LISTEN TO TODD MOYLE TALK WITH LARRY WILLIAMS ABOVE
The world's most famous railway journeys – Orient Express, Trans-Siberian, The Ghan – immediately conjure notions of adventure, mystery, exotic glamour and natural beauty.
And despite New Zealand's love affair with the motor vehicle, it boasts some top-class train trips of its own – the TranzAlpine across the Southern Alps, the Marlborough Flyer and the Taieri Gorge Railway.
For the past two years, however, one of the most picturesque routes in the world has been out of action.
The violent magnitude 7.8 earthquake of November 14, 2016, destroyed the spectacular Coastal Pacific track between Picton and Christchurch.
But today, after an unprecedented two-year repair job clearing more than 100 landslides and fixing 60 bridges and 20 tunnels, the Coastal Pacific rolled into Kaikoura, greeted by hundreds of locals cheering, clapping and waving, buoyed by the return of a service that brings more than 42,000 visitors and tens of millions of dollars to the region every year.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – who was on the maiden return voyage sharing snaps of baby Neve with passengers Kath Sutton and Carmel Tindall, whose father worked on the railway – then announced a $40 million cash injection to start KiwiRail's first premium carriage service and to stretch it from operating just seven months a year, to all year round.
The premium service, along with station upgrades for Picton, Blenheim and Kaikoura, will aim to attract global high-spender tourists.
And it will bring New Zealand closer to the glitzy rivals of the Orient Express.
The coastal road and rail corridor between Picton and Christchurch was smashed and washed away in places by the November 2016 quake.
Locomotive engineer Paul Foskett had just driven a freight train from Picton and handed it over to a colleague just north of Kaikoura about 10 minutes before the quake hit soon after midnight.
He was driving home and watched State Highway 1 open up before him and he feared he'd be swallowed up by the earth and killed.
Foskett was back on the train today – along with other rebuild workers and engineers - amazed at how smooth the journey is.
"It feels safe," he says, "I'm just more wary of Mother Nature. I've learned my lesson."
When KiwiRail acting chief executive Todd Moyle flew over the devastation two days later, he wondered if the Main North Line could ever be fixed.
The rebuild job has been the biggest railroad construction task in New Zealand since World War II.
More than 1600 people have worked around the clock – clearing millions of tonnes of earth and realigning road and track, reclaiming some of the sea – to reopen the crucial thoroughfare. Ardern described it as an "astonishing feat".
Night freight services resumed in September last year, while daytime freight trains started running last month.
The passenger Coastal Pacific begins a regular tourist service on December 1.
Kaikoura locals Pam Edgar, 73, and Juliet Latter, 77, won a place on the first Blenheim to Kaikoura trip today through a ballot.
While train spotters snapped the locomotive leaving the station this morning, as it wound its way through Marlborough's never-ending vineyards, past salt mines and rolling hills, across to the Pacific Ocean, and the seabed, raised more than 1m in places by the massive quake's shaking, they were in their element.
"Absolutely amazing," Edgar said.
They'd both done the journey years ago – "when it wasn't a posh thing to do" – and they loved the experience, especially when the train pulled into their home town.
"You never get sick of looking at the mountains and the sea," Latter told her friend.
She agreed. "Every morning, you get up and pull the curtains and just say, 'Wow'."