The Coastal Pacific train provides a new style of travel
between Christchurch and Picton, writes Bill Campbell.
The Coastal Pacific sits shiny and new under the bright
lights of Christchurch's modern Addington station, heralding
the return of train travel as it should be.
We join a line of more than 60 people, some of whom will
travel on past the Coastal Pacific's final stop at Picton,
via Interislander ferry to Wellington. The free luggage
allowance, double that usually given by airlines, adds to the
The AK train set consists of carriages, a café car, a viewing
car and a luggage van drawn by a DC diesel locomotive. The
train appears to be new to most of the passengers boarding
and attracts admiring comments.
Indeed, the Coastal Pacific is a tribute to the engineering
skills of the workforce at the Hillside Railway Workshops in
Dunedin. The design of the carriages even extends to a new
style of headrest on the seats that is an improvement on
Seventeen AK carriages have been built at Hillside in a $40
million government-funded contract let in 2008. The Coastal
Pacific has been joined by a new Northern Explorer running
between Auckland and Wellington, and some of the new
carriages will soon be placed on the TranzAlpine between
Christchurch and Greymouth. The trains are the first new
carriage sets to be built from scratch in New Zealand for
almost 70 years.
The Coastal Pacific leaves Christchurch on time at 7am,
quickly gathering speed. The crossing bells sound a constant
refrain through the Christchurch suburbs as passengers
stretch out and read their books or talk.
The 337km journey from Christchurch to Picton is timetabled
to take five hours and 13 minutes, with allowance for six
stops. The average speed of just over 60kmh rises to almost
100kmh on some of the long straight sections of track.
In contrast to New Zealand train travel in years gone by, the
Coastal Pacific is allowed to run up to 20 minutes ahead of
time. Passengers are asked to be at intermediate stations 20
minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time.
As a wet dawn arrives at 7.30am, the North Canterbury
countryside reveals paddocks that have had ample rain and
sunshine in the autumn.
Passengers chat one to another, or stroll along to the café
car for a coffee. Families near us are grouped around tables,
allowing room for children to read and play. Most sit in
single forward-facing seats.
The pleasure of smooth-riding bogies on the new AK carriages
provides a contrast to the bumpy road surface encountered
when travelling by car on State Highway 1 north from
The Coastal Pacific travels through the request stops at
Rangiora and Waipara without stopping. A brief operational
stop is made at Mina as a long container train goes south.
As the train reaches the coast south of Kaikoura, the cloud
lifts. The photographers move out to the viewing car.
Children go with their parents to see the coastal scenery.
Kaikoura's renamed "Whaleway" railway station serves as the
base for the busy Whale Watch attraction. A short stop is
made at the station for numerous day-travellers to Kaikoura.
North of Kaikoura, the DC 1800hp diesel engine draws the
train effortlessly up the grade over the Dashwood Pass and
later on the return journey up the hill from Picton to
Elevation. The 19 tunnels along the line, mostly in the
Kaikoura coast area, provide testament to the effort required
to construct the railway.
There is now little freight traffic from country stations and
many sidings have been removed or replaced by passing loops
for long container trains. There is some salt-freight traffic
from the Lake Grassmere saltworks and there are busy freight
railway sidings at Spring Creek, near Blenheim.
Many of the smaller stations along the line have long
vanished, including stations at Goose Bay and Oaro, near
Kaikoura. They were built for holiday passenger traffic that
never quite eventuated.
At Picton, the centre of the station is shared with a
The 100-year-old station at Blenheim, designed by Sir George
Troup, the architect who designed Dunedin Railway Station, is
empty after the Blenheim visitor centre moved elsewhere. This
station is one of the most attractive station buildings on
the line and deserves a good tenant.
Returning south to Christchurch on the Coastal Pacific the
next day, the train's timekeeping is again impressive. The
train reaches Blenheim from Picton several minutes early and
leaves early after all the boarding passengers are seated.
There appears to be a considerable number of locals as well
as tourists and overseas visitors. Passengers from Nelson
join the train at Blenheim and travel to Kaikoura. A Seddon
resident and her granddaughter alight at their home station.
The Christchurch earthquake has also affected traffic
patterns. A large overseas tour group disembark at Kaikoura
and stay nearby, due to the scarcity of hotel accommodation
The bright late-autumn sunshine on the trip south is a magnet
They crowd the viewing car as the train travels over the
Dashwood Pass. There is an almost two-hour run beside the sea
until the train turns inland south of Kaikoura. Passengers
read, walk to the viewing car and chat to the train managers
in the café car.
The train has automatic doors and passenger lifts for
disabled passengers. The passenger lift to help disabled
passengers board and leave the train, and the carriage-roof
window design appear to have been adapted from the new
carriages on the Taieri Gorge trains.
Compared with the high-speed trains overseas, the Coastal
Pacific is not fast. This surprises a group of young
French-speaking women who travelled south from Picton - but
it makes photography easier.
The magic of this trip will appear sharp and clear in their
• Bill Campbell and Jacqueline Guile travelled in the
Coastal Pacific courtesy of KiwiRail.
If you go
• The Coastal Pacific operates seven days a
week through summer, except for Christmas Day, leaving
Christchurch at 7am and Picton at 1pm.
• A one-way fare between Christchurch and
Picton costs $99, or $159 for two.
• The railway line between Christchurch and
Picton took 75 years to build. Construction stopped during
the depressions of the 1880s and the 1930s. The line from
Picton reached Kaikoura in 1944. The last and most rugged
section of the line along the coast south of Kaikoura and
then inland to Hundalee was completed in 1945.
• Goods traffic on the line increased when the
roll-on roll-off ferry Aramoana began service in 1962.
Passenger trains and railcars have run on the line between
Christchurch and Picton since 1945.