAlpine train journey is a transcontinental journey across the backbone of Aotearoa from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Tasman Sea in the West. The train runs from Christchurch to Greymouth daily, with stops at Springfield, Rolleston, Arthur's Pass and Moana. The TranzAlpine has been running since 1987 and replaced the old express trains. Before the introduction of the TranzAlpine, other passenger services travelled the lines. Some of these trains included "The Perishable," an overnight freight service to Greymouth with a passenger car attached, so-called because it carried urgent produce. The "Press Car", a diesel railcar, leaving Christchurch at 1.50 a.m., which as well as taking passengers, brought all the copies of Christchurch's morning daily newspaper "The Press" to Greymouth, Hokitika and Ross for distribution up and down the West Coast.

The TranzAlpine was formerly known as the Tranz Scenic, you may remember the old blue and yellow rolling stock passing by! Now with the introduction of modern carriages, a licenced café car, panoramic windows, and an outdoor viewing deck, the comfort of the journey has improved dramatically. So what did these Kiwis have to say and did the TranzAlpine meet their expectations? 

The TranzAlpine train crossing the Waimakariri Bridge.

A photographic journey to remember

"The TranzAlpine trip is the pick of KiwiRail's Great Journeys of New Zealand," says train rider Doug Crowther.

Doug has had a lifetime fascination with trains and says "this fascination remains strong today, making this trip most enjoyable for myself."

Throughout the journey, Doug had his camera in hand, photographing the change in landscape as we travelled across a geologically fascinating area. The land is continually on the move caused by continental drift, earthquake, climate and weather patterns. For photographer Doug, being out on the viewing carriage was essential to get the perfect shot. Even in winter, albeit "for the hardy" it is an experience not to be missed. Doug's advice? Wrap up warm, you can head into the heated carriages with a coffee later.

Most travellers opt for spring and summer departures due to the warmer climate. However, these travellers got to enjoy an unforgettable experience in the winter wonderland of the South Island. Richard Bentley enjoyed viewing "the snowy peaks. In the warmth and comfort of the carriage with coffee in hand… by contrast, going to the open-air viewing carriage took my breath away both literally and figuratively – it was very cold but a spectacular encounter with the landscape that allowed me to take photos without reflections off window glass. That was the highlight for me."

The TranzAlpine was a journey of firsts for Richard, the first time journeying over the Alps and the first time in modern rail carriages. He really appreciated "how good a New Zealand rail journey could be". With memories of long, slow overnight travel, the comfort of the TranzAlpine was a welcome surprise.

Looking through the carriage on the TranzAlpine train.

Memories of the railways

If you ever have the opportunity to take a once-in-a-lifetime journey on the TranzAlpine, take it, says rail enthusiast Lindsay McAra.

Lindsay grew up with aspirations to be a train driver, living near the railway line fuelled his fascination. As a first-time TranzAlpine traveller, he enjoyed the whole "postcard-perfect" experience, especially "just being able to sit back and enjoy the ride".

Mareese Park, also loves train travel with fond childhood memories "spending nights in the sleeper cabin, eating meals in the dining car and I just loved the chugging motion". Having travelled on train trips in Europe, Mareese's highlights were the Alps. "They were snow-covered, and glistening in the crisp blue sky, looking very regal. At times I felt I could touch them, as they seemed so close."

The vast scale of the mountains is something that needs to be seen to be believed; photographs don't do the size of the region justice. "The Southern Alps", in reference to The Alps in Europe, strictly run south from Arthur's Pass to Haast Pass in South Westland. The highest peak of the alps is Aoraki / Mount Cook, 150 kilometres south of the train track, which is 3,754 metres or 12,316 feet in height, unfortunately not visible from the train. The highest peak in Arthur's Pass National Park is Mount Murchison, rising to 2, 399 metres or 7,870 feet! A natural wonder when you view it from Arthurs Pass station before entering the Otira tunnel. Mareese pays testament to the workers who created the railway, without the use of modern machinery. "An amazing feat of engineering, especially the tunnels and viaducts".

At the time the of travel it was one hundred years ago workers building the 8.5km Otira Tunnel pierced the first hole joining the two ends of the tunnel, after around a decade of tunnelling under the Southern Alps. The tunnel alignment was miraculously only 29 millimetres out on the sides and 19 on the floor, but it was still another five long years until the official opening in torrential rain on the 4th of August, 1923. Eight men lost their lives during the construction – a sad loss but an astoundingly small amount given the working conditions.

The TranzAlpine train crossing the Bealey River.

Visiting the South Island

It is not often that you get to travel from the plains of Canterbury to the rugged West Coast, but that is what Rosie experienced on this epic rail journey. As someone who is "raving about it to others" her highlight was being able to experience the South Island scenery.

Having grown up in the North Island, Rosie says "I rode most of the return journey in the observation carriage, returning to my seat to warm up occasionally!" Watching the scenery change for a journey of 230 kilometres "the glacial and snow-fed rivers and lakes, the ribbon stoney rivers and beaches", Rosie had her eyes glued outside. 

Patsy Hunt and her husband Cecil know the West Coast well. Cecil was born in the district and travelled from Moana to Greymouth lots as a kid by steam train. A trip down memory lane left Cecil "loving going back over the area. I also enjoy… being able to sit back and enjoy the scenery with the snow on the mountains and clear blue rivers with lots of birdlife around". Taking advantage of the panoramic windows meant there was no reason to get out of their seats. "Great comfortable seats, great views and the commentary through the headsets were great hearing about the area as it is now and was in the past". Now craving to see the landscape change in summer, they would love to journey again on the TranzAlpine.

So is the TranzAlpine the journey of a lifetime?

It is a journey you will do once and want to do again. Spring, summer, winter and autumn give this journey such varied landscapes. It is a scenic feast of surprises! And it doesn't matter if you like to capture every moment on camera, like Doug, or sit back and relax, like Patsy, there will be moments you won't forget along the way.

Are you feeling inspired?

The TranzAlpine is one of the world's great train journeys that you can experience in your backyard; a must-do on your list of local escapes. Seeing is believing so pick a date and book a journey you won't stop talking about!