What's your favourite colour combo? Blue and gold? Green and silver? Or even black and white? Whichever it is, you're going to love a trip on the TranzAlpine.

A crisp winter's day is the ideal time to do the trip, which takes just under five hours each way, and gives a literally new perspective to this route across the South Island.

The train is built for comfort and the views. The reclining seats are soft with plenty of legroom, and an informative commentary is available through supplied headphones. The refreshments, courtesy of Wishbone, are a far cry from the curled-corner sandwiches of yesteryear.

Most importantly, the panoramic windows are wide and high, allowing for full appreciation of the scenery. There's also an open-sided observation car for those wise enough to come equipped for the chilly conditions, and keen to fill up their memory cards — or even just their memories — with uninterrupted panoramas.

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Gliding out from Christchurch, stops are possible at Rolleston, Darfield and Springfield as you cross the Canterbury Plains under the great arch of the sky, heading for the mountains. Farmland stretches out flat and neat on either side, the paddocks marked out by ruler-straight windbreaks. At Springfield, the track finally veers away from the road into the golden tussock of the high country and towards the Waimakariri River's dramatic other face. If you've only ever seen its braided, shingly incarnation, you'll be astonished to find the train running along the edge of a spectacularly precipitous gorge.

Farmhouses huddle down into the west coast landscape on the TranzAlpine train journey from Christchurch to Greymouth. Photo / Pamela Wade
Farmhouses huddle down into the west coast landscape on the TranzAlpine train journey from Christchurch to Greymouth. Photo / Pamela Wade

Far below, deep and glamorously turquoise waters tumble between sheer cliffs, irresistibly photogenic. So too are the bridges and viaducts, of which the spindly looking frame of the Staircase Viaduct is the highest, at 72 metres above the river. There's a lot of ambitious engineering to admire on this section of the track, one of the main reasons the TranzAlpine is included in Lonely Planet's list of the world's 10 most amazing rail journeys. That includes plenty of tunnels — 15 of them, in fact, suddenly blotting everything out before delivering you, blinking, back into daylight at the other end.

At this time of year there will be plenty of white to balance that black. You are properly into the Southern Alps here, and below snow-covered peaks tributaries left and right feed into the Waimakariri, now back to its wide and braided form. There's a long bridge to cross before the track heads along the Bealey River to Arthur's Pass township.

Some people will leave the train here, keen for some personal interaction with all that snow on the hiking tracks. A Winter Special, which ends on August 29 [see checklist], allows for unlimited stopovers, for no extra fee — you simply get back on the train when it suits you, to complete the journey.

Everyone gets off at Arthur's Pass anyway, for some bracing alpine air, the obligatory selfie, and perhaps for a close-up of a kea or two, which are often seen perching on the station's iconic signboard.

The colours are dazzling along the TranzAlpine route. Photo / Pamela Wade
The colours are dazzling along the TranzAlpine route. Photo / Pamela Wade

Then it's all aboard before the train dives into the Otira Tunnel for 15 minutes of more darkness as the train rattles through solid rock for 8.5km. Use the time to appreciate the effort involved here: 15 tough years of drilling, blasting, digging and laying tracks, at the cost of eight lives. When it opened in 1923, it was the longest tunnel in the British Empire.

Everything changes when the train emerges on the West Coast side. Mountains tower over the row of weathered and paint-peeling houses at Otira where in winter they get only two hours of sunshine a day — though nature compensates for such parsimony by delivering a generous five metres of rain here annually.

Dense bush on the slopes meets lush green paddocks where dairy herds graze and tall kahikatea reach up towards misty, moody skies. There are more river valleys to follow, the train curving away from SH73 at Inchbonnie to circle round to Moana, on the shores of Lake Brunner, where the silver waters conceal huge trout.

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Finally, the TranzAlpine pulls into Greymouth, just in time for lunch, or a browse around the shops, or a walk along the river, famous for its treacherous bar, but also popular with whitebaiters, in season. Prominent on the stopbank here is the memorial to miners lost in a sad series of disasters throughout the Coast's history.

Daytrippers have to choose which activity to do in Greymouth, because there's only an hour in town before the train departs for the return journey — luckier souls though are just beginning their West Coast discovery tour.

Checklist
Back in operation since July 4, TranzAlpine is running a Winter Special daily for $75pp (one way) between Christchurch and Greymouth, available until August 29. To book, and for more information, go to tranzalpine.co.nz