Riding the Rails in NZ – The TranzAlpine

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The wind in my hair. Sunshine on my face. Stunning scenery slipping by…

Okay, so it was actually more like wind strong enough to knock me over, soot in my hair, and chilly sun on my face… But the scenery was still stunning.

TranzAlpine, New Zealand

This was the scene in the outdoor viewing car on New Zealand's TranzAlpine train, a 4.5-hour rail journey that takes passengers from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur's Pass through the Southern Alps.

The TranzAlpine (part of NZ's Tranz Scenic rail service) is listed as being one of the most visually stunning train rides in the world. And, while it's been on my “next time” list for New Zealand for years now, I'll admit to being a bit skeptical about all the superlatives used to describe the journey.

But you know what? This may indeed be one of the most striking train rides in the world.

Riding the TranzAlpine Train in New Zealand

Riding the TranzAlpine Train in New Zealand

The journey starts in Christchurch, and heads out over the sprawling Canterbury Plains. The train stops in a few outlying farming towns, inching ever closer to the Southern Alps that can be seen looming protectively on the horizon.

TranzAlpine, New Zealand

I unfortunately missed the first dusting of snow on the Alps by a few days, but the peaks nonetheless contrasted nicely with the rich green of the plains.

TranzAlpine, New Zealand

Eventually, we were hurtling along a track winding along a river gorge, passing over what seemed like rickety bridges with a blue-green Waimakariri River meandering along far below.

TranzAlpine, New Zealand

Waimakariri River in New Zealand
Waimakariri River

Views of the gorge and river were constantly cut off as we darted in and out of a series of tunnels, the smell of diesel engine exhaust hanging thick in the dark tunnel air. I would discover later just how dirty this soot made my hair… But, at the time, nothing could have kept me in my seat.

New Zealand South Island scenery

The scenery quickly changed from plains to mountains, and I spent most of the time in the open-air viewing car, snapping photos and trying not to lose my hat in strong gusts of wind.

Riding the TranzAlpine Train in New Zealand

I was glad that I was taking this journey at the end of autumn, because the colors were bright and rich — reds, oranges, yellows, greens… and always the deep brown of the mountains.

TranzAlpine, New Zealand

We passed through towns like Cass and Otira — tiny, almost-ghost-towns with populations you could sometimes count on one hand. I love the ruggedness of New Zealand and the fact that it still has so many untouched areas… but I still don't think I would ever be persuaded to live in one of these railroad towns.

TranzAlpine, New Zealand

The train's route eventually took us through even more new scenery, including a few wide river valleys, which we crossed on a series of low-slung bridges.

Riding the TranzAlpine Train in New Zealand

Clouds began to form on the other side of the Southern Alps, signifying our nearing the West Coast, which only added to the drama of the landscape. If I could have slowed time down, I would have. It was that beautiful.

TranzAlpine train in New Zealand

A little more than halfway through our journey, we stopped briefly at Arthur's Pass. At 2,425 feet above sea level, this would be the highest we would travel on the train.

TranzAlpine, New Zealand

We then descended through the 5.3-mile-long Otira Tunnel, and emerged to cloudy skies and a light rain. We had reached New Zealand's West Coast, which is known for its often-soggy climate. I was perfectly happy to give up my spot in the open-air car and return to my comfy seat.

I grabbed some snacks at the onboard cafe bar, popped on my headphones, and simply enjoyed the rest of the ride. There was occasional commentary about the areas we were passing through as we continued on, but I never felt as though I was being bombarded with facts. I could have easily drifted off to sleep, had I been so inclined.

We arrived in Greymouth in the early afternoon, completing our coast-to-coast train journey. I was sad to see it end, but also really glad I now had one more fantastic New Zealand experience to tuck away in my memory.

If ever you're in New Zealand and in need of crossing the Alps, consider the TranzAlpine. I don't think you could possibly regret it.

New Zealand scenery


  • Trains depart both Christchurch and Greymouth daily, as well as make various stops along the way.
  • If you wanted to, you could technically do the whole round-trip journey in one day. Or you could travel as far as Arthur's Pass, spend 5 hours exploring, and then catch the train back to Christchurch.
  • Prices vary based on season, availability and any current promotions. Generally, they run around $200 NZD per adult for a one-way trip. This certainly is not a cheap outing, but I think it's well worth the money.
  • You will get an assigned seat on the train. If you have the option to choose or request a seat, definitely try to get one next to the window if you don't want to stand outside the whole time.
  • If you do decide to stand in the open-air car, be aware that it will probably be very windy, and you'll likely get covered in a fine layer of diesel soot. It also may be very cold, so bundle up!

Have you ever done the TranzAlpine journey? If so, what was your experience like? If not, what other scenic train rides have you taken?



Note: I received a free seat on the TranzAlpine as part of a complimentary Magic Bus ticket, which was one of my Blog4NZ prizes. As always, though, the opinions shared here all are mine. Money (and free stuff) can buy a lot of things, but my opinions aren't one of them.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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36 Comments on “Riding the Rails in NZ – The TranzAlpine

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  1. Didn’t know about this train ride but it looks amazing! We’ll certainly try to include this in our itinerary for New Zealand (although we won’t get there for a while).

      If you can hit it on a clear day (especially if there’s snow on the mountains), I don’t think you can beat this train ride! It’s definitely worth adding to your New Zealand itinerary!

    I did the train the opposite direction and LOVED IT!!!! Wish they had open air car seats, that would have been awesome as I spend the entire time in the open air car too.

    I feel like our pictures overlap sometimes! Hehe:-).

      We are photo twins! Haha. But yes, I agree that they should add some seats to the open-air car! I spent the majority of the trip out there, battling the wind and loving every second of it.

    Wow – your pictures are so beautiful. We are planning a trip to NZ in August, and I have been using your site as inspiration for our planning! We may not be able to afford the train, but I’ll keep my eyes out for any promotions! Thanks!

      Thanks, Heather. And NZ in August, eh? That’s so exciting! You guys will absolutely love it. And I’m flattered that you’ve been using my site as somewhat of a guide! That’s always awesome to hear. Stay tuned, because there’s lots more to come!

      Definitely keep the TranzAlpine in mind. Though, even if you decide it’s too pricey, there’s plenty of other stunning scenery in NZ to see for free!

    Wow- I have to take this journey sometime. Just breathtaking and stunning. Great collection!

      Thanks, Jade! I would highly, highly recommend this train trip, despite it being a bit expensive. If you catch a good day (or a day with snow on the mountains!), it’s totally worth it.

    Great work! These photos are gorgeous! I love all the open space.

      Thanks, Randy! I’m really happy with these photos — in fact, I’m really happy with just about all the photos I took on this NZ trip! When you hit a sunny day in this country, it really is tough to take bad pictures.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying following along!

    Guess, sleeping is a no-no on this train ride, or you’ll miss the awesome scenery. It’s been my dream to ride a long train ride across vast scenic countryside and this truly fits the description.

      Sleeping is definitely a no-no! And the best part of this ride is that it’s incredibly scenic, but it’s not even all that long — only 4.5 hours! Kind of the best option in my mind. You still get the scenery and the train experience, but you don’t waste a whole day with the journey.

    I stumpled upon your page through twitter, simply stunning pictures!
    I thought New Zealand was pretty but I didn’t realise it was this pretty! 🙂

      Well welcome to my site, Andy! Thanks for the kind words about my photos. New Zealand is indeed absolutely stunning — and it’s even better in person!

    I have never been on this train journey but it looks spectacular! I do enjoy scenic rail trips 🙂

      I’ve only been on one other scenic rail trip (in Alaska), but this one definitely takes the cake! I can understand now why everybody talks it up so much…

    I got the TranzPacific from Picton to Christchurch about two years ago and loved it! Spent the whole three hour journey in the viewing carriage. I wish went up to Arthurs Pass, looks stunning.

      I’ve done that route on a bus (the bus basically drives right next to the train tracks), and it was really pretty. However, the TranzAlpine definitely takes the cake! Having that open-air car is genius on their part.

    you take really great photos

      Thank you, Zablon. I do my best! It’s easy to take great photos in New Zealand, though…

    This looks like an amazing journey and the photos are fantastic! 😉

      Thanks, Laura! And it really was fantastic. I’d definitely recommend it!

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