The TranzAlpine is billed as “one of the world’s great train rides,” and the “most scenic train in New Zealand.” As a train buff, I had to try it! When we learned that the TranzAlpine train would reopen in July, we replanned our trip so that we could take it before hopping over to the North Island. The train makes a round trip each day between Christchurch and Greymouth; we caught the train in Greymouth.
The first clue that the trip would not meet expectations was when we picked up our tickets at the station. The station agent warned us, “they’re running a little behind, come back around 2.” The train was supposed to leave at 2, so not a good sign. The inbound train finally showed up in Greymouth an hour late. Passengers disembarked, then the train pulled out of the station (going the wrong way) to go do whatever it is that trains do when nobody is riding them. Perhaps it was getting lunch. An hour later the train, presumably well-fed by now, trundled back into the station. We boarded, and finally we were on the way to Christchurch. I was excited.
The train features huge, clean picture windows perfect for savoring the view. The scenery was nice enough as we meandered up the river valley toward the mountains. We passed farms, lakes, and tree-covered hills reaching toward the overcast sky. Onboard narration told us about the history of the area and points of interest along the route. I was enjoying the ride. The crew then warned us over the loudspeaker that the cafe car would be closed while we were in the tunnel, and by the way we shouldn’t stand up, walk around, or go to the bathroom while in the tunnel. Huh? What tunnel, and what’s the deal?
After a brief stop to add 4(!) more locomotives, our 10-car train headed into the Otira tunnel. The tunnel runs underneath the mountains that bisect the island. The track in the tunnel is quite steep, which is why we needed a total of 6 locomotives. It’s also old and uneven, and the train rocked back and forth as we labored up the hill. We quickly understood why we were instructed to keep to our seats.
After about 20 minutes we emerged from the tunnel at the tiny town of Arthur’s Pass. The light was starting to fade, but we could see mountain peaks all around us. In the distance a waterfall poured off one of the mountains. We took a brief walk around the platform as the train crew decoupled the extra locomotives.
Now for the really scenic part of the trip: the descent from Arthur’s Pass. Except we were still an hour late, and before long it was dark outside. We didn’t see a thing.
We arrived in Christchurch a couple hours later, tired and disappointed.
Not all bucket list items turn out to be great. I’m going to leave this one on the list in hopes that I can come back to New Zealand someday and give it another shot during daylight.