West Coast's Otira Railway Tunnel gets makeover in time for 100th birthday commemorations

A piece of West Coast history is getting a makeover just in time for its 100th birthday commemorations.

The Otira Railway Tunnel may be old, but it's the younger generation who are deciding how it will look for the next 100 years.

At 8.5 kilometres long when it was built a century ago, the Otira Tunnel was the longest in the British Empire.

"It's dead straight, no bends in it, it's quite significant," said Diane Gordon-Burns, coordinator-chair of the Otira Tunnel commemoration committee.

"When you stand at Otira you can see the light at the Arthurs Pass end."

The historic tunnel may no longer be the longest but it's still a crucial link nestled in the Southern Alps between Christchurch and the Coast that's being celebrated.

"A commemoration of the people who built the tunnel and the two towns either side of the tunnel, Arthur's Pass and Otira, so it's a great opportunity to remember all those people that were involved in that and that have kept it going for the past 100 years," Gordon-Burns said.

Otira is renowned for its rail history. The original working men's cottages are still dotted along the roadside.

"Lots of visitors come to this area and use it cause of its historical importance. It was a very important town, a lot of people have been through here.

"When you think that 650 people lived here in its heyday, that's a lot of descendants who want to come back and see it," Gordon-Burns said.

Thousands turned out for the opening in 1923, but 100 years on celebrations look a little different, a plaque on a rock and a bit of a makeover of the underpass.

Students from five West Coast schools were given creative license to decorate.

"There is no stipulation on what they should paint, it's been left up to them," Gordon-Burns said.

"I'm painting the wind star of Matariki," one said.

That risk has paid off.

"I love it, it lights up at night quite well. It's like having a gallery at our back door really," Gordon-Burns said.

A modern touch to celebrate a piece of history.