Alexander Bisley traverses the Mainland on the Tranzalpine route.

"Has its moments. She's a pretty good office," the TranzAlpine train's friendly driver Gary laughs. It's a crystal-clear day and I'm upfront in the cab between Christchurch and Springfield. Ahead of us, there's a sweet mountain vista: Mt Hutt, Torless Range, and Polar Range.

Springfield to Arthur's Pass, now back in the passenger carriages, is my favourite section of this renowned 4.5 hour, 223km jaunt. The Waimakariri Gorge bursts into view; the river's deep blue water and striking cliffs. We enjoy long, serpentine views, winding through tunnels and viaducts. I like France's TGV and Japan's Shinkansen rocketing at 320km/h, but between 40-110km/h is a much better speed for taking in the picturesque countryside.

And the Shinkansen doesn't have an open-air observation carriage where you can appreciate the bracing, elemental weather. Riding through high-country stations like Craigieburn - with panoramic views of the Southern Alps on a clear day - is powerful.

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More so when I realise this is the landscape that inspired young James K Baxter's poem High Country Weather, still calming and inspiring angry, youngish men. People of all ages, really. George, a Malaysian retiree sitting opposite, remembers Baxter's distinctive presence and inspiration on Wellington's Cuba St during the late 1960s.

Cass, known for Rita Angus' iconic painting of the train station, remains appealing.

There's little doubting the beauty of Arthur's Pass (and its view of Mt Philistine), the highest station on our trip, 737m above sea level and with a temperature of just 1C.

The Otira tunnel between Arthur's Pass and somnolent Otira, under the Southern Alps main divide, is a feat. With technical challenges and union action (and a war that took tunnellers away to dig and blast under Germans on the Western Front), the 8.5 km tunnel took 15 years to build, and cost eight lives. The 300-tonne Tranz Alpine courses through smoothly. The only eyesore is on the Christchurch side, cumbersome roading developments around Rolleston. More rail seems a better way. Though Kiwi Rail is doing markedly better post-renationalisation - this line carries a million litres of milk daily during high season - they could do more. Why couldn't all those well-heeled Lions watchers take a train to Dunedin? Moana's shimmering Lake Brunner impresses. We ride past cows Hereford (brown and cream), and Angus (black), enjoying their pre-plate frolic in the fields. There's solid food and drink to be had in the cafe car, though my photographer and I mostly picnic on imported snacks before arriving in Greymouth.

You really have to stay on the West Coast for at least a night. At the Punakaiki Resort, the Tasman Sea roars outside our relaxing, accommodation. Punikaiki Resort's restaurant does tasty beef and lamb dishes, and the service is excellent. Around Punakaiki there are many highlights including the Truman Track, and the Pororari River Track with high limestone cliffs. On the first night, the sky along the beach by the resort is one of the most stunning I can remember, with almost no noise, air and light pollution, and a luminescent Milky Way. The famous Punakaiki rocks and blowholes are similarly spectacular. CHECKLIST Details The TranzAlpine Express travels daily between Christchurch and Greymouth, with fares from $119. Want more holiday inspiration? Sign up to our new Travel Insider newsletter here.