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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 holiday feeling.
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 airline headrests.
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 Christchurch.
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 fast-food franchise.
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 in Christchurch.
The bright late-autumn sunshine on the trip south is a magnet for photographers.
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 snaps.
• 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.