Although the trains of the ZigZag Railway, in Australia’s Blue Mountains will fascinate an enthusiast, even someone who has no interest in the machinery would admire the engineering skill that went into a line designed to overcome a serious obstacle.
The whole purpose of a railway is to reduce the friction of the wheels, to enable a heavier load to be carried for the same amount of power. That lack of friction works against the train if it has a steep slope to climb or descend. The usual way is to tunnel through the hill, avoiding the slope altogether.
This, though, is very expensive, and, when they built the railway westward from Sydney in the 1860s, Engineer-in-Chief John Whitton did not have the money available to him. So, he decided to climb and descend the mountains by way of zig zags.
If you’ve ever tried to climb a hill on foot, on a bicycle or in a car, you’ll know that the easiest way up or down isn’t a direct route. It’s best to approach at an angle, and you’ll probably need to reverse direction at least once. You may have noticed that many mountain paths and roads form zig zags, usually, with a tight turn to be made at each angle.
So, when the railway reached the mountains in 1866, it needed to climb to a height of over 3000 feet. They did this by means of the Lapstone Zig Zag. This needed very little work, apart from laying the trackbed and the rails, and has now completely disappeared. But, to descend the mountains on the other side, at Clarence, much more work had to be done.
Over the next three years, the Lithgow Zig Zag was built, but, instead of just laying the track, as they had at Lapstone, they had to build bridges and short tunnels as well as the zig zag arrangement.
Trains would descend down a gentle diagonal slope to a station called Top Points, where the engine would be unhitched. It would ‘run around’ to the front of the train, couple up again, then set the points to proceed further down the slope, but in the opposite direction, to Bottom Points Station. Here, the engine would ‘run around’ again, before proceeding on its way to Lithgow.
By 1907, however, traffic on the railway had increased so much that the laborious procedure on the two zigzags was causing unacceptable delays, so tunnels through the mountains were proposed to replace it. The ‘Ten Tunnels’, as they’re known, were completed in 1910; Clarence was by-passed and the Zig Zag Railway fell into disuse. The trackbed was used as a walking trail for the next 65 years.
It wasn’t until 1975 that a group of enthusiasts thought that such a fine feat of engineering ought to be preserved, and used for the purpose for which it was intended. So, it was decided to rebuild the railway, using largely volunteer labour. But, probably for reasons of economy, they laid the track to the 3’6″ (‘Country Railway’) gauge, rather than the original ‘Standard’ 4’8½”. Since this gauge was rarely, if ever, used in New South Wales, it meant that locomotives and carriages had to come from Queensland and South Australia, where it was more common.
Even now, the railway is run by the ZigZag Railway Co-operative. This, with the exception of a very few salaried employees, is a consortium of volunteer enthusiasts dedicated to the preservation of this historic formation, and the skills associated with the operation of steam trains and other veteran carriages and wagons on it.
On week-days, or on days of serious fire risk, they usually use a diesel railcar for the trip. It’s an old train; a vintage, metallic-finished diesel, but, on a Wednesday, or a week-end or holiday, there’s usually a steam engine running.
The coaches came from the Queensland Railway, although there are older coaches from the South Australian Railway in a siding. One of the engines is a beautifully preserved, ex-Queensland Railways unit built by Walker’s Limited, of Maryborough, Qld., in 1956.
The round trip takes about 45 minutes, and if it’s a steam train, the engine will ‘run around’ at the Top Points and Bottom Points stations; passengers are welcome to leave the train at these times for photography, or just to stretch their legs. If you’re lucky, and can come when two trains are running, you can photograph the other train, too … preferably, as it toils up the hill. A diesel, however, doesn’t have to ‘run around’ when it changes direction; the driver merely takes up his position at the other end of the train.
At the Bottom Points Station, it’s only a short walk to the platform of the Sydney-Lithgow railway. If you’re going back to Sydney, the line will pass through the tunnels which replaced the ZigZag Railway.
If you’re going the other way, the line goes beyond Lithgow … and will, eventually, on its way to distant Perth, reach the Nullarbor Plain, and the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world. Truly, a complete contrast to the zigzags!