Review of "Tranz Scenic"
"The colour of truth is grey." (Andre Gide)
The weather was not, of course, Brian's fault but as Train Manager (or Senior Conductor or Head Steward or whatever his title was) he was doing his best to lighten the mood of the passengers. My own view was that he would have done better to open the bar in the buffet car earlier rather than to keep his patter going over the intercom. We were well over half an hour into the journey before refreshments became available, just as they would later cease to be available half an hour before its end. Given that the train is scheduled to depart at lunchtime and had left late, this delay was an irritant, at least to the perennially thirsty.Still, he was occasionally amusing. "Off to the north-east from here lies New Zealand's second largest offshore island, known as the North Island. The largest offshore island is the West Island, which its inhabitants call Australia."
We were on the TransCoastal route, which runs from the InterIslander ferry terminal at Picton down to the South Island's only city of substance, Christchurch (see map below). The next day, journeying onwards via the TransAlpine, we were to hear him crack exactly the same joke, and indeed repeat others from his repertoire. Just his bad luck - or ours - that we happened to have him in charge on both legs of our journey on New Zealand's TranzScenic Railways.o===================================================o
- The Overlander, which runs down the spine of the North Island from Auckland to Wellington, an all-day journey which unfortunately we did not experience.
New Zealand is not excessively provided with passenger railways. Essentially, there are just three long distance routes, all operated by TranzScenic: -
- The TranzAlpine, the shortest but most famous of the routes, traversing the South Island over the Southern Alps, four-and-a-half hours from Christchurch to Greymouth.- The TranzCoastal, which takes just under five-and-a-half hours for its journey down the coast.
Picton, from which the TranzCoastal begins its journey, is an untidy but pleasant little port that hides in a deep recess of the beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound.When it draws in, we see that the train is quite short - just seven passenger carriages plus a buffet car, "viewing deck" and luggage van, pulled by a single diesel locomotive. The carriages have seen better days. They are weather-beaten on the outside and slightly shabby within, but clean and fairly comfortable, especially since the train appears to be half-empty.
Seats are allocated in advance, but you have to check in at the station to discover where yours is to be found, and separately queue to stow any large bags away in the luggage van. Although both processes are handled with reasonable efficiency, they impose tedious extra impositions on passengers, as does waiting on the platform for the carriages to be cleaned. On our journey we were not allowed on board until after the official time of departure. One of the joys of rail travel used to be that you just turned up at a station, boarded the train and found a seat. I do not know why railway companies seem eager to ape all the most tiresome aspects of air travel, but I do know that by doing so they are losing some of their competitive advantage.Standing on the single platform at Picton's miniscule station, it is hard to see how the line can find an escape route through the surrounding hills, but with just the odd lurch and screech of brakes, the train threads its way around wooded slopes and river valleys to emerge among the Blenheim vineyards.
Heading south from Blenheim, I had expected, or at least hoped, that we would see the sea quite soon. In the event there is another hour of pleasantly rugged but unexceptional (by New Zealand standards) scenery to pass through before the track arrives at the Pacific shore north of Kaikoura. The occasional sites of human activity tend to be untidy, like the red-stained salt pans around Lake Grasmere. Not all the vineyards are picturesque either; you would not mistake them for their counterparts in Burgundy or Tuscany.Once the coast is reached, the whole point of the TranzCoastal becomes apparent. Beach follows beach, mostly black-sand or shingle, separated by jutting headlands and strewn with rocky outcrops, against which the surf breaks explosively. A road runs parallel to the railway track. Where it has the seaward side one sees the occasional car, and sometimes surfers out on the waves. Where it runs inshore, the beaches tend to be deserted, except for basking fur seals.
I stumble along to the viewing deck to take some photographs.
It is a very basic affair, a galvanised steel pen with standing room only, roofed but open to the air from hip-height upwards with a rail against which to lean, so that it is easy to use a camera provided one can hold it steady against the slipstream and the motion of the train. My video soundtrack is a cacophony of roaring wind and clattering wheels. But at least the lens is free of the rain-streaked reflective windows within the carriages - or at least that's my excuse for the inadequate quality of the pics below.
Kaikoura, about half way through the journey, is a famous centre for whale-watching, but looks rather dreary from the train. Perhaps again this is the fault of the weather, which would make anywhere look drab. South from Kaikoura, the track hugs the coast only for another ten miles or so, and then turns inland again. More hilly country follows, with wide rivers to be crossed, their beds largely loose shingle after a dry summer. There are 175 bridges on the TranzCoastal route and the rivers could look magnificent in spring flood.Away from the river valleys, the sheep country north of Christchurch conveys a badlands-bare impression, its fawn grass cross-cropped to skinhead stubble, with bruised-brown gullies furrowing through. Slowly this softens into lusher pastures and then into suburban gardens as we arrive at the city itself. After waiting twenty minutes beside a lumber-yard for the TranzAlpine to clear, we pull into Christchurch station's only platform.
Christchurch looks an attractive city, its centre girdled by green gardens. If you go, allow yourself time to see it properly. We did not, and barely thirteen hours after arrival we are back at the station to catch the TranzAlpine.
This train turns out to be twice the length of the TranzCoastal, and twice as crowded. The rolling stock is marginally newer, but whereas on the TranzCoastal we had a table with empty places opposite, here there are just airline-style seats. The luggage rack is also narrower, and our rucksacks threaten to fall on our heads with every movement of the train. Pretty well every seat is taken, many with school parties, and the noise levels and bustle factors are consequently high. Nevertheless, it is comfortable enough once we are settled and the train is on the move.The first hour out of Christchurch is uneventful. We roll through suburbia and farmland as on the previous evening. Then the track begins to ascend towards the Southern Alps. With clearer skies, it is exciting to see snow-capped peaks in the distance ahead. Soon we are climbing up the sides of a steep valley, the front of the train visible up ahead as it curves around the contours ahead of us. This is the gorge of the Waimakariri, which we eventually cross by the Staircase Viaduct, the highest on the route, with precipitous views down to the rocky riverbed below.
TranzScenic boasts that the TranzAlpine is "rated as one of the great train journeys of the world." I don't know who bestowed this rating, nor would I want to seem grudging in my own assessment of what is indeed a stimulating and scenic ride, but this has to be hyperbole. The climb up from leaving the coastal plain at Springfield to the high point of the crossing at Arthur's Pass takes not much longer than an hour, and once the train emerges from the Waimakariri Gorge the landscape, although wild and desolate, is not outstanding by New Zealand's spectacular standards.Arthur's Pass is 737m above sea level, high but not extraordinarily so; it has after all been chosen as the lowest point at which it is possible to cross the Southern Alps. There is little heady elation to be felt from merely being there. The train pauses, and we alight to stretch our legs on the short platform and beside the track. High hillsides loom to either side, but the confines of the pass restrict the view. A cold wind blows shiveringly through, and we are almost glad when the time comes to clamber back aboard the train and move onwards.
Descending from Arthur's Pass through the long Otira tunnel, we emerge into the greener, wetter landscape of the West Coast region, with its dense forests and tranquil lakes. To me, this is more attractive country, but I notice that now we are on the downhill stretch many of our fellow-passengers start to lose interest and even fall asleep. Extraordinary!Still, it does mean that for the first time on the TranzAlpine journey I am able to find room on the viewing deck to take some photographs. Earlier, the queue for it has stretched right back through the adjacent compartment, which must be unpleasant for those seated there as well as for those queuing. Given the demand for this facility - practically everyone on board is carrying a camera - the provision is utterly inadequate. The viewing decks are so basic that they cannot be expensive. Surely TranzScenic could hitch another one, or even two, onto the train.
Similarly, there are long queues for the buffet car facilities. The fare is of reasonable quality, albeit not much variety, and reasonably priced. But, as on the TranzCoastal, it is not available for the first and last stretches of the journey.Two hours down from Arthur's Pass, we join the wide valley of the Grey River and run along it to meet the Tasman Sea at Greymouth, a rather unattractive little town amid what, as I am later to discover, is a wonderful coastline - but the subject of another review. Our bags are chaotically unloaded from the luggage van onto an overcrowded platform, the porters jostling and tripping over the awaiting scrum of passengers.
Like the TranzCoastal, it's been a good journey. But it could have been better.o===================================================o
Fares are very reasonable. The standard one-way fare on the TranzCoastal is NZ$74 (£27 approx); that on the TranzAlpine NZ$91 (£33 approx). Returns are discounted heavily (e.g. NZ$109 on the TranzAlpine) and there are a variety of reductions (including a "backpacker" fare) available, as well as weekly deals and packages to include hotels. The website - address below - gives details.o===================================================o
Both the TranzCoastal and the TranzAlpine run daily, out from Christchurch in the morning, back from Picton and Greymouth in the afternoon.
However, I'm not sure this axiom holds true in New Zealand. This is partly because of the little things that TranzScenic - admittedly in common with many railways companies, which often seem more focussed on playing with their train sets than on serving customers - gets wrong. Beyond that I think that New Zealand is perhaps the ideal country to explore by road. Traffic is light, so you can drive in and out of even the biggest cities without undue frustration and delay. The distances are long, but tolerable. There are plenty of places to stop for coffee or a snack, to admire a view or enjoy a walk. You can find your way off the beaten track to explore, and take your time over what you discover when you do so. It's safe. The people speak English and are friendly. Moreover, car rental rates are reasonable, and petrol is cheap by European standards.
Reading through what I've written above, I find it's come out more negatively than I expected. This may be because my expectations were high, and thus always likely to be disappointed. I really wanted to like TranzScenic Railways. The axiom that rail is the best way to travel is one with which I often bore anyone who will listen and many who will not.
By comparison, the train takes you along a single predetermined route to a predetermined timetable. It's a good route and inexpensively travelled, but there are plenty of good routes in New Zealand. You can indeed relax in some comfort to admire what you see, but you can't control what you see, nor the pace and variety of experience. It is not TranzScenic's fault that touring by car enjoys so many competitive advantages in New Zealand, but it is their problem.I don't regret the two trips I took on TranzScenic. They were enjoyable, interesting and very good value for money. I would, with the provisos noted, recommend them as worth trying to anyone exploring the South Island. But if I go there again, I won't repeat the experience.
© torr 2005
For a review of what is to be found when you reach the west coast of the South Island, go to:
Product Information : Tranz Scenic
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Listed on Ciao since: 08/04/2005