£ pound




Zig Zag Railway, Lithgow

The Lithgow Zig Zag is one of the major engineering achievements of the railway era, its construction opened up the western area of New South Wales beyond the Blue Mountains for development with access by rail. It was the major achievement of NSW Railways Chief Engineer John Whitton. At the time of its construction, it was the greatest civil engineering work in Australia and was considered worldwide as an engineering marvel.

After consideration of several alternate routes for the railway to pass over the Blue Mountains, the Great Western Railway was extended along the high ridge of the Darling Causeway from Mt Victoria. The descent to the Lithgow Valley was originally proposed by means of a tunnel. In 1866 the tunnel was estimated to be about two mile in length and a figure of $800,000 was set down as the cost of its construction. This would have required 10 million bricks to line it, an impossible task at the time as it would have been difficult to get a contractor to undertake such difficult work. As a result Whitton selected the zig zag method of ascent and descent. The engineering wonder Whitton created is recognised as one of approximately twenty of the greatest railway civil engineers in the first century of world railway construction.

The contract to build the Great Zig Zag was awarded to Mr Patrick Higgins in May 1866. It was for the Clarence to Wallerawang section of railway which consisted of seven stone viaducts, varying height from 10 to 70 feet, three tunnels and nearly one and a quarter million cubic yards of excavations, two-thirds through rock.

Most of the iron and steel rails were sourced through Sir John Fowler, who acted as Inspector of the railway materials obtained from England. Whitton was accused of favouring his brother-in-law, but was cleared of any impropriety. After Sir John retired tenders were accepted from another company and were found to be of very inferior quality as they had not been manufactured to the specifications laid down. Another rail controversy was over iron and steel rails. It was proposed to source iron rail from Lithgow at £ 10 a ton, instead of buying steel ones from England at £ 7 a ton. Whitton proved that even if the steel cost the same as iron they would be cheaper in the long run as they lasted six times longer. In the Blue Mountains Whitton had to build many viaducts, bridges and other works such as culverts; he used readily available sandstone . For this reason many of these works have survived.v It took 600 - 700 men, about 2.5 years to build the Zig Zag; they lived in tents, in 20 different locations, at temperatures down to -10 degrees Celcius during winter, there were only 2 permanent buildings on the Zig Zag, a bakery, and a gunpowder store. Each worker was paid 1 shilling 3 pence a day, or 1 shilling 9 pence if he brought his own horse, that is 15 or 19 cents a day, good money then, particularly as they had nowhere to spend it. The railway was mostly hand built, all of Middle Road, and most of Top Road consisted of ledges hand carved from the mountain side. The workers used hand augers for drilling, which were filled with gunpowder for blasting. It took 3 men to drill each hole, 2 to hold the auger and turn it, while another hit it with a hammer. After each blast if the material thrown out was not where required, workers hand loaded the rock into wheelbarrows or carts and took it where it was needed as fill.

When the line was surveyed, the surveyors were placed in large wicker baskets, and lowered over the cliff side, in order to shoot the line in. During construction, the chief engineer, John Whitton, sat on a stone seat carved in the cutting next to no. 2 viaduct, where he sat and supervised the work. He sent instructions by runners on foot or horseback, or signalled by semaphore or mirrors. This locality is still called Engineer's Lookout. Everything used on the railway was obtained locally, sandstone for the viaducts was hand carved, transported by horse drawn dray. The stone came from Baker's quarry about 1 km away to the north as the stone close by was of poor quality. The stones were measured in metric scale, because the stonemasons came from Italy and brought their own measuring equipment. The viaducts are inspected every 5 years; on the last inspection, the engineer said they were better than when they were built as they are designed so that settlement makes them stronger. From the time of construction and for much of the railway's use in the 19th century there were no trees on the Zig Zag. As rock was blasted away on each level it slid down the side of the mountain, taking anything that got in its way with it.



The Zig Zag is a giant "Z" carved in the side of the mountain. Trains travel down each part of the "Z" at a gradient of 1 in 42 which can safely be negotiated by a loaded train. The train travels a distance of 8 km to make the descent. The Lithgow Zig Zag was the earliest ever built, the one at Bhore Ghat near Bombay in India was only half a zig zag or single switchback with a single reversing station.

The Zig Zag was originally planned with five sandstone viaducts and 3 tunnels. Only 3 viaducts were built, the other two were replaced with stone removed from cuttings. The first electrically detonated blast took place in January 1867 on Middle Road. Only 2 tunnels were completed, the 3rd developed cracks during construction, and was blown up to form a cutting. It was the second electrically detonated explosion in the southern hemisphere. In September 1868 the Countess of Belmore came out from Sydney by train to push the plunger, she did not think that much of the occasion, in fact the only mention it got in her diary, was the fact that the train had broken down on the way back to Sydney. Blowing up the tunnel was the only ceremony that the Zig Zag had. After completion 18 October 1869, the railway immediately started operations.

On 18th October, 1869 the first official train ran across the Zig Zag to Bowenfels. This event was heralded worldwide as an engineering marvel resulting in many organised sight-seeing parties from overseas to view it. Between 1869 and 1910 the railway was a major force in the development of western New South Wales. Eventually traffic became so dense, due to the growth of the railway system through the spread of settlement, together with the loss of time in working over the Great Zig Zag, that alternatives were considered. From the 1880s many inquiries and investigations were held including consideration of John Whitton's original proposal for a two mile tunnel.

On 8 December 1908 a locomotive hauling a Sydney-bound stalled on 1 in 60 gradient just beyond Clarence tunnel. The engine-driver decided to divide the train. Unfortunately the engineman's mate did not release the air in the brakes. The second portion of the trained rolled downwards. The train's guard fell from his guard van and was injured. However, the guard of a stationary goods train that the runaway wagons ran into was killed.

In 1904 a goods engine burst through the buffer stops located at the top 'wing' and almost fell into the valley below. To alleviate the congestion until a new deviation opened, the 'top' and bottom 'wings' were improved. The 'top' wing was abandoned and a new line constructed which involved a sharp curve, heavy rock excavations and earth fillings to a depth of 60 feet. The 'bottom' wing was lengthened without any re-location. In 1908 work began on the existing deviation with its 10 tunnels and easier grade. On 16th October 1910 the new deviation was opened for traffic and the Great Zig Zag closed. All railway lines were removed and the formation lay abandoned until the 1970s when sections of the railway, including tunnels and viaducts, were restored for use by a tourist steam railway.

Zig Zag Tourist Railway

Note: On Thursday 17 October 2013 fire swept through the railway, following an outbreak to the west the previous day, fanned by strong winds. Thanks to heroic efforts by the fire services no lives were lost. But several houses were lost and alas, much Zig Zag rolling stock was also lost. As a result the railway is not presently operational. Most of the steam locomotives and diesel engines in the workshop escaped relatively unharmed, however a diesel rail motor was destroyed, along with 10 passenger carriages.

The Zig Zag Railway operates trains on the Top, and Middle Bars of the "Great Lithgow Zig Zag", between Clarence and Bottom Points, about 45 minutes walk from Clarence. There are 3 stops: 1) on Top Road at no. 1 Viaduct, for the best view of the whole Zig Zag, 2) at Top Points to see the site of the 1901 runaway and reverse direction, and 3) at Bottom Points for a tour through the workshops, where locomotives and rolling stock are maintained and repaired.

The Zig Zag Railway runs on the same track bed as the original railway in 1869 except for the part on the west (Lithgow) side of Clarence Tunnel where both the railway track and the road were modified to accommodate both. The road was built during World War II, on part on the railway old track bed. The gauge of the Zig Zag railway was originally the New South Wales Railways standard gauge of 1435 mm. When the Zig Zag Railway Co-op was formed, the NSW railways would not sell rollingstock because they were forming their own railway museum at Thirlmere. Zig Zag therefore looked elsewhere for rollingstock. It bought mostly from Queensland Railways, but some came from South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania. The track was therefore laid 1067mm gauge. The 2000 class railmotors came from Queensland where they were used for the Brisbane commuter service 1960s - 1994. They enable the railway to run trains daily, on days when a steam train would be uneconomic.

The railway is a Co-operative is owned and run by its volunteer members, with a small number of employed staff. It came into being through a group of young men in the 1970s who wanted to run steam trains again on the Great Lithgow Zig Zag. In 1972 they formed the Co-operative; the first train ran 18th October 1975, 106 years after it was originally opened. The current General Manager was one of those founder members.



  • Get Directions




  • Derailment on the Zig Zag Railway


    Bottom Points





This website is published as information only. Please direct enquiries about places and services featured to the relevant service provider. | About Us | Email us

Design and concept © 2019 Australia For Everyone | W3Layouts