Friday, January 22, 2010

Lithgow Zig Zag

How do you get a train up a really steep hill? Even if it has motors or and engine powerful enough to climb a very steep hill, there is not enough adhesion between the rails and the wheels to allow such a steep climb. This problem afflicts trams too.

Well, all very well to use a counterweight to get a tram up and down a steep hill, but this is not practical for a large and heavy train.

Let us visit Lithgow, well ten kilometres short of Lithgow on the western flank of the Blue Mountains. At this point the mountains rapidly fall away to Lithgow's Valley below. A cry for a train was heard, from all parts of NSW west of the Blue Mountains. Twitter streams were created, a Facebook site set up, politicians flooded with emails and online petitions. Well, no not back in the mid 1860s. More likely local delegations were making representations to a their local members and to ministers.

So, how to get a train up a steep hill? It was probably an already tried and true method. You zig zag the train back and forth up the side of the hill. The train travels one way up the side of the hill, then reverses and climbs up a bit more and so forth until it reaches the top. Bit more organising to get the train up the hill than if straight track, but it worked well until there were so many trains to get up and down the hill, a lot of waiting time was involved at the top and the bottom of the mountainside.

By 1910 engineers were skilled enough to replace the zig zag railway with a dozen or so tunnels to get the train up onto the Blue Mountains and the zig zag train line was no longer needed.

Fortunately much of the system was left in place and restoration as a heritage railway began in 1975 and even today, it is an ongoing project.

Here is the website for the Zig Zag Railway. It is worth clicking on the link just to see the snow in the header photo.

Have I been on the Zig Zag Railway? Nope. Would I like to? Oh yes, well see it at least. Old trains aren't usually very comfortable. They clank and jolt a lot. Come to think of it, new ones are not so good either, for different reasons.

There are many photos on the net of the Zig Zag railway, but one picture I found tells a thousand words. I believe this mostest excellent photo is by Maksym Kozlenko Maxim75 . Well done to him. I do like a nice viaduct.


  1. Actually, if you had a pulley system and two parallel tracks, you could use the downhill weight of one train to haul the other one up, and visa-versa. Sounds a bit daft, I know, but it's what Victorian miners used to do...

  2. I would so love to go on that ride..just look at that scenery!

  3. Looks great, the scenery is spectacular and the journey would be fun :)

  4. Indeed they did Brian, here too. The tram with the counterweight is similar.

    Does look great Cazzie. Pity it is so far out of Sydney, over two hours by train I think.

    Yep Jayne, great fun.

  5. Anonymous11:38 pm

    Trouble was, steam trains, for all their romance, were hopelessly underpowered for/at pulling trains up steep gradients. Hence the zig-Zag.

  6. Michael, you would opt for insufficient power rather than grip? I was only guessing.

  7. Thanks for using my photo! :-) The views there are really impressive.

  8. Hope you don't mind too much. Sadly the zig zag railway is suspended. I hope it reopens soon.

  9. Absolutely not :-) All my photos are licensed under Creative Commons, so feel free to use them. More photos of this place available at,150.202667