Welcome to your complete guide to travelling on the TranzAlpine train New Zealand, the famous scenic train Christchurch to Greymouth. Take a read through LOCO Journeys all-inclusive overview to be inspired and plan for the best train journey New Zealand has to offer.
LOCO Journeys comprehensive TranzAlpine overview covers common questions about the transalpine train trip including: How long does the TranzAlpine take – Where does the TranzAlpine go – Can I take my own food on the TranzAlpine – Is this the Christchurch to Queenstown train – Where does the TranzAlpine train stop, and so on. All details are covered for you to be fully informed before you venture on this great New Zealand rail journey.
This guide covers the following frequently asked Tranzalpine railway questions. Click the topic you are seeking in our handy table of contents to skip ahead.
The rail trip from Christchurch to Greymouth through the stunning Southern Alps sometimes referred to as the TranzAlpine Express is one of the world’s great rail journeys and considered one of the best train journeys in New Zealand.
New Zealand has retained few of its passenger trains outside urban areas, but of the handful that remain, the TranzAlpine is rightfully celebrated as one of the top ten worldwide train experiences. It provides a rare opportunity to see New Zealand’s South Island from a different perspective as you travel from coast to coast on a train through Arthur’s Pass.
Travellers can choose one-way or return trips between Christchurch and Greymouth, or shorter options such as a journey as far as Arthur’s Pass and return. All the trips combine majestic scenery, pioneering history and impressive engineering, all viewed from the comfort of your modern TranzAlpine carriage seat.
The modern Kiwirail TranzAlpine train, with its panoramic windows, open-air viewing, cafe carriage and onboard commentary are a far cry from the first trains to make the journey from coast to coast early last century. Then, grimy smoke poured from the steam engines and passengers had to make a mad dash for a cup of tea (served in almost indestructible railway company china) and a meat pie when the train stopped briefly at Springfield before beginning its climb into the mountains. Yet that was still a major leap forward from the days when stagecoach and horses laboured over the treacherous Arthur’s Pass and through the Otira Gorge in the heart of the Southern Alps.
The original passageway through the Southern Alps was mapped by Arthur Dobson in 1864 under instruction from the Chief Surveyor of the Canterbury region who was seeking a quick route to the West Coast. It was a route that had been used for my centuries before by Maori. When miners discovered gold on the West Coast, the survey work took on new significance and the race was on to find a route to bring the gold to Canterbury. The road across Arthur’s Pass was plotted and built remarkably quickly during the winter of 1865.
Work began on the railway line in 1907 but it wasn’t until 1923 that the first train completed the full journey including disappearing into the darkness of the eight-and-a-half kilometre long Otira rail tunnel. Hewn with pick and shovel, the Otira tunnel was celebrated not only longest rail tunnel in the country, but the longest in the British Empire and seventh longest in the world. Remarkably, when the tunnellers burrowing in from each side finally met, their tunnels were less than an inch out of alignment. By then, they’d completed a track that stretches more than two hundred and twenty kilometres across the intensively farmed Canterbury plains, through sixteen tunnels and over five viaducts, including the seventy-three metre high Staircase Viaduct on its way to the lush rain forests of the West Coast.
The railway route itself was called the Midland Line, a geographically inspired name, which connects at Rolleston with the Main South Line (or South Island Main Trunk Railway) from Lyttleton to Invercargill, and the Main North Line heading to Picton. At Greymouth, the Ross Branch takes the railway south to Hokitika and to the north the rails connect Stillwater to Westport. Sadly, the only other passenger service that remains in operation from Christchurch is the Coastal Pacific which takes people on one of the three Great Journeys between Picton and Christchurch.
The Midland railway had long been renown as the most scenically spectacular railway in New Zealand and in November 1987, in recognition of the tourism potential of the line, passenger services were upgraded and the Tranz-Alpine Express was launched. With a 60% jump in patronage the following year, it was an outstanding success. In 1991 an observation car was added to the rear of the train and a guards van converted so passengers could stand out in the open for better photography. Initially the TranzAlpine was only as long as two carriages but with growing popularity the number grew and it can now sometimes be up to 12 cars. While the dedicated observation carriage has been replaced with purpose built scenic viewing carriages, the service still features a dedicated luggage van, and also now offers a full service cafe car that meets your every refreshment need.
From 1923 the Midland Line enjoyed electric locomotive traction, the first in New Zealand, between Otira and Arthur’s Pass because steam engines could not operate inside the Otira tunnel due to both the gradient and length. Since 1997, twin diesel locos have worked the TransAlpine Express across its full length augmented by another pair added as bankers at Otira delivering a much needed boost in motive power to enable the train to pass through the Otira tunnel reaching the railways highest point, Arthur’s Pass situated at an elevation of 737 metres.
When to Travel on the TranzAlpine
Your journey dates to New Zealand may be prescribed to you, but if you’re dreaming about travelling on one of the best rail experiences in the world, why not travel at exactly the time of year that suits you. Weather is variable but New Zealand seasonality does remain fairly constant, so by understanding what you are in store for in the southern hemisphere will hopefully help guide your decision making.
Te Waipounamu South Island Climate
The South island of New Zealand is for the most part cooler than the North Island and some regions are far wetter, although the climate is very variable. Whereas Canterbury offers one of the South Island’s coolest and driest areas, parts of the West Coast receive 7,500mm of rain annually. The cause of this uneven distribution is the Southern Alps intercepting the eastward-moving oceanic marine weather systems, removing most of their moisture in the process.
Situated far from the mountains on the east coast, the rainfall in the city of Christchurch at one end of the TranzAlpine is fairly constant throughout the year at around 50mm per month, while January is the warmest month and July is the coldest.
Greymouth’s climate is dependent on its exposure to weather systems from the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps to the east. Rainfall is not as heavy as areas further south on the West Coast, but the town will receive an average of 2,640mm per year. The town can often be wet and partly cloudy, but still mild and it enjoys a temperate climate. Winters are generally much warmer than Christchurch.
Your Seasonal TranzAlpine Travel Choice
Distinct to the majority of New Zealand’s North Island, the South Island has four clearly defined seasons and this should inform your travelling date for your alpine train ride. New Zealand’s typical season for warm and settled summer weather means the best time of year to visit is mid January to early March, but do note it is also the most popular season and therefore the busiest. Being ‘in season’ means it is also generally the most expensive time to travel. See below for more information on the TranzAlpine prices.
Bright, cold winter days can offer some of NZ’s most stunning experiences, particularly against the backdrop of the snow-capped Southern Alps. Snow can often fall to the ground in high altitude areas such as Arthur’s Pass and these special views enjoyed from your warm train carriage are as good and certainly more magical than any summer-sun vista. Do be aware, if you are travelling in winter, onward journeys by road can be impacted by winter weather conditions requiring patience and driving experience.
Autumn generally falls from March to May and late warm summer days can often extend well into April. In autumn, New Zealand enjoys some of the most settled weather of the whole year. Soak up long, sunny days and golden leaves with hiking, cycling or TranzAlpine train trips.
Spring occurs from September to November and can be the wettest time of year on the West Coast but in Canterbury, the delights of spring will be bursting into life with bright blossoms, colourful bulbs and snow will cover the distant mountain tops. Waterfalls along the train route will burst into life with spring snow-melt. It can be an inspiring time to visit.
TranzAlpine Daylight Hours
Daylight savings is the one other consideration that you should take into mind when travelling on any of NZs great rail trips including the Tranzalpine. Your morning departure from Christchurch after 8am will always be in daylight hours regardless of the time of year. That said, it may mean during winter you will be leaving your Christchurch accommodation in darkness and arriving at Christchurch station at the break of dawn. The upside of this is enjoying beautiful morning colours across a quiet and peaceful city with birdsong ringing out across Hagley Park.
When travelling on the Greymouth to Christchurch train in the winter months, do be aware that darkness will fall possibly as early as 90 minutes before your journeys end. That needn’t finish your adventure early though. Your carriage seat will keep you nice and warm and a few trips back and forth to the outdoor viewing car will add a rush of fresh-air exhilaration as you make out the silhouettes of the mountain terrain, follow the highway street lights, or gaze forward at the yellow arc of light beaming from the front of the engine as it navigates its way home.
Which Direction to Travel on the TranzAlpine Train?
As a travel company that is passionate about adventurous journeys by rail, the team at LOCO Journeys all agree that the obvious answer is to ensure you travel the TranzAlpine in both directions! A Tranzalpine return trip from Christchurch to Greymouth and then Greymouth to Christchurch is a fully immersive New Zealand rail experience. A scenic and sensory overload of magnificent proportions. How else can you fully absorb the landscapes of the most scenically beautiful railway journey in New Zealand?
That said, there is of course an absolute respect that some travellers are short on time or have combined the TranzAlpine as part of a wider New Zealand travelling itinerary. As long as the TranzAlpine is included in at least one direction, that is better than not experiencing the TranzAlpine at all.
LOCO’s best suggestion is that if you are only travelling the TranzAlpine train one way, the morning trans alpine journey from Christchurch on the Greymouth train is our preference. It can be an early start, but the departure from Christchurch station travelling west offers the best of the day, excellent light for photography, and enables you to arrive into Greymouth for a late lunch and the chance for onward travel.
From Greymouth station, once you have refuelled with a local coffee or similar sustenance (read our TranzAlpine Train Food article here), having collected your car hire conveniently situated at the Greymouth railway station, or jumped on the connecting InterCity coach to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, you can easily journey north or south to more distant destinations within the same day.
Heading north along the stunning coastal road will take you firstly to Punakaiki where you can stay at bush-clad, seaview accommodation and view the fantastic Punakaiki blowholes. Travel further north and by late afternoon you will arrive in Westport. Here in the West Coast’s second largest town, you can access onward adventures which will take you to fantastic destinations such as the remote Karema settlement, the Old Ghost Road cycle and hiking trail, and Cape Foulwind walkway. Or perhaps just take time to soak up the coal mining history and heritage of the Buller region.
If you were to head south from Greymouth after completing your Tranzalpine trip, a short 45 minute car journey will take you to Hokitika, known locally as New Zealand’s Coolest Little Town. This beachfront settlement is well known for its Pounamu /Greenstone galleries and workshops, a strong arts and crafts movement, and it is the gateway to some beautiful country which you can explore such as Lake Kanarie and also offers amazing sunsets. Hokitika was the setting for Elinor Catton’s celebrated award winning book The Luminaries – worth a read before you arrive.
Beyond Hokitika, but still within reach on the same day’s journey, you can travel for a couple of hours through rural West Coast countryside before arriving in Glacier Country, famous for the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. In good weather, helicopters will transport you to the top of the glaciers where you can marvel at these moving ice sheets. There are plenty of other reasons to stop in this region including bush-walks, hot-pools and kayaks.
The great thing about whether you travel north or south from Greymouth upon the conclusion of your Tranzalpine train journey means your onward itinerary will invariably allow you to complete a clockwise or anti-clockwise circuit back to your starting point in Christchurch, having experienced and enjoyed many more of New Zealand’s natural wonders along the way. We have a range of New Zealand itinerary ideas to suit most budgets and time through South Island New Zealand tour routes.
Please do note that the TranzAlpine train only travels from Christchurch to Greymouth. To travel to Queenstown is a very enjoyable journey by rail and road across a minimum of two days.
If you are travelling on the TranzAlpine from Greymouth to Christchurch, well, it’s simply the same journey in reverse but for most, it might be the final leg of a longer itinerary. You’ve no doubt already had your fill of the natural wonders of New Zealand and the TranzAlpine oneway from Greymouth to Christchurch is your last truly significant Kiwi experience. Sit back and relax while reflecting on a wonderful journey as you are transported through the Southern Alps to Christchurch and your onward journey home.
How much does the TranzAlpine Train Cost?
The days of one fixed price for your tranzalpine journey have passed as the TranzAlpine operator Kiwirail has smartly hooked into airline’s template of dynamic pricing meaning the tranzalpine ticket cost can vary,
To explain, all seats start at a lead-in price but as inventory reduces, so the price increases. Popular travel dates and travel directions such as Christchurch to Greymouth will often command both a higher starting and finishing price. TranzAlpine deals can often be found when you book outside popular dates but LOCO Journeys best recommendation is to book early to get the best price and avoid disappointment.
TranzAlpine Cost – Adult
From $189.00 – $219.00
TranzAlpine Cost – Child
From $132.00 – $153.000
Prices shown are one way TranzAlpine fares, are listed in New Zealand dollars, are dependent on availability and are subject to change. Trans Alpine train cost can vary depending on direction of travel. Full TranzAlpine terms and conditions of carriage will be advised upon booking.
During the dark days of COVID when Kiwirail were gallantly trying to keep the TranzAlpine train alive and operating, there was a time where you could buy a ticket for as little as $89 one way from Christchurch to Greymouth or Greymouth to Christchurch. Now that was an amazing tranzalpine deal the likes of which we will probably never see again.
Multi-person discounts, school holiday reductions for children’s tickets, or maybe a Tranzalpine Grabone do still eventuate from time to time to stimulate seat sales, but as New Zealand has returned to a level of normality and international tourists have returned post COVID, so the seat prices have naturally risen back to pre-pandemic levels. And perhaps this is no surprise. It’s not cheap to run a scenic train through the mountains, keep everyone warm, safe, well refreshed and pay the fuel bill for a couple of rather huge diesel engines.
Some people might suggest that for a oneway tranzalpine train trip $219 is fairly pricey, but those perspectives are only levelled by the bargain hunters who don’t fully appreciate the all-encompassing experience that awaits. Those that have been on the journey never moan about the transalpine ticket price – it’s worth every cent.
Booking your TranzAlpine Train
LOCO Journeys’ wants to make booking your TranzAlpine holiday as easy as possible. Our team specialises in longer, multi-day travel itineraries and transalpine packages which are anchored by your train journey, so securing the most important leg of your holiday first is critically important to making the rest of your itinerary work.
With our expert local knowledge, we can offer lots of hints and tips even at the planning stage of your travel itinerary. In order to book early, we also recommend getting in touch early.
Loco Journeys is an authorised agent for Tranz Alpine ticket sales and we are part of the New Zealand Travel Brokers agent network a respected independent travel organisation underpinned by Travel Agent Association of New Zealand membership, including IATA accreditation which allows LOCO to quote and book flights on your behalf if required.
By contacting us we can guide you through the planning and booking phase of your experience and offer peace of mind that your journey has been built by a professional who listens to your input.
Our response time is highly rated and we’re happy to answer all your questions. Our smooth and personalised tranzalpine train booking process will deliver you the journey of a lifetime you are hoping for.
Once you have booked your trans alpine train NZ trip through Loco Journeys, whether that is a single or multi-day itinerary, LOCO Journeys will provide you by email the necessary travel documentation plus an in-depth travel itinerary detailing all your transport and accommodation details including an overview and highlights of each day’s travel.
TranzAlpine Train Tickets
In the age before the digital revolution, train tickets were made to the Emundson ticket standard, a railway innovation which was introduced in 1842. A small piece of card bearing a serial number was stamped at your departing station with a date and the route or destination. Not only did they fit perfectly into a waistcoat or small jean pocket to ensure they weren’t lost en-route, but they would make enjoyable souvenirs from your great rail journey. Post-trip, you could gaze back on your ticket collection with absolute clarity as to where you travelled and on what date, many signatured by numerous notches the guard had applied with his ticket punch.
For context, the Waitangi Treaty, modern New Zealand’s founding document was signed in 1840, just two years earlier than the introduction of the Edmundson invented preprinted train ticket. It was to be another eighty years later before the Midland Railway Line that carries the famous TranzAlpine train across the South Island was completed for service. Since that time, countless TranzAlpine journeys have been completed and no doubt millions of tickets printed.
Today, the internet age has somewhat dulled the souvenir by-product of train tickets, but they remain the most important document on your day travelling the trans Alpine train. But you need to get them first!
Prior to your travel day, you will have been provided a branded Kiwirail Great Journeys of New Zealand (the TranzAlpine train operator) booking confirmation document, most likely by email or some kind of dedicated voucher. Your booking confirmation will state your booking reference, the date of travel, the name of the passengers, departure time, the name of the train (TranzAlpine in this case) and direction of travel, an obligatory barcode, the address of the station and further critical check-in information.
The important detail here is arriving at the station at least 30 minutes prior and undertaking your check-in as this is where you will swap your confirmation for your real (paper) travel tickets. Your trans alpine tickets will confirm your journey and also reveal what carriage (denoted by a letter) and seat you have been assigned. Keep them safe as the tranzalpine train guard will check them during your journey.
If you break your journey at any stage along its route, when you re-board your train, new travel tickets with new allocated seat numbers will be provided to you by the trains guard.
Booking TranzAlpine Seats
As you would expect from a world-class rail experience, when booking your tranzalpine journey your seats are pre-assigned. Thankfully this avoids the free-for-all, sit where you like shenanigans when you board your train carriage. Relax and fully enjoy the moment of arriving at Christchurch Station without the fear of getting stuck in a seat apart from your travelling companions.
In booking your journey, while a seating request can be made there is no option to reserve specific seats, but the TranzAlpine train operator Kiwirail is very good at assigning seats to ensure you travel with your friends and family. If you book early enough, groups of four will in all likelihood be placed around a table, but only if availability allows.
Some seats face forward, some face backwards and as noted, others are set around a table for four, all within easy scenic viewing of huge panoramic windows. If you travel in both directions from Christchurch to Greymouth and then Greymouth to Christchurch and you are allocated seats facing backward, you should enjoy forward facing seats on the return leg.
If you have decided to break your journey and depart the train at one of the different stopover points such as Moana for Lake Brunner or Arthur’s Pass, be aware that when you re-board the train you won’t necessarily be assigned the same seats in the same carriage. You will be given new tickets from the train guard as you rejoin the train for your onward journey.
The last thing to note about your seats is that you are not wed to them for the entire journey. You do have the option to wander the train, take a trip to the well-stocked onboard cafe, the toilet and also visit the outdoor viewing carriage.
TranzAlpine Accessible Travel
For those needing assistance or are travelling with a wheelchair, power-chair or mobility scooter, it is critically important to make this known at the time of booking. Dedicated space is available in the Scenic Class cafe carriage along with seats assigned for companions for those unable to use standard seats. There are two spaces for those travelling in a wheelchair in the cafe carriage which also includes an accessible toilet and a chair lift. If you do have some level of mobility a standard seat will be assigned and your chair stored close by.
Assistance dogs are welcome if you are visually impaired and the train staff are trained to offer you help and assistance during your journey. Your assistance dog does need to be accredited and will be required to stay on its lead next to your seat.
If you are hearing impaired, all of New Zealand’s scenic trains are fitted with a hearing loop which amplifies any public announcements. Users will be familiar with the ‘T’ setting on their hearing aid.
TranzAlpine Luggage Allowance
The TranzAlpine luggage allowance is one large bag/suitcase per person, no heavier than 23kgs and one carry on bag. The large item will be placed in the dedicated luggage van and available at the end of your journey. You can also purchase an allowance for one extra large bag if required.
TranzAlpine Train Timetable
We always start by saying timetables are subject to change! Thankfully, most of the time, the trans alpine timetable delivers you on time.
TranzAlpine Train Days of Travel
During the peak tourism season, the TranzAlpine train schedule operates seven days a week. Outside of peak travel times, and during winter the Tranzalpine operates return journeys from Christchurch to Greymouth on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Please contact the LOCO team to check if the Tranzlpine is operating on the days you wish to travel.
TranzAlpine Departure & Arrival Time
There is one departure each way on operating days. The TranzAlpine departs Christchurch at 08.15 arriving into Greymouth at 13.05. The return journey to Christchurch departs Greymouth at 14.05 arriving in Christchurch at 19.00. You must be at the station at least 30 minutes prior to departure when you can collect your tranzAlpine journey ticket and drop off any heavy baggage. These timing are subject to change so please use them as a guide only.
Arrival and Departure Times for your Christchurch to Greymouth Tranzalpine Journey
Christchurch to Greymouth train
Christchurch – Departs at 8.15 in the morning.
Rolleston – Arrives at 8.35, Departs 8.35
Darfield – Arrives at 8.55, Departs 8.55
Springfield – Arrives at 9.20, Departs 9.20
Arthur’s Pass – Arrives at 10.40, Departs 10.40
Moana (Lake Brunner) – Arrives at 12.05, Departs 12.05
Greymouth – Arrives at 13.05
Arrival and Departure Times for your Greymouth to Christchurch Tranzalpine Journey
Greymouth to Christchurch train
Greymouth – Departs 14.05 in the afternoon
Moana (Lake Brunner) – Arrives at 15.05, Departs 15.05
Arthur’s Pass – Arrives at 16.20, Departs 16.30
Springfield – Arrives at 17.45, Departs 17.45
Darfield – Arrives at 18.10, Departs 18.10
Rolleston – Arrives 18.35, Departs 18.35
Christchurch – Arrives at 19.00
Important Tranzalpine Timetable notes
Tranzalpine timetables are subject to change at short notice.
Heat restrictions may be implemented on the tracks during summer resulting in possible delays to services.
The train may depart intermediate stations earlier if all booked passengers are on board.
The train may not stop at intermediate stations if there is no requirement to.
The service doesn’t operate on Christmas Day.
TranzAlpine Travel Time
The total journey time aboard your one way train through Arthur’s Pass is 4 hours and 50 minutes. Adding the 30 minutes to ensure you are checked in on time and giving yourself 10 minutes at the end of your journey to alight from the train, gather your baggage and exit the station, the Tranz alpine experience is five-and-a-half hour journey, one-way or 11 hour rail extravaganza on a day return.
TranzAlpine Terminus Stations – Getting there and away.
Getting to and from Christchurch Train Station
If you are heading toward Greymouth on the TranzAlpine from Christchurch station, you will have an early start. We always enjoy this time of the morning particularly in cities where a quiet stillness contrasts so vividly with the normal noise and energy of daily life.
A city central Christchurch hotel is LOCO Journeys best recommendation in that you have everything you need within walking distance including restaurants, shopping and a variety of attractions such as the historic tram, the botanic gardens, the River Avon and Hagley Park. Ensure you have time to enjoy a good breakfast before you leave for Addington, a short 10 minute drive away where the TranzAlpine will be patiently waiting for you at Christchurch station.
The key thing here is to make sure you have a taxi or transfer van booked and ready to take you there. Hoping to find a taxi in the early hours of the morning can be something of a lottery, and so we strongly recommend pre-booking your station transfer. LOCO Journeys can do this for you on your request at the time of booking.
The same policy is advised for your return arrival into Christchurch station mid-evening. The throng of people leaving the train will all be competing for a means to transfer to their accommodation. If you haven’t booked a taxi to take you there, you could be waiting for some time. Enjoy the peace of mind that everything is taken care of and let LOCO add transfers to your booking.
Getting to and from Greymouth Train Station
Making your way to Greymouth tranzalpine train station for check-in for your afternoon journey is a fairly straightforward task. If you are staying for the night in the town, remember you will in all likelihood have to be checked out of your accommodation by 10am, so there’s a few hours to fill before the Tranzalpine train departs just after 2pm. Either request that your accommodation holds your luggage or you can alternatively leave it at the station storage area until you wish to check-in for your TranzAlpine train.
Taxis are relatively easy to come by in Greymouth and some accommodation businesses operate a shuttle. If you do have some time on your hands either on the morning of, or the day prior to your Tranzalpine departure, there are a few great attractions to experience including: Monteiths Brewing Company tours, Brunner Mine Site Walk, walk the Greymouth breakwater, visit the Greymouth museum or visit the popular Shantytown heritage park.
When arriving into Greymouth by train and needing to get to your accommodation, depending on distance, walking, taxis and shuttles will be available for you to use. And don’t worry, it’s a positive reflection of good old-fashioned West Coast hospitality that no one gets left behind.
The TranzAlpine Train – Your Onboard Experience
TranzAlpine Scenic Class Carriages
Within the warm climate controlled carriages, no one can miss out on the views with incredibly large panoramic windows that align perfectly with the seats. The windows are kept clean and are perfect to soak up the Southern Alps scenery from the comfort of your carriage seat. Your scenic views are augmented by skylights set within the roof line which then gives way to warm wood-effect ceiling panelling which adds a touch of class befitting the best scenic train New Zealand offers. While there is plenty of natural light, tasteful strip-lights and down-lighting adds to the ambience.
The carriage seating are known as ‘airline seats’, plastic molded with a comfy cushioned fabric and those not set around a table offer a fold-down tray on which to position a hot drink, food or similar. For the modern traveller, the great news is that many of the seats have access to USB charging points, handy for when you need to boost the battery on your phone or camera. Please do note the carriages and entire alpine train are smoke free environments.
When you arrive at your seat, not only will a safety card and a complimentary headset be waiting for you, there will also be a menu card waiting for your attention in the seat pocket or on the table illustrating the large selection of food and souvenir products you can purchase at the onboard train cafe.
Each carriage comes equipped with handy baggage storage areas. You will be asked to drop your suitcases or large bags in the luggage van which is positioned either at the rear or front of the train where they will be held securely for the duration of your train journey. Day bags can be placed behind seats and lighter carriage luggage can be placed above your heads. Hand grab points are readily supplied along the length of the walkway and curtains are available to shade the sun. Do be mindful that if you use the curtain, you could be curtailing one of your fellow passengers’ views. There can be nothing more annoying than your dream journey being spoiled by a pulled curtain obscuring the views that really make this trip!
At the end of each carriage, modern glass sliding doors do a great job at keeping the warmth inside the seating area. Once through the doors you will pass into the carriage lobby that offers access to the exterior carriage doors, the gangway to the next carriage and the carriage toilet.
Railway train toilets are sometimes treated with trepidation by travellers with haunting experiences of flushing the toilet only to see the track rushing past beneath them. Thankfully, the TranzAlpine train toilets are modern, clean, self-contained units accessed by a rather swanky folding door. Once inside you might think you’re travelling on an airplane.
TranzAlpine Audio Commentary
Another enjoyable feature of your train journey is the opportunity for you to take advantage of a virtual tour guide via the thoughtful inclusion of an audio commentary system which is available in English and Mandarin.
Each seat comes supplied with single-use headphones that plug into a small console by your seat allowing you to enjoy the insightful commentary which intermittently activates along the length of your Christchurch to Greymouth journey. If you’d prefer to use your own headphones, ensure you have a mini-jack connector. You will get to learn about points of interest, flora and fauna, local legends and fascinating local stories. If you look at the carriage ceiling, small TV monitors keep track of the progress of your journey on a map and a distinct ‘bing’ noise will confirm when there is new commentary to hear. Travellers with hearing aids can use the ‘T’ switch on their devices for better reception.
TranzAlpine Open-Air Viewing Carriage
Each of the Great Journeys of New Zealand trains including the TranzAlpine feature a unique outdoor viewing carriage. They are an absolute scenic sensation ideal for catching every glimpse of the Southern Alps as you pass through the mountain corridor. Situated at the end of the train, these indoor/outdoor carriages in a previous life served as guards wagons, but are now modified to elevate your TranzAlpine experience to absolutely exceptional. All interior fittings have been removed, side panels cut out and safety barriers installed.
The open-air viewing carriages are great for photos and good fun for kids and adults alike, allowing you to safely feel the cool Southern Alps wind rush past your ears. These carriages certainly make you and your journey come alive! Pay a visit to this carriage when a photo opportunity presents or when you’re feeling a little sleepy and you’ll return to your warm, comfortable carriage seat feeling better for it.
There are a few stretches of the journey when this carriage can get a little busy, particularly the section as you traverse high above the Waimakariri River travelling in and out of the numerous tunnels. It’s really quite a thrill being carried safely in an open air-carriage through a tunnel as the light, noise and pressure changes. It’s sensory overload – and then boom, an explosion of daylight and you’re back being greeted by yet another amazing view. It’s a truly immersive experience. Do note for your safety, the open-air viewing carriage is closed during your passage through the Otira tunnel and you are required to remain seated for the duration.
For any long distance journey, food along with accompanying hot and cold drinks become an important feature of your day. Train food generally has a bad reputation but that couldn’t be further from the truth on the TranzAlpine. The TranZalpine cafe is brilliant! It is as if they have taken your favourite high street coffee shop or bistro even, and placed it in the middle of the train. For most, a cafe means coffee and New Zealanders’ penchant for a decent coffee must always be fully sated, so let’s start there.
If you are an early morning coffee person, you will need to get to the cafe early as a long queue develops and the onboard barista is kept busy, certainly for the first two hours of the journey. Now this isn’t any ordinary filter coffee you will be waiting for, but as is standard in all good New Zealand coffee shops, fresh coffee beans are ground to a fine powder, packed and near boiling water is infused through the coffee via a large European espresso machine delivering that perfect shot. There is the complete range of accompanying milk to meet your dietary needs, delightfully poured to the brim where the milk is finished to resemble a native New Zealand fern. Not bad, not bad at all for a cafe on wheels, and that’s just the beginning.
To accompany your morning coffee or tea or hot chocolate, is a cafe style array of cabinet food including scones, muffins and slices all suited to whether you have a savory or sweet preference. The chiller contains a huge array of choices from packaged sandwiches, toasties, salads and other light lunch style snacks. It may be you just want a packet of chips (crisps) or a chocolate bar or an ice cream.
But wait, there’s more!
On such a long journey, there comes a point for some whereby your stomach is demanding a full meal, whether it is an early lunch or early dinner. When you open the menu and view items such as Vege Lasagne or Sausages & Mash, or perhaps you see a fellow passenger being served a Lamb Shank at their seat, it really is very difficult not to be tempted. The hot and cold food choice onboard the Tranzapline is a world class feast. The cafe car is also fully licensed so if you are celebrating that special occasion or simply want to kick back and enjoy your afternoon with a couple of locally sourced wines, beers or ciders, it is all possible.
Souvenirs are also available in the Tranzalpine scenic cafe car whether that is a postcard, fridge magnet, key-ring to remember your special day aboard one of the great journeys of New Zealand.
One thing you can be certain of is a constant stream of passengers heading back and forth looking for their next nibble.
TranzAlpine Station Stops
If you’re set on riding the train through Arthur’s Pass, here’s a rundown of the places it will stop.
As with many large cities, they expand overtime and eventually consume localities which were once distinct towns in their own right. This is the case with Rolleston. Now a popular residential suburb of Christchurch, Rolleston was founded as a railway terminus in the 1860s for broad gauge trains coming from Christchurch 20km away, then known as the Canterbury Great Southern Railway. Rolleston is a great option for those who are travelling on the TranzAlpine but would prefer to stay outside the city centre. While the modest station offers little in the way of facilities, the car park offers direct access to the train and if you are undertaking a return journey, you’ll save time at the beginning and end of your day.
The main town between Christchurch and the West Coast, Darfield acts as a service centre for the surrounding districts. While not a destination of any great distinction, the area is well known for a natural cloud phenomenon and weather pattern called The Nor’west arch shown in an arc of high white cloud in an otherwise clear blue sky over the Southern Alps. Keep your eyes out for it as you pass through on the train.
The Canterbury town of Darfield is renowned as the launching point for Ballooning Canterbury and the TranzAlpine operates a request stop here enabling you to enjoy not one but two experiences of a lifetime. In your hot air balloon ride you will escape to a world of peace and tranquillity as you enjoy panoramic views across the Canterbury Plains from the Southern Alps to the Pacific ocean. Combine two epic experiences around one journey.
What comes to mind when you mention the town of Springfield? “The Simpsons” Modern TV culture is all pervading and so, somewhat predictably, Springfield now has a rather large pink doughnut placed quite strategically on the main road through this tiny town. Who could really mind this jab of fun at the town’s cartoon alter ego, particularly if it gets more people to stop and enjoy hinterland New Zealand. Plenty of other New Zealand towns follow a similar strategy of self-promotion; a big carrot in Ohakune, large Kiwi’s in Otorohanga, a collection of giant fruit in Cromwell.
Unfortunately or fortunately, the famous Springfield doughnut is not visible from the TranzAlpine train when you travel through the town and despite a pause at the station to pick up or drop off passengers, this won’t be long enough to get ‘that’ photo. If the train does stop, the other iconic Springfield photo passengers do try and capture is of the Tranzalpine train staring down the rather prominent Torlesse Range of mountains blanketing all immediate views ahead, standing sentry to the Southern Alps beyond. From here the TranzAlpine transitions from the Canterbury Plains and begins its climb as it hugs the course of the Waimakariri River. Who needs doughnuts!!!
Arthur’s Pass National Park is one of the most beautiful mountainous regions in New Zealand. Set in the heart of the Southern Alps, when the Midland Railway was completed in the mid 1920s Arthur’s Pass very quickly became a popular destination for day-trippers from Christchurch and for people wanting to explore their country. People would board the famous picnic train awaiting an experience of finding something new. Captivated by the beauty and difference of the sub-alpine flowers and shrubs, many visitors started to take collections of native flowers and blooms home as souvenirs. As a result, there was a large push to establish national park status for the area with the establishment of Arthur’s Pass National Park being created in 1929.
Today Arthur’s Pass is still a very popular destination. Known for its dense bush, snow capped mountains, waterfalls, native flowers and birdlife, there is something for everyone to do here. You can take a gentle rope-led walk where one is encouraged to walk with your eyes closed as to take in your surroundings using your other senses, take in the views of the majestic waterfalls, or go on a great hike up high into the mountains above the clouds with amazing views looking back down through the valleys.
Moana (Lake Brunner)
Lake Brunner, the largest lake in the northwestern South Island of New Zealand covering an area of 40 km² sits quietly, waiting for your arrival. It can almost feel eerie on a cold misty morning but seeing it at that moment is like discovering the lake for the first time. It is a special spot, a deep and generous glacier formed lake that holds a place in the hearts of many West Coasters. This is the place young Coasters go to learn to fish, kayak and water-ski. Though the small laid-back village on which the lake nestles is called Moana, which means Ocean, the local name for the lake was Kotuku Moana, meaning “sea of herons” or Kotuku Whakaoho.
It is a popular lake that can offer an array of water sports including jet boating, yachting, paddle boarding, wake surfing, and swimming and attracts pleasure seekers throughout the year but naturally, the summer months are most popular. Walking, jogging or cycling the lakeside tracks are also common. One of its most famous attractions is its fantastic abundance of fish which makes it an enjoyable place to come and catch trout. There are limits on the number of trout, rainbow trout and salmon which can be taken but fishermen are rarely disappointed by their size.
The tranquility of sitting lakeside and taking in the peace the lake offers to kayaking along the shores with the most beautiful mountain views, Lake Brunner is a majestic place to come and enjoy. With the TranzAlpine stopping right on the shores there is no better way to get there. The train provides an excellent option to stay for several days before rejoining again to continue your rail trip.
Destination Greymouth, the journey’s end. Arriving by train to your destination is a truly enjoyable event. You’re still in the midst of your trip but you’re aware a significant chapter of your journey is closing. As you gather your thoughts, you gaze out of the large panoramic windows trying to capture the moment. Faces on the platform look back at you as they search for loved ones. And then stop. You’ve arrived, but you’re still not quite ready to leave the train experience behind. In an instant you’ve gathered your belongings and disembark, smiling, ready to step into the next phase of your adventure.
Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast and a gateway to some of the most marvelous experiences. Have fun!
Your TranzAlpine Journey
Your TranzAlpine journey awaits, here we outline what you can expect as your cross from coast to coast along this famous 4 1/2 hour, 223 kilometre (139) journey.
Christchurch, Canterbury Plains, Springfield
Your departure time is announced by a gentle movement and distant roar as your twin diesel locomotives power into life. As you navigate the exclusive train-only corridor from Christchurch station in Addington, through the suburban semi-industrial outskirts of Christchurch and a short pause at Rolleston, your view quickly give way to the famous Canterbury Plains.
Renown as the breadbasket of New Zealand, the attractive patchwork quilt of low-lying, fertile, agricultural land bordered by braided rivers stretching from the Pacific Coast to the foothills of the Southern Alps, is a joy to behold from the air.
The view from ground zero is impressive too. Views stretch deep into the distance along a spider web-like network of back-country roads, traversing the countryside where ancient forests once stood. And there too, crossing the plains runs the thin continuous carriageway of the Midland Line upon which you now traverse. The Canterbury Plains are a vast continuous landscape and the sense of being completely immersed in your surroundings as you watch from the large panoramic train windows is hard to escape.
The ever changing farmland, fence lines, countless crops, livestock, and small rural settlements, seen through the special light that bookmarks the beginning or end of your day can be truly mesmerizing. Sit back and enjoy your journey through the Canterbury Plains.
This is a special time in the journey, as you settle into your day, get to know your fellow passengers, buy a coffee or take some photos with the fresh morning light of the day. Far in the distance, mountains stand, beckoning the train to come closer and you are aware that like some Hobbit adventure, entering these mountains is the destiny of your journey. An hour of easy running, has already passed as you glide through Springfield station and from there, your journey’s climb begins in earnest.
Waimakariri River Gorge, Viaducts, Tunnels
Ahead of you stands the Torlesse mountain range and it is through this seemingly impenetrable barrier that the train will follow a path that delivers it onto the high plateau. The easiest way for the engineers to cut through the mountains was to follow the course of the Waimakariri and Broken Rivers. No easy feat and as you will experience as the train begins to climb above the Canterbury Plains at Kowai Bush, at times it feels like the train is just about clinging to the mountain side. For about 30 minutes after you leave Springfield, the track dives in and out of 15 tunnels and across four notable viaducts as it matches the winding and twisting Waimakariri River gorge. Each tunnel exit offers a different view of the river, beginning with braided horseshoe bends trailing into the distance, changing into a deep ravine of blue water far below.
The Waimakariri River and the Midland Line railway are inextricably linked, the river’s path necessitating multiple rail crossings which offer picture postcard views of TranzAlpine journeys you must enjoy. As the train crosses the bridges above, passengers wonder at the shallow blue hues of water while below, the river’s continuous flow supplies a habitat for wildlife, the life-source of irrigation and enjoyment for recreational fishing and boating. From its snow-melt source close to Arthur’s Pass high up in the Southern Alps, the Waimakariri River cuts a dramatic tail through the heart of the Te Waipounamu , twisting and turning like an elusive fish, dancing in the light for over 150 kms before reaching a peaceful convergence with the Pacific Ocean.
One of five viaducts on the 223km Midland Line, the Staircase Viaduct is held as an adventurous treat for every TranzAlpine passenger crossing the Staircase Gully and Otarama Stream. Opened in 1906, the viaduct is not only the highest structure on the line but being sandwiched between two tunnels only a few hundred metres apart, means the journey across the small stream below becomes a treasured vignette of the train journey into the Southern Alps. Considered one of the most spectacular viaducts on the line, its height is 75 metres above the Staircase Gully from which it takes its name.
The approach to and experience of crossing the viaduct is a sensory delight. Without time to draw breath and gather your perspective, daylight is thrust upon you as you exit tunnel #6 before rolling across the viaduct, plunging immediately into tunnel #7 on the western side before reemerging further upstream, high above the banks of the Waimakariri River. The disorientation of darkness then light, the distinctive change of the train’s rhythm, the sense of exposure and the draw of the blue waters of the adjacent Waimakariri River gets the adrenaline flowing.
The trepidation TranzAlpine travellers may feel as solid earth gives way to the distinctive red steel girders and barriers is dissipated all too quickly as the darkness of the next tunnel once again cloaks the train. As with many viaducts, some argue that the experience of crossing is more spectacular from afar, but this perspective denies the sense of a tremendous onboard experience.
High-Country Landscapes, Small Settlements, Mountains
Your journey through wide high country landscapes of Craigieburn continues to amaze and this is one of the most scenically impressive stretches of your journey. Take a trip to the open-air viewing carriage to soak it all in. The tight twists and turns have now given way to impressive vistas where you are surrounded by gently rounded mountain peaks, each competing to offer you that perfect Instagram picture. If they still have snow on top, then even better! In the distance, to the east is Mount Binser standing at over 1,800 metres. Sugar Loaf looms closer at 1,400 metres as the train passes between Lake Grassmere and the smaller Lake Sarah to the east, both popular trout fishing destinations. Further in the distance the mountain peaks of Arthur’s Pass National Park dominate the horizon.
The small village of Cass passes by in a blink of an eye, but it is worthy of comment here because this small settlement is so representative of many of the small settlements through which you are travelling. In 1911 and before the Midland Line line was completed, Cass was the temporary terminus of the railway and hosted a large population of railway workers. It is the painting of Cass by Rita Angus from 1936 that has really delivered Cass its fame as it so elegantly captures the colours, mood and of high country living.
Once again the train line meets the Waimakariri, this time the wide braided, high altitude version and the scenery does not stop giving. In every direction there are mountain peaks beckoning your gaze, and just glorious views. Crossing the river once again is one of Tranzalpine’s most photographed points and it’s not difficult to see why. The natural theatre of mountains rising in the distance set against the turquoise blue of the river water is the type of view you imagined when booking your Tranzalpine trip. Across the bridge the train climbs further still before a northward turn directs the train in between between the rugged ranges as you switch course to enter the Bealey Valley. Travelling alongside the Bealey River and State highway 73, this is the well-trodden path into Arthur’s Pass National Park and Arthur’s Pass village which lies a short distance ahead.
Arthur’s Pass National Park, Ancient Forests, Southern Alps
Your arrival into Arthur’s Pass, is a moment to celebrate. It’s your first opportunity to alight from the train for over two hours and here you are, right in the heart of the Southern Alps, surrounded by the mountains and alpine splendour you sought when you booked your Tranzalpine adventure.
Pause for a moment when you hear the name Arthur’s Pass and your mind may be taken to the legend of King Arthur, the mythological British figure who was the head of the kingdom Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s not inconceivable to imagine that the English pioneers who established Canterbury in the 1850s brought with them the idea to bequeath significant locations with familiar legendary names, relevant to their heritage.
Arthur’s Pass is in fact named after Londoner Arthur Dobson, a surveyor who discovered the mountain pass in 1864. Certainly the village’s original name of Camping Flat or Bealey Flats may never have conjured such a connection to folklore that the natural grandeur of the mountainous setting delivers. In many respects though, a stop here in Arthur’s Pass is the stuff of legends as the beauty of this mountain environment carries a gravitas in the context of New Zealand’s glorious Southern Alps mountain range.
A relatively small parcel of flat land adjacent to the Bealey River, set at over 700 metres above sea level, Arthur’s Pass township offers a staging post for the railway station, tea rooms, general stores and accommodation. Nestled in the heart of Arthur’s Pass National Park, the alpine village is primarily used as a starting point for onward adventures into the surrounding mountains. There are scenic delights to be found here for all abilities from a leisurely walk to Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall, or a significant hike to Avalanche Peak, If you are not alighting for some of the local mountain tramping or wilderness discovery, take a short moment to consider the Arthurs Pass station building.
Standing tall, like an elegant and slender sentry against the natural elements mother nature may send to test its integrity, the distinctive A-frame Arthur’s Pass station building acts as a homely landmark for all that pass through on their alpine adventure. Wind, rain and snow, or scorching alpine summer heat may descend on the steel clad roof, but this bastion of Modern architecture continues in silence blending in with its environment, serving its purpose as a shelter for passengers on their TranzAlpine journey. Built in 1966, the station building is somewhat of a celebrity being the highest passenger station in New Zealand at 737 metres above sea level.
Within moments of departing Arthur’s Pass station, the train crosses the Bealey River and immediately you enter the famous Otira tunnel. The sound changes and the dark cloak that has been thrown over the train can become monotonous – so take a moment to consider the engineering feat that you are passing through.
Otira Tunnel, Stagecoach Hotels, River Valleys
The Otira tunnel at almost 8.5 kilometres in length when opened was one of the longest railway tunnels in the world and was considered a contemporary engineering masterpiece. Its builders had to cope with blizzards and rockfalls to push a path under the Southern Alps. The tunnel was drilled from both ends and when the two headings met in 1918, the alignment was accurate to within 3 centimetres. Connecting the South Island’s Midland Line from east to west was a great achievement for New Zealand and in so doing, it laid claim to being the seventh longest tunnel in the world and the longest in the British Empire. The opening of the trans-alpine tunnel on 4 August 1923 was thus the cause for great celebrations and judging by the publicity at the time, it was a landmark moment in New Zealand’s modern 20th Century history. Although your senses are dulled, being devoid of reference points, the gradient to Otira of 1 in 33, or a fall of 278 metres is quite a significant drop for a railway.
The 15 minutes of your tunnel journey where you are politely asked to remain in your seat is a good chance to recharge your battery and refresh as you settle in for the next part of your TranzAlpine rail journey to the West Coast. Far above you, you are passing underneath the Main Divide, the name for the mighty range of Southern Alps which form the backbone of Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island of New Zealand.
Not that it is particularly noticeable from the train, but the western portal of the Otira tunnel through which you will soon pass is a somewhat unique piece of engineering in its own right. Owing to the length of the tunnel and the diesel fumes expelled by the team of engines that haul your train up the incline when travelling east up to Arthur’s Pass, once a train has enter the tunnel, a huge door closes at the western end and giant extractor fans commence a 20 minute purge of the tunnel interior.
No sooner have your eyes adjusted to the daylight and the brighter lush green flora and fauna of the much reduced altitude and higher average rainfall, the train arrives into the railway settlement of Otira, ostensibly the gateway to the West Coast from Canterbury.
Wikipedia suggests the name Otira derives from a combination of Maroi words “o” (place of) and “tira” (the travellers). Another meaning is suggested as “Oti” (finished) and “ra” (Sun), because the Otira Gorge is often in deep shadow. The railway arrived in Otira in 1899 completing an eastward push from Stillwater. It was another 24 years before the tunnel was completed but during this time, due to the manpower needed to build the tunnel, the town grew to a significant size, offering home to a thriving community of 600 railway workers and their families. The township reportedly has a permanent population of around 10 people today.
Otira Station is now sadly like some outer suburban railway junction that time has forgotten. You pause here for a few minutes to once again allow the tranzapline railway enginemen to play trains and remove the additional diesel locos that will assist powering the next train back through the tunnel from whence you came. While you wait, look for the row of Otira railway houses. Prefabricated in Hamilton, they were shipped by sea to the South Island and then overland to Otira to provide accommodation for the men and families working on the railway and building the tunnel.
Off in the mid-distance on the opposite side of the train you may be able to make out the green roof of the Otira Stagecoach Hotel. Large white capital letters spelling CAFE have recently been imprinted on the green iron roofing and make a somewhat incongruous sight. The hotel pre-dates the railway and was once an important stop in the Cobb & Co stagecoach route which the TranzAlpine railway eventually superseded. An overnight stay at the well-regarded Otira Hotel is an option some passengers choose to take. The eight bedrooms are perfectly appointed reflecting the building’s historic context, the hospitality is warm and it’s a unique stay. A recent review called the hotel ‘Qwerky, adventurous and fun are what best describes this old fashioned style accommodation’
Upon leaving Otira, you now have a clear downhill run ahead of you and the train noticeably picks up speed as it races your TranzAlpine journey alongside the expansive Otira River’s braided flow on the eastern side of the train, while gallantly chasing speeding cars squeezed into the small passageway of land perched slightly above the train line to the west on the neighbouring State Highway 73. At times you are so close to the road you feel you could reach and touch the cars. In truth, you’re having a much more enjoyable time as you are able to watch the scenery, rather than having your eyes glued to the monotonous yellow centre line of the twisting and turning Arthur’s Pass to Kumara Junction road.
This stretch of your journey once again impresses as how man’s mark on the landscape is only possible through engineering brilliance and the good grace of the natural elements. While the mountains cloaked in the verdant green forests frame your outlook, you become aware how the contrasting greys of rocks and rubble littering the Otira valley floor is completely determined by the course of the river which when in full flow, can act like a raging bull shifting thousands of tons of mountain debris – whether that be rock or trees. Sheep were once driven through this stoney passage to feed hungry gold-miners far away on the west coast. A 90 degree westward turn is enforced by the Otira River joining the even larger Taramakau River, another significantly braided waterway that originated deep in the Southern Alps.
Leaving State Highway 73 in your wake, you swing north for a brief moment to cross the Taramakau River in tandem with the Lake Brunner Road one-lane bridge, officially called The Stanley Goosman Bridge near another old staging post called Jacksons. Sir Goosman was a politician in successive postwar governments and had a reputation as the Minister of Works to favour investment in road over rail. Why this bridge is named after him is unknown to your author, but perhaps there is some irony that everyday, twice daily, passengers of New Zealand’s favourite train ride will take photos of the river crossing scene.
Scenic Farmland, Lake Brunner, Moana
The train climbs away from the river and through a wide arcing curve before entering beautiful valleys of arable farming. You pass Lake Poerua home to an abundant species of trout and eels. The Hidden Valley Lodge which is located overlooking the lake for those wanting a remote getaway describes how ‘birdlife teems around the lake edge with black swans, ducks, geese and alongside the more common grey cousin, the elusive rare Kōtuku (White Heron)’. Next is Inchbonnie station, nothing more than a weatherboard hut, once a flag-station halt where to stop the passing train, a flag was raised. Wikipedia tells us that the name “Inchbonnie” is a mixture of lowland Scottish, bonnie meaning “pretty” and Scottish Gaelic with innis meaning island, often anglicised as “Inch”.
Above the valley floor stands Mount Te Kinga, 1,204 metres high and renowned as a place of natural and untouched habitats. While the surrounding valley floors have been converted into productive dairy farming, Te Kinga reflects a time from before human habitation. If you are staying in Moana, you could take the option to hike to the lookout which offers beautifully expansive views of Lake Brunner, or the summit which delivers views of the Tasman Sea. The walk through the forest is impressive as you traverse through ancient podocarp trees, species changing with altitude to kaikawaka, neinei and massive southern rata, succeeded by pink pine as the vegetation thins before giving way to alpine plants. The mountain which stands in isolation to other nearby mountain ranges dictates the train’s onward journey. The line curves around its base, travels alongside the Brown River before crossing Crooked River, realigning with the Lake Brunner Road and cruising the last couple of kilometres circumnavigating the Lake Brunner’s edge before you arrive into Moana.
Where your first glimpse of Lake Brunner arrives only a short time before you arrive into Moana station at Molloy Bay, by the time the train draws to a halt in Moana’s character-filled railway station, the lake absolutely dominates every view. The signature red goods shed and matching red footbridge, the station’s garden-like setting nestled on the lake’s shore accompanied by the site of plentiful leisure activities such as boating, fishing and walking all tantalisingly within reach of your carriage seat, Moana almost sucks you into a different world. The team at LOCO guarantees that you will arrive here and exclaim ‘this looks like a nice place to stay’ and cast envious glances at those passengers alighting with their bags for a couple of nights at Lake Brunner Hotel or some similarly well appointed accommodation. First impressions do count and it is an amazing place to stay, so take the time to do so if you are yet to book.
Unfortunately you are not allowed to leave the train to soak in the lake view as it pauses ever-so-briefly to allow people to hop-off and on, so the most you can do is gaze lustfully across the the lakes hypnotic expanse to the distant mountains and make a mental note to return.
As you depart Moana station, the expansive peace and serenity of Lake Brunner framed by the distant mountains quickly gives way to a railway cutting that launches you into a new viewing experience, where lush podocarp vegetation embraces much of the train’s rail corridor. Original native forest, including banks of shrubs, ferns and trees occupy the west facing view beyond which you will regularly capture enticing glimpses of the Arnold River, which the railway follows for the duration of its winding 20 kilometre course through the Arnold Valley.
If you had spent time in Moana, you no doubt would have explored the start of the Arnold River, the outflow of Lake Brunner, and enjoyed crossing the 83 metre footbridge which acts as a marker to the river’s beginning. The swing bridge takes you to the start of the popular Rakaitane walk and if you pause on the bridge, not only will you enjoy the quiet reflections and panoramic views of the lake but it offers a great chance to see some of the abundant wildlife, including the white heron. The river was first traversed by European explorer Thomas Brunner in 1848, discovering the lake which now bears his name. The river is a haven for trout fishing and a special place throughout the year where the dense forest crowds into the waters edge without interruption. It’s a pleasure to enjoy the river’s company glinting and glistening in the sun’s early afternoon light as the TranzAlpaine train travels at pace northwest toward the coast.
Arnold Valley, Coal Mines, Grey River
Much of the Arnold Valley was cleared of its original forest in the pioneering years of European settlement, looking to tame the land providing pasture for grazing while at the same time delivering raw materials for building houses and industry. Impressive blocks of ancient West Coast vegetation that you will journey through do remain including rimu trees and some good sized totara and rata. It’s a joy to be amongst the vibrant green, dense vegetation and such a contrast from the agriculture landscape of the Canterbury Plains and the brown high country grassland that features throughout much of your journey thus far.
As the train chases down the final 30km of your journey to Greymouth, it passes through Kokiri station halt before you notice the train slowing to traverse the westward curve of the Stillwater Junction. A small settlement that once was a centre for sawmilling, Stillwater is a major junction of roads, rails and rivers. As the Arnold River gives way to the mighty Grey River, so your Tranzalpine train moves from the Midland Line that it has travelled on since Rolleston, and shifts onto the Stillwater to Westport line, built in 1889. Your TranzAlpine train may pause or slow to walking pace as it passes the site of the old Stillwater station, regularly used as stabling sidings for coal trains. The numerous coal hopper wagons that you will pass represent the last working remnants of this region’s once thriving coal-mining industry and they are often parked fully laden en-route to Port Littleton via the Midland TranzAlpine Line from where the coal is exported by ship. When you pass through Stillwater, offer a moment’s thought to the 65 miners who died in New Zealand’s largest mining disaster on 26 March 1896 at the Brunner Mine, who were buried in the Stillwater cemetery.
And now, the home run from Stillwater to Greymouth, twisting and turning, hugging the banks of the expansive murky brown Grey River for most of the way, sharing a small corridor of land with State Highway 7. A short while into this section of your journey, you will pass the ruins of the Brunner Mine on the north side of the Grey River. During the 19th Century, the Brunner Mine was New Zealand’s most productive coal mine. The notable features that you can see from the train are the red roof that spans the ruins of the Beehive Coke Ovens and within immediate view, the splendid wooden and iron Brunner Suspension Bridge that spans the river. This part of the river was once known as Coal Gorge owing to the number of mines located here. Only 11km from Greymouth, you can return to Brunner to explore the ruins by foot after you have completed your TranzAlpine journey.
Continuing to hug the banks of the Grey River, you pass the small town of Dobson, another coal mining settlement of which there are many in this area. Small colourful cottages facing the road and railway overlooking the river, and a disused petrol station give the sense of a place you might like to explore further. Between Dobson and Greymouth temporarily cutting away from the river, the railway passes through smallholdings with sheep, the odd goat or horses standing in unkempt paddocks. Weather-beaten wooden homes reflect the sometimes harsh, wet climate. You circumnavigate the Omoto Raceway and once again meet the banks of the Grey River before you cut under the major concrete edifice of the StateHighway 6 Grey River road bridge and with the fanfare of level crossing sirens and the trains wheels suddenly squealing hard as they take a sharp turn across Mawhera Quay, you arrive into Greymouth station. More squeals from the wheels and the hissing of the train’s air-brakes as the train slows alongside the platform and then a jaulting stop. You’ve arrived. Your TranzAlpine journey is complete.
Onward Travel Destinations from your TranzAlpine Journey
There are a host of exciting destinations you can head to once you have completed your TranzAlpine train journey. For more fascinating insights to these destinations, take a read of our blog post here.
We live in a world short on time where people often tick-off an item as done and move onto the next. Rail travel, however, sits firmly in the modern descriptive of ‘slow travel’ and for that reason, while a day-trip return from Christchurch to Greymouth and back on the TranzAlpine train means you can mentally mark that journey as complete, the team at LOCO Journeys would really question whether you are making the most of your transalpine journey.
Slow travel is an approach to travel that emphasizes connection: to local people, cultures, food and music. It relies on the idea that a trip is meant to educate and have an emotional impact, in the present moment and for the future, while remaining sustainable for local communities and the environment.
As with any experience, giving time to soak in your environment, taking a moment to capture the flavours and sounds of the country through which you travel is an important way to deliver mindfulness to your journey. And so we encourage you to extend your trip, add some extra nights, take a break or add an experience
View our rail travel packages ideas by downloading our dedicated Free New Zealand rail holiday brochure.
If you are building your rail journey as part of a larger trans alpine package, here are the destinations you may want to consider heading to after you complete your journey. Onward TranzAlpine Travel Destinations
Read about the TranzAlpine train within the context of the other great rail journeys of New Zealand. The TranzAlpine train may be the best, but some of the others come real close, particularly our personal favourite, the Northern Explorer. Great New Zealand Rail Journeys
And finally, if we can take one or two more moments of your time, we would ask you to consider those not so fortunate to be able to enjoy a journey on the TranzAlpine.
When LOCO Journeys was founded, we wanted to ensure that part of the business also gave back to our community and allowed those not so privileged to enjoy a ‘moment’. We wanted to offer an opportunity for deserving children to capture a happy memory which enables them to be inspired about life, just as you and I are when we head away on our rail holiday.
With this in mind, we created The Railway Children, a fundraising initiative which in the recent past has enabled two under-privileged Christchurch-based children the chance to enjoy a terrific day out on the TranzAlpine accompanied by their adult guardians.
If you think you are able to spare a small donation to our cause via our Givealittle page, the LOCO team – and of course the recipients – will be incredibly grateful.