The TranzAlpine Express rattles over a viaduct with snow-capped peaks behind. The middle carriage is open-air for snapping the views.
The TranzAlpine Express rattles over a viaduct with snow-capped peaks behind. The middle carriage is open-air for snapping the views. Supplied

Do the locomotion

WHEN the New Zealand Government decided in 1883 to build a railway line between Christchurch on the South Island's east coast and Greymouth on the west, many of its ministers mused openly about an appropriately slap-up celebration which to invite themselves for the line's completion.

But even though it was just 224km in length, they were a bit premature. By the time the last dog-spike was driven, most of those ministers were has-beens, politically or mortally: it had taken 36 years to get the line across the island.

Of course, no one ever imaged it would take that long, but then no one had ever built a railway over – or through – the formidable Southern Alps before.

Laying the line across the Canterbury Plains from Christchurch was a breeze, but once into the alps, that breeze deteriorated into a gale: conditions could be so atrocious that to prevent being blow away by the howling winds, workers roped themselves to bridges, or to railway lines while working in precarious ravines and gorges.

And when it was found there was simply no mountain pass the line could follow where the rugged Southern Alps plunged downwards to the west coast, the courageous Kiwis embarked on one of the world's most ambitious tunnelling projects: an 8.5km shaft driven at an amazing 1-in-33 slope down through the granite heart of the mountains.

By then, the line ran from Christchurch on the east coast to Arthur's Pass 737m high in the Alps and from Greymouth on the west coast to Otira near the base of the Alps.

It meant that the tunnel could be started from both ends, and when the last of 250,000 cubic metres of rock and earth had been removed and the two halves met in the middle of the mountains, they were just millimetres out of alignment.

The first train crossed from east to west in 1923, putting an end to Cobb & Co whose coaches had crossed the Alps since 1866, taking three bone-jarring days to complete the trip.

Cobb & Co's staging inns once sprinkled the Southern Alps.

Today, the few remaining are pointed out to holidaymakers on the TranzAlpine Express that does the hugely-popular daily return trip from Christchurch to Greymouth in just 4.5-hours in each direction, with an hour in Greymouth. Highlights along the way include the little village of Bealey where the believed-extinct moa (like Big Bird in Sesame Street) was allegedly sighted in a nearby forest in 1993, attracting hopeful but disappointed moa-watchers from around the world.

The TranzAlpine full-day return trip costs NZ $209pp.

Visit Tranz Scenic.

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