Is the TranzAlpine really the journey of a lifetime?

“Dramatic”, “beautiful”, “stunning.” All these words have been used to describe the TranzAlpine. Does this ring true for Kiwis who've not experienced the journey that's on their doorsteps?

Arthurs Pass Station TranzAlpine Feature

National Geographic calls the TranzAlpine one of the world's greatest scenic train trips. And, so far, no one disagrees! This winter we put the journey to the test with real New Zealanders who'd had the TranzAlpine on their must-do lists for a while.  We asked the questions you want to know, is it really the journey of a lifetime and did it live up to their expectations? We were lucky to partner with GrownUps - a social magazine that connects New Zealand's 50+ communities, one of the most talked about topics is travel and what to explore in our own country. Very fitting!

The love of train travel overseas and in New Zealand rang true in the Grown Ups members; memories of sharing an extraordinary journey with parents, grandparents and loved ones shone through. Train travel is something we believe everyone should experience so we gave the opportunity to travel on the TranzAlpine to those who had never travelled by train and those had travelled before, albeit on the slightly older services!

The Journey

The TranzAlpine 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 the most popular stops at SpringfieldArthurs 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, carried 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, Open-air carriage and panoramic windows, the comfort of the journey has improved dramatically. What stays relatively the same, is the magnificent views outside!  So what did our passengers have to say and did the TranzAlpine meet their expectations? 

A photographic opportunity to remember

“The TranzAlpine trip is the pick of KiwiRail’s Great Journeys of New Zealand” says winner 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. This is a landscape that is continually on the move caused by continental drift, earthquake, climate and weather patterns. For photographer Doug, being out on the viewing car 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 delayer in the heated carriages with a coffee later.

Doug with his camera in the Open-air carriage

Most travellers opt for spring and summer departures due to the warmer climate. However, the competition winners 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.”

This was a journey of firsts for Richard, the first time riding the rails over the Alps and the first time in modern rail carriages. He really appreciated “how good an NZ rail journey could be”. With memories of long, slow overnight travel the comfort of the TranzAlpine was a welcome surprise!

 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 interest. 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 3,724 metres 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 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 at the time.

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 to the world outside. We know she will be one of many who says they want to do it again!

Patsy Hunt and her husband Cecil know the West Coast well, with Cecil being born in the district he 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 bird life 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 was great, hearing about the area as it is now and was in the past”.  Now wanting 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?

Unfortunately not, 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.  Watch our video of their journey to get a real sense of what the TranzAlpine is like during the winter.

Feeling inspired?

The TranzAlpine is one of the World's Great Train Journeys that you can experience in your backyard; a must do for your list of local escapes.  Seeing is believing so pick a date and book a journey you won’t stop talking about!