Smarter alpine-train traverse
Post-earthquake bookings are recovering for a world-ranked rail journey between Christchurch and Greymouth. Train buff ROYSINCLAIR takes a seat on the re-equipped Tranzalpine.
Europe may be the destination traditionally targeted by travellers keen on rail journeys, but KiwiRail has put a best foot forward with re-equipped trains placing New Zealand among the best offerings. Locally designed and built AK class carriages now run on two South Island services, Coastal Pacific and TranzAlpine, along with the recently introduced Northern Explorer running between Wellington and Auckland.
With a product KiwiRail can justifiably promote with confidence to discerning international and domestic travellers, the company has moved from mere transport to the realm of must-do tourist experiences.
The TranzAlpine (Christchurch to Greymouth) is the definite hero of the mix, says KiwiRail passenger group marketing manager Richard Keenan.
‘‘When the Alpine is performing to expectations our other services benefit, and our entire business is doing well.’’
The TranzAlpine, following a remarkable scenic route through the Waimakariri Gorge with views not experienced from the State Highway 73 road journey, provides the ideal introduction to the West Coast attractions, including the popular glacier country with accompanying spectacular alpine scenery and Hokitika’s new treetops walk.
Keenan says the TranzAlpine took a hit following the Canterbury earthquakes, but wholesale bookings are building and tour companies are returning to include the scenic rail journey in their New Zealand itineraries. Re-opening of several Christchurch hotels this year will also provide a much needed boost.
New AK carriages, built at Dunedin’s Hillside railway workshops, feature panoramic windows, skylights, GPStriggered multilanguage commentaries listened to via personal headsets, and licensed cafe carriages with appealing menus and worthy coffee machines.
The AK carriages ride on suspension bogie wheels providing smoother riding and reduced noise.
For those wanting to take in the scenic attractions, a much improved open viewing carriage is ideal for photography. The AK rolling stock was introduced to the TranzAlpine late last year to commemorate 25 years of the popular 231-kilometre coast-tocoast rail journey.
The new-look TranzAlpine is, in my opinion, up with Switzerland’s famed Glacier Express and benefiting from the friendly interaction with Kiwistyle on-board staff.
But rail journeys anywhere are no longer the budget travel option they once were.
‘‘For a decade we believe the TranzAlpine was underpriced,’’ Keenan says.
‘‘We researched pricing worldwide to arrive at fares to produce satisfactory business yields. We operate as a customer of KiwiRail, paying for use of infrastructure and locomotives to haul the trains.’’
Interestingly, New Zealand is the only country operating longdistant scenic rail journeys with no government subsidies. ‘‘Our challenge is people who want a rail travel experience of international quality for the price of a bus fare. If we operate in that space we will sustain huge losses,’’ Keenan says.
A recent TranzAlpine admirer was Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker heading to the West Coast for his 60th birthday bash, accompanied by wife Jo Nicholls Parker, three sons and their wives. They enjoyed a Champagne- style breakfast that included a birthday cake.
‘‘There was not a metre of the journey without interest,’’ the mayor said when thanking train staff at the end of the journey. He was also impressed with the quality of the new AK carriages believing they will attract more people to rail travel.
Keenan emphasises that domestic travellers are important to the TranzAlpine business mix. International tourists typically visit between January and March. ‘‘We rely on domestic travellers, especially for the winter months,’’ he says.
Although an ideal four-season rail journey, winter snow arguably offers the best track-side views. KiwiRail advertises offpeak fares attractive to locals.
Sharp turn: The TranzAlpine’s stylish new AKcarriages twist and turn above the Grey River near Greymouth.
River treat: Waimakariri Gorge views delight TranzAlpine travellers.
Milestone: The Mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker, celebrates his 60th birthday during a recent TranzAlpine trip. With him is his wife, Jo Nicholls-Parker.