Home Rail News Riding New Zealand's TranzAlpine

Riding New Zealand’s TranzAlpine

Among the best ways of seeing New Zealand – a landscape made famous by the Lord of the Rings film – is by rail. David Shirres reports after a journey by the TranzAlpine train across the Southern Alps, one of KiwiRail’s scenic trains.

KiwiRail offers three scenic rail journeys

On the South Island are the TranzAlpine and, running only between September and May, the Coastal Pacific. These trains each take around 5 hours enabling a daily out and back service from Christchurch. The North Island has its Northern Explorer from Wellington to Auckland which takes 101⁄2 hours and operates 3 days a week in each direction.

Other than Auckland and Wellington’s commuter trains, these scenic trains are the only passenger services. KiwiRail is primarily a freight railway as shown by its income statistics.

Last year freight, interislander and passenger services was respectively NZ$ 458, 124 and 66 million. The scenic trains carried 362,000 and accounted for just 30% of passenger train income. This contrasts with 25 million journeys in 1965. Since then passenger numbers dwindled with the intensification of road and air competition.

A big cutback in 2002 was the 601 km Christchurch to Invercargill line becoming freight only railway with the withdrawal of passenger services south of Christchurch. The size of the network peaked in 1953 when it was 5689 km. It is now 4000 km. The gauge is 3ft 6 inches, chosen to ease construction in the mountains.

Freight is a success story

Whilst passenger numbers are now tiny, freight is a success story. Last year’s 17.5 million tonnes was more than had ever been carried, an 11% increase on the previous year with container traffic increasing by 19% last year. Bulk goods carried include coal, milk, forestry, steel and LPG.

Among the best ways of seeing New Zealand – a landscape made famous by the Lord of the Rings film – is by rail. David Shirres reports after a journey by the TranzAlpine train across the Southern Alps, one of KiwiRail’s scenic trains.

KiwiRail offers three scenic rail journeys

On the South Island are the TranzAlpine and, running only between September and May, the Coastal Pacific. These trains each take around 5 hours enabling a daily out and back service from Christchurch. The North Island has its Northern Explorer from Wellington to Auckland which takes 101⁄2 hours and operates 3 days a week in each direction.

Other than Auckland and Wellington’s commuter trains, these scenic trains are the only passenger services. KiwiRail is primarily a freight railway as shown by its income statistics.

Last year freight, interislander and passenger services was respectively NZ$ 458, 124 and 66 million. The scenic trains carried 362,000 and accounted for just 30% of passenger train income. This contrasts with 25 million journeys in 1965. Since then passenger numbers dwindled with the intensification of road and air competition.

A big cutback in 2002 was the 601 km Christchurch to Invercargill line becoming freight only railway with the withdrawal of passenger services south of Christchurch. The size of the network peaked in 1953 when it was 5689 km. It is now 4000 km. The gauge is 3ft 6 inches, chosen to ease construction in the mountains.

130224 173450 [online]

Freight is a success story

Whilst passenger numbers are now tiny, freight is a success story. Last year’s 17.5 million tonnes was more than had ever been carried, an 11% increase on the previous year with container traffic increasing by 19% last year. Bulk goods carried include coal, milk, forestry, steel and LPG.

Rail freight is also carried on KiwiRail’s Interislander ferry. The scenic TranzAlpine line is also primarily a freight route carrying milk products from factories near Greymouth and Darfield and 2 million tonnes of coal per annum from mines in the Greymouth area, much for export to China.

Christchurch, South Island’s largest city, was struck by an earthquake in 2011, costing 185 lives and widespread damage. Two years later the city centre remains cordoned-off. The island’s tourist industry still suffers.

For example last year TranzAlpine’s 106,000 passengers were only 55% of those in 2010. The city, and its international gateway has lost hundreds of hotel beds to the earthquake. To stay in Christchurch it is essential to book early.

The single platform station at Addington is in the city’s suburbs, 4 km east of the city centre. It opened in 1993 to replace a much larger station which was then redeveloped and became a victim of the earthquake. This new station and its adjacent shopping centre were built on an old railway workshops site. It is not easy to find so a good satnav is recommended.

New scenic train fleet

The brand new train awaiting passengers at Christchurch was introduced last November on the TranzAlpine’s 25th birthday as a result of a NZ$40 million investment in a new scenic train fleet consisting of twelve AK coaches, four café cars and three open air viewing cars.

These were entirely designed and built in New Zealand, the first locally produced coaches since 1941. Sadly they were also the last to be built at Dunedin’s Hillside works which closed last year. The coaches were first used on the Coastal Pacific in November 2011.

The AK coaches are air- conditioned with 53 square metres of side and roof windows. Bogies have primary synthetic elastomer axle springs and secondary airbag suspension.

Overhead screens show the location of the train, supplementing an at-seat GPS triggered journey commentary in five languages (English, Japanese, Mandarin, German and French). Seats not at tables swivel to face the engine.

Open-air viewing cars provide a main-line rail experience not possible in the UK and a reflection-free photographic opportunity. Although there is an inset bar to limit leaning out, it is unlikely that the ORR would permit such an arrangement. These cars also contain a 220kVA generator set for the train.

The train’s two locomotives are not so new. Built in 1975 by General Electric, the 100 tonne 3,000 hp Co-Co DX locomotives have a maximum speed of 106 kph. As freight locomotives, they do not have an electric train heating supply, hence the requirement for a generator on the viewing car.

Fertile Canterbury plain

At 0815, the TranzAlpine leaves Christchurch. Ten minutes later the city gives way to the fertile Canterbury plain, New Zealand’s largest flat area. After 45km the town of Darfield is passed and mountains start to appear in the distance. Soon after there is a new milk factory which exports 200,000 tons of milk powder each year via its new rail connection.

After about an hour, the train starts to climb with the Waimakariri River gorge to the right. In Maori, this river’s name means cold rushing water. The river’s flow ranges from its normal 50 to 3000 cubic metres per second when in flood and so usually only occupies part of its deep wide gorge.

Otarama, 76 km from Christchurch, is the start of a 17 km section along the side of a steep gorge with 16 tunnels and 5 viaducts. This includes the 149 metre long Staircase viaduct which, at 73 metres, is the highest on the line. It was constructed by the British Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company in 1908.

The countryside then opens out with the mountains either side as the line climbs to a summit before descending to rejoin the Waimakariri River which is now in a wide glaciated valley. Although the railway’s alignment was designed to cross rivers as far upstream as possible, the river crossing still needs a 256 metres long bridge.

After 2 1⁄4 hours and 136 kilometres the train stops for 10 minutes at Arthur’s Pass station, 737 metres above sea level, the highest part of the line. Here viewing cars are locked-off for the passage through Otira tunnel which is immediately after the station.

Longest in the British Empire

At 8.5 km, this single-track tunnel was the longest in the British Empire when it opened in 1923. It also has a 1 in 33 gradient, the steepest in New Zealand. It is not unusual for the train to be hauled by four locomotives through the tunnel, two of which are banking engines taking advantage of the TransAlpine’s train path to return through the tunnel.

As steam haulage through the tunnel was not feasible, from the start trains were hauled by 1,500 volt DC locomotives, requiring a 14 km electrified section between Arthur’s Pass and Otira. With the requirement for heavier trains, this was abandoned in 1997 and replaced by diesel locomotives.

This required doors and a ventilation system at the tunnel’s western portal to manage the airflow. In addition, the DX locomotives have modified air intakes. Four DX locomotives are required to take a 1500 tonne coal train up the tunnel’s steep gradient.

After the tunnel, there are broad glaciated valleys between high mountains that have many waterfalls. As the line descends, the countryside opens out as the train passes Lake Brunner. At Stillwater the train joins the Grey River and follows it to Greymouth, 231 km from Christchurch, where it is due in at 1245.

Here is the Cobden Rail Bridge Heritage Park on the riverbank opposite the station. This has an old timber and steel bridge truss with information about local railway history. Close by is a poignant memorial listing 428 miners killed in accidents over the last 120 years. After an hour it’s time to go. With its seats swivelled for the return journey, the TranzAlpine leaves Greymouth at 1345 to arrive in Christchurch at 1805.

Lonely Planet considers the TranzAlpine to be amongst New Zealand’s top 20 experiences. With 5 major bridges, 5 viaducts and 17 tunnels running through Lord of the Rings country this is not surprising.

This journey is certainly a must for those interested in railways and the challenges of building such a line. Indeed, the trials faced by its engineers carving it through this tough country and erecting viaducts in its precipitous gorges must have been worthy of Bilbo Baggins himself.

130224 095533 [online]

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