Australia’s Greatest Railway Engineering Feat Remains Idle

Will Trains Run Again On The Zig Zag Railway?

While rail construction started much earlier in the UK and USA, the first steam trains operated around 1855 in Sydney and Melbourne. The first line in NSW was a mere 14 miles to Parramatta, now a short suburban trip.

Looking at what happened next, I am amazed at the speed at which rail lines spread out of Sydney. By 1869, under the guidance of John Whitton, rail tracks were heading out of Sydney in all directions. They reached as far as Goulburn in the South, and spread across the Blue Mountains to the West, but the issue of descending the great escarpment to the Western Plains was a real issue.

The solution was the great Zig Zag Railway, a series of magnificent stone viaducts which are still rock stable nearly 150 years later. It is an ideal place to operate a heritage tourist railway with continuous climbs, tunnels and of course, those famous viaducts.

The Original Zig Zag Railway

At the end of the 1960s, steam engines in Australia were being destroyed at a frenzied rate. Indeed of the dozen or so 38s I rode in or behind in the late 1960s, only 3 survive today, plus one in bits! There is nothing like the sound of a mighty Pacific at speed on an express train working hard as it approaches a steep grade. With the lame rules around steam operations in force now, it is unlikely it will every happen again. These days a diesel is attached to a medium size train to “assist” the steam engine up front.

Getting back to the Zig Zag Railway, the lack of availability of NSW engines meant that when a group of enthusiasts including myself, decided it would be a great idea to build a heritage steam operation, they had to go to Queensland to secure locomotives that could be used on the railway. A few years later, after many road blocks and traumas. Steam finally chuffed up the escarpment across 2 of the 3 viaducts, and then reversed back to the main road.

Betty BB18 1/4 Climbs Number 1 Viaduct
Betty BB18 1/4 Climbs Number 1 Viaduct


This was a result of years of effort by  large number of people, including fund raising, lobbying politicians for funds, rail purchase, removal and transportation, and carriage reconditioning. I spent many weekends helping in this effort at that time, and am one of the founding members.

For years, tourists flocked to the railway. I was working there in 1977 just after my return from an extended overseas trip on the Easter Weekend. Crowds were huge and we could only just manage to keep ti all under control. Later there were specials including the “Hogwart’s Express and “Thomas The Tank” trains. It was an amazing site that continued until 2013, when the railway hit a snag.

The family at Zig Zag in better days
The family at Zig Zag in better days

By then it had become the premier tourist attraction in the Blue Mountains with thousands of passengers experiencing what is no longer possible in NSW, regular steam train rides on real trains! There were bush fires, storms and safety issues which have left the railway out of business since that time. That meant loss of valuable revenue, and a draining of funds just to keep things serviceable.

Can We Get This Going Again?

This is something I have thought about. How is it that this railway has been left idle, with no government or heritage body stepping in with finds to get it operating again? It would bring millions to the region which is desperately needed. After all, it operated at a profit for years, mainly staffed by volunteers. They even do their own crew training.

A recent picture I took from a trail in the mountains. Impressive Sight
A recent picture I took from a trail in the mountains. Impressive Sight

A Possible Solution

After visiting the site last week, I was thinking of a way forward to get this railway back in operation. It would seem that the interstate locos might be a reason it is difficult to get funding. At Dorrigo in Northern NSW there are a large number of steam locos stored, some in quite good condition, requiring minimal work to be returned to service. What if the Zig Zag approached Dorrigo, to borrow some real NSW locos, converted the gage back to 4′ 8 1/2” or even ran dual gauge to get government funding to get things back on track? I have no idea how much this would cost, but compared to the amount wasted in some other areas, surely it would be a good investment.

Locos Laying Idle At Dorrigo
Locos Laying Idle At Dorrigo

On my visit I took a shot of Clarence Station. It looked nothing like it does in the following video and shows many signs of neglect.

Clarence Station October 2015
Clarence Station October 2015

There must be a way to get this great Railway Wonder Of The World back on track. We are open to suggestions and will put them forward to the committee that runs the Railway.

What do you think?

The following Video is an English Documentary which shows the Zig Zag when it was in full swing. It is a far cry from the slowly deteriorating infrastructure I saw last week.


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