Saturday 19 November 2011 – The Zig Zag Railway

Preamble, posted 25 January 2012

I’ve been halfway through writing up our trip on the Zig Zag Railway for some time. Finding out about the following derailed me:

Photo of train hanging over a cliff!

Accident on the Zig Zag Railway, 4 April 1901 (State Records NSW)

Derailment on the Zig Zag at Lithgow
Dated: 4/04/1901
Item held at State Records NSW
Posted on Flickr under a Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

And then I got ahead of myself.

In 1901 a train coming down the Zig Zag lost control of its brakes, crashed through the wooden bufferstop, and stopped half suspended over the cliff edge. The driver and fireman were uninjured, as, when they realised that the train could not stop, they jumped out. The day after the accident the train was pulled back on the track, and allowed to continue on its way, remaining in service until the mid 1950s. The driver and fireman booked onto work the next morning, with a small fine, no stress counselling, just straight back to work!

– Zig Zag Railway website page Lineside

Fancy fining them! See comments below for the newspaper article about the accident. And here’s the story of our trip.

A weekend away

On Friday 18 November Dac and I set out – having consulted those seasoned travellers, my swimming mates, and the odd map – to visit my sister Fiona and her family in Katoomba. They have a house there which, just for 2011, they’ve been using as a weekender. During the year, Fiona has worked hard to have it done up. It will be let again in 2012, so this was my last chance to see it.

I hadn’t driven to the Blue Mountains since the early 80s, and there was considerable doubt whether I’d be able to drive there on this occasion. My back had been spasming away for several weeks. A few days before the trip, it settled down just enough for me to think I could make use of the accommodation we’d rashly booked months before. We were going to stay at the 3 Explorers Motel – curiously, the very motel Helen and I stayed at in 1984 or so.

I’ve been known to make it to Sydney (now an “easy” 3-hour drive from here) more or less unscathed by stopping every hour, and staying at least two nights before driving back. The Blue Mountains, however, prove to be another two hours on top of that. 😦 Looking at a map doesn’t really convey the complexities of the drive. The alleged Great Western Highway is a nightmare of single lanes, roadworks, and trucks in all shapes and sizes. All speeds, too – although the fast ones tended, as I drive at the speed limit, to be located behind me. On my bumper bar, in fact.

Finding somewhere to stop and stretch (and change tailgaters) on such a narrow and busy road was a challenge. In desperation, we veered off into the grounds of a private school. That was a very short break, as I kept expecting to be arrested for trespassing on hallowed ground and encroaching on precious scions.

Having left home at 10am, we arrived at our motel at 3.30. I was gibbering, I have to admit, so it was very helpful that we’d been given a lovely room. I’d asked for the ground floor because of my mobility problems, and it seemed they’d given us the best room in the place. Tucked into a corner with the laundry on one side of us, we only had one neighbour and plenty of space. Reasonable mattresses, too.

My sister was coming down alone – the others would arrive in the morning – and we all hit Katoomba at around the same time. First thing we did was drive to Leura for afternoon tea at a shop that served scones cooked in little flowerpots. 🙂 (The Wayzgoose Cafe, home of the Flowerpot Scone, in a building that was once home of the Federal Printing Works.)

We then combed the main street of Katoomba for a suitable place to dine and decided on the Avalon, a restaurant “in the upstairs dress-circle of the once famous Savoy Picture Theatre”. There were views of the Jamison Valley, but only for those who’d booked. A rather uneven meal, but I was glad we’d gone there, for the interesting decor and a step up from takeaway.

On Saturday morning I insisted on going to the Zig Zag Railway. My decision was controversial: it involved me in more driving, and it meant we wouldn’t be around to greet Ricky and the children. That meant Fiona couldn’t come with us, which was a pity, but we managed to have breakfast together first, at the Hatters Cafe.

An adult and a concession ticket; front and back of the souvenir coin


We decided to set off early and catch the first Zig Zag train of the day. Clarence Station was deserted when we arrived – an hour early. The drive hadn’t turned out to be nearly as winding and congested as we’d expected.

Elegant lights at Clarence Station

It was a lovely day to be out (30° in Sydney and Canberra, but a pleasant 25° in the mountains) and I didn’t mind waiting an hour, with an art nouveau leaflet to read, a gift shop to examine, and old station furniture to admire.

Carriage with wood and brass fittings and maroon seats

Carriage on the Zig Zag Railway

They were having trouble with the steam engine, so we were going down the zigzag by diesel. I particularly enjoyed:

  • the vintage wooden carriages
  • the long tunnel at the start of the trip, where I got into trouble for playing with the flash and taking photos of Dac in the dark
  • the wonderful views

Guard's carriage and diesel engine; Dac in a tunnel; Top Points Station


From the Zig Zag Railway website

The Lithgow Zig Zag was the earliest ever built … In the 19th century there was only one brake on the train and one on the engine, so trains travelled very slowly and it took 3 hours to cross the Zig Zag. …

When the railway reached Clarence, the highest railway station on the mountains at 3658 feet above sea level, a way of descending 209m (687 feet) down the Lithgow Valley had to be found. There was a choice of cutting a 2 mile long tunnel, using about 10 million bricks, or to build a Zig Zag. The Zig Zag was the easiest and most economical method with the materials and technology then available.

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 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 …

The railway is a Co-operative is owned and run by its volunteer members …

The gauge of the Zig Zag railway was originally the New South Wales Railways standard gauge of 1435 mm (4’ 8 1/2″). 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 (3’6″) gauge.

The viaducts were wonderful to see.

Black and white photo of viaducts 2 and 3

Zig Zag Railway circa 1900

From the Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum
This photo was taken circa 1900 in Dargan, New South Wales
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial

Here’s my version of almost the same spot:

My photo of a similar spot

How it looks now

We didn’t have much time to stop and stare when we reached Bottom Points, but the little shop down there was where I encountered the poster of the train hanging over the abyss.

Bottom Points signal box

At the approach to the station is Bottom Points Signal Box. This signal box was formerly beside the main line not far from the main line Zig Zag Platform. It was gradually leaning towards the main line because of vibration from heavy coal trains. NSW State Rail sold the signal box to Zig Zag Railway for a dollar in the early 1990s and it was moved to the present site.

– Zig Zag Railway website page Lineside

Lithgow was nowhere to be seen, but we looked down over the main line to Sydney, and saw a passenger train and a goods train go by. (See featured image at the top of the page for bits of the goods train.) Lithgow was one of the places my father lived as a child. I’d got it confused in my mind with Lismore (where he was born) and thought it was a place he’d liked. When I started taking an interest in family history and asked him about it, he quickly set me straight: “It’s a horrible cold place”. So, while I’d have been interested in being in a town where Dad had lived, I didn’t feel I’d missed that much!

Blue 1951 Steam Engine

What took us back up

On the way back up the hill, we had the steam engine. It’s been painted blue so they can have Thomas the Tank Engine trips. I was quite surprised to see the date 1951 on the engine. I freely admit I travelled to high school on a steam train, but it never occurred to me that they were still being built the year after I was born. They were gradually but steadily being replaced by diesel as far back as I can remember.

Transcription below

Railway Works / No. 208 / Ipswich / 1951 / Queensland

Two more Zig Zag sights:

The engine room on the blue train



Dilapidated engine in a siding

When we arrived back at Clarence Station, it was thronging. We were very glad to have taken the early train!

We stopped in Mt Victoria (I think) for fish and chips on the way back to Katoomba, and joined my rels in the afternoon. Ricky and Daniel went for a swim; Dac had a rest; Fiona, Amy and I visited Leura again for the Bygone Beautys [sic] Treasured Teapot Museum and tearooms.

Amy at the Museum

In the evening, we were treated to a barbecue followed by parlour games. It was fun.

Sunday morning in Katoomba: Fiona, Val, Dac

On Sunday, Ricky played golf and the rest of us continued our pursuit of decadence at the Blue Mountains Chocolate Company, over the road from our motel. They serve DIY hot chocolate in a special cup heated by a candle, with a special spoon that is also a straw.

Daniel in the Chocolate Company playground

After golf, Ricky took Daniel back to Sydney to attend the school fete. The rest of us spent a desultory hour in Leura, looking at the candy [sic] and Christmas shops. The long drive had started weighing on my mind so we said goodbye to Fiona and Amy and hit the road, early enough for the traffic to be relatively mild. 🙂

Next day, my back returned to its routine 2011 state of agony and stayed like that for a month. I enjoyed the weekend away, but feel as if I can’t go anywhere ever again.

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3 Responses to Saturday 19 November 2011 – The Zig Zag Railway

  1. albertine says:

    I was glad to see this excellent picture – makes me think of those newspaper illustrations of the Tay Bridge disaster. It must have been awful for the people involved, yet those legs sticking up make me smile. How cruel!

    • valkyrie1 says:

      They look like legs, but I think they’re a tree stump! No one was hurt:

      1901 ‘RAILWAY ACCIDENT ON THE ZIG-ZAG.’, Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), 10 April, p. 2
      SYDNEY, Wednesday.
      An accident, involving some £200 damage, occurred on Thursday evening at the Zig-Zag, near Lithgow, to a goods train from Penrith. The train was descending the top line incline, and when the Westinghouse brakes were applied they refused to act. As a result the engine was impelled forward at terrific speed until it struck the end of the length upon which trains back up to enable them to run on to a different track. Here five feet of solid cut-out rock was encountered, and, having demolished the strong buffer stops, the engine bounded up on to the rock ledge, on the other side of which was a deep chasm. A truck next the engine mounted the tender by the force of the impact, and became a total wreck; the next truck also left the rails, but the remainder of the train kept its position. Beyond shock, the driver and fire-man received no injuries. A departmental inquiry completed yesterday afternoon shows that the derailment of the engine was due to the injudicious use of the brake, which resulted in the train getting beyond control.
      – viewed 26 December 2011,

  2. Antoinette Lautenbach says:

    Good Heavens, the Tay Bridge disaster! I have just (coincidentally) read a poem on the Tay Bridge disaster, written by William McGonagall (I had never heard of the disaster before, or of William McGonagall, for that matter). The poem concluded:
    “I must now conclude my lay
    By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
    That your central girders would not have given way,
    At least sensible men do say,
    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses,
    For the stronger we our houses do build,
    The less chance we have of being killed.”

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