• trip report :tranzalpine to the snow :NewZealand

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Tell us where you were and what you saw!

Moderator: David Benton

  by David Benton
Tranzalpine express to the snow.

New Zealand’s Tranzalpine express runs from Christchurch, on the eat coast of the south island, across the Southern Alps to the west coast town of Greymouth.
Through the winter I was hoping to ride the train after a good snowfall, as I have not seen this line when snow was down to low levels.
Ironically, the impetus for taking this trip was a cheap airfare. Air NZ has a website, called grab a seat, which offers a limited number of seats on certain dates, at a greatly reduced price. Unfortunately, you must fix a date in advance, so it wasn’t much good for my snow chasing wishes. I decided to book a seat anyway, and hope for some snow, even though September is officially spring, late snow is not unheard of in the Alps.
At the same time I booked a day return trip on the Tranzalpine train, Christchurch to Greymouth return been $109 return .This is a winter special price.

A month or so passed, and 3 days before I was due to fly to Christchurch, it snowed quite heavily down in the south island. This looked promising to my desire to see snow at track level. Unfortunately the next couple of days were quite warm, but there was still a decent amount of snow around.
Friday morning, I did a mad dash to get things sorted at work, and drove across to Hamilton, to catch the flight to Christchurch. I’m not a frequent flier, but I usually enjoy it. The check in and boarding at Hamilton was very casual, the type of security found at overseas airports hasn’t made it to provincial NZ yet. Te flight down was great , the clear spring day providing great views of the central north island Volcanoes , the Marlborough sounds , and for the flight down between the inland Kaikoura mountains , and the Southern Alps .Arriving in Christchurch I took a bus into the city centre , and looked for a place to stay . A brochure for an old jailhouse, converted to accommodation caught my eye, specifically because it mentioned a free shuttle to the station to catch the Tranzalpine. I decided to walk there, and after walking awhile in the wrong direction, I got my bearings, and headed for the street parallel to the railway line, that lead to the jailhouse. During the walk I saw 2 or 3 freight trains, this line been busy with export coal coming across from the west coast .I booked in, and the young lady said she would book me in for the shuttle to the railway station early the next morning.
I got up early the next morning, and walked out to the shuttle stop. As I was early for the shuttle, and I wasn’t too sure that she had booked it, I decided to walk the 2 km to the station. However the roads leading to the station are more designed for cars rather than pedestrians, and it weren’t very clear which was the correct route .Luckily, a couple of young American backpackers came along, and they knew the way to the station. After dodging traffic crossing a main road, we soon arrived at the station.
Here was a scene not common in NZ, hundreds of people waiting for a train! The transalpine is a very popular train, and the queue of people waiting to board extended to onto the street. However the queue moved quickly, and I was soon given a seat number, and proceeded out onto the platform. the train was quite long , 3 engines , 5 carriages , the central generator carriage , then another 5 carriages .The central generator carriage has open viewing platforms on both sides of it , which is great for viewing the scenery and photo taking . I found my seat and awaited departure, however we were delayed, as attached to the rear of the train was some extra carriages for a steam excursion train that was to leave shortly after us. Sure enough there was a crowd of rail fans waiting to take photos of it at the end of the platform. In what seemed like a strange decision, they let a freight train pull into the yard ahead of us, delaying us even more. But we were soon underway, and sure enough there was as steam engine puffing away in the yard, it would back onto its train as soon as we were clear. We accelerated through Christchurch’s industrial suburbs, as the train manager collected our tickets. Soon after they gave the safety announcements , with a special warning not to lean out too far from the viewing platform , as “though we are trained in first aid , there is only so much we can do with a band aid ! “
I headed back to the busy café car, and got my morning cup of tea. On NZ trains, the crew share all duties, and sure enough, the train manager was working the microwave for the café attendant. It seems 3 crew members are assigned to each side of the “double train “. As they don’t want passengers passing through the central generator compartment, the train is treated as 2 separate trains. We were now passing across the flat Canterbury plains, and made no stops till we arrived at Springfield, a small town at the foot of the Southern Alps. Here, fresh muffins were loaded into the café car; we passed a coal train, and started climbing into the Alps. I headed back to the viewing platform, it was quite chilly, but the views were worth it .Interestingly, women far outnumbered men on the viewing deck, perhaps they are more into photography.
We started to get into some serious mountain scenery, and the deck was soon crowded for photographers. The train passes over several viaducts, with breathtaking drops, and views of the Waimarikiri River. Snow was on the hilltops, but was quite away from track level. netherless, I was more than happy with my decision to take this trip . This line has several coal trains a day, yet it does not have ctc centralized traffic control). It works on a form of track warrant control; tough sidings have signals worked by the positioning of the track points (switches). Hence a train going into a crossing siding, the driver of that train will set the points so the approaching train will have a clear signal through the siding. However he left the point at the other end of the crossing set to his side, so our driver had to stop, get out and set the points to our route before proceeding. it as entertaining to see him actually run to do this , good to see him try to get the train back on time . We soon were traveling along the river banks, occasionally I spotted pieces of old wagons and steam engines dumped in the river to try and stop the banks eroding. They still find old engines in good condition that are worth digging out.
We arrived at Arthur’s pass, the highest station on the route, and were allowed to get off the train for a 10 minute break. Arthur’s pass is in the middle of the national park, and some passengers got off to spend a day or longer here. Soon, the train horn blew, and we were off through the Otiria tunnel, the longest in the south island at just over 8 km. the train drops on a 1 in 35 gradient through the tunnel, down to otiria. This former railway town was brought by a couple for just $ 60 000, 20 years ago when the railways moved all their staff over to Christchurch or Greymouth. We were now on the West coast, and some of the famous west coast liquid sunshine was falling, so I did not return to the open viewing carriage. West coast scenery is a lot different from the east coast; the far wetter climate has meant a lot less development and farming. We passed several swamps, and a couple of large lakes. However, lately some farms have been formed form extensive earthworks, in order to provide some dry land for dairy farming. We soon arrived at Stillwater, which is the junction with the line to Westport area, where most the coal originates from. Again, our driver had to jump out to change the signals to allow our train to proceed. We were now running along the Grey River towards Greymouth. This area is rich in coal and gold mining history, and the train manager gave details of some visible from the train .We passed the new curved concrete bridge across the river, and soon pulled into Greymouth station. Although we were ½ hour late, the train manager announced we would still have a full hour’s stopover before leaving on our return journey.
Greymouth is not the most exciting town in the world, and in true west coast fashion, I decided to walk into town for a beer at one of the pubs. However I ended up walking along the riverbank, and noticed some old railway carriages down by the old wharf. It was the makings of a small outdoor museum display, and the wagons were restored to quite a high standard. Further along the riverbank was an old railway signal box , what was interesting about it was that it was set below the riverbank , so standing on the river bank I was level with the top storey . So I got a good view of details you can’t usually see from ground level.
It was time to return to the train, and as there wasn’t as many passengers returning as there was coming across this morning, they only used ½ the train. The front part of the train’s crew appeared to get a easy ride home. The sun was out again, so I stayed on the viewing deck for most of the return journey. About ½ ways back we passed the steam train that had left Christchurch shortly after us.
This time we were climbing up through the Otiria Tunnel, and they closed the viewing deck for the journey through the tunnel. 2 reasons for this I believe , one been the diesel fumes form the engines working hard uphill , the other the slight possibility of the train stalling in the tunnel , and end up slipping backwards . This actually happened some years ago. This train would be an ideal one to run on biodiesel, as the fumes on the open deck are quite bad in the other 13 tunnels. Although the train was only ½ full, the viewing deck was quite crowded, so it would have been good if they had opened up the other ½ of the train. Still, it had been a great day of trains and mountain scenery, and I returned to my seat for the last hours ride into Christchurch in darkness.