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.

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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.

Pho­tos: ROY SIN­CLAIR

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.

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