New Zealand's Coastal Pacific railway back on track after Kaikoura earthquake

South Island’s scenic Christchurch to Picton rail journey reopens on Saturday after earthquake damage led to closure in 2016

One of the world’s greatest scenic rail routes has reopened on New Zealand’s South Island after being closed for two years following the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016.

The Coastal Pacific train route, part of which hugs the coastline, was damaged by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on 14 November 2016, that also destroyed homes and roads, killing two people. Landslides caused miles of train track to fall into the sea, and the damage to the Main North railway line meant that a third of rail operator KiwiRail’s routes in the region were out of action for over two years.

After a major clean-up operation that saw rubble cleared from over 100 landslides, and repairs made to 60 of the route’s 175 bridges and 20 of its 22 tunnels, the line was reconnected in August 2017 to allow freight trains to assist with work. The Coastal Pacific train will open to paying passengers on 1 December following a commemorative journey on 23 November, attended by prime minister Jacinda Adhern.

Tourists looking out from a viewing carriage on the Coastal Pacific
Tourists looking out from a viewing carriage on the Coastal Pacific Photograph: PR Company Handout

The 216-mile journey from Christchurch to Picton in the Marlborough Sounds region takes six hours, travelling over the 21-metre-high Okaharia viaduct, passing Oaro’s rugged coast, the Kaikoura mountain range and the pink Lake Grassmere. Stops include the Blenheim wine region, and the towns of Kaikoura and Rangiora. Currently a seasonal route, running from December to April, daily trips start in Christchurch at 7am and return from Picton at 2.15pm, arriving back in Christchurch at 8.30pm (tickets from £85).

“The reopening of the line for passengers is critical to regional economies,” said KiwiRail’s acting chief executive Todd Moyle, who described the clearing and repair project as a “rebuild effort not seen since World War II”. Since it was built in 1945, the route has been vital to the local economy, previously bringing 42,000 passengers a year into the region, resulting in an estimated spend of NZ$34m (£18m) across Marlborough and Kaikoura in recent years.

A further NZ$40m (£21.5m) investment from the government will eventually allow the Coastal Pacific train to run year round, with a 63-seat carriage to meet demand in peak season plus a new premium carriage. “A final start date has yet to be determined as it will depend on how long the carriages take to be refurbished or built. However, it is hoped that by 2022 the extra capacity will be available,” said Moyle.

• This article was corrected on 3 December 2018. The journey from Christchurch to Picton is 216 miles, not 61 miles as stated in an earlier version.


Antonia Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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