On 18 October 1869, the Lithgow Zig Zag Railway was opened. Zig Zag Railway is an Australian heritage railway, situated near the town of Lithgow in the state of New South Wales.
It was opened by the not-for-profit Zig Zag Railway Co-op. Ltd. as an unpaid volunteer-staffed heritage railway in October 1975, using the alignment of the Lithgow Zig Zag line that formed part of the Main Western line between 1869 and 1910.
The line climbs the western flank of the Blue Mountains, using railway zig zags to gain height.
Operation of the heritage railway was suspended in 2012 following accreditation issues with the New South Wales Government. The railway was aiming to resume services in October 2013, but was then severely damaged during the 2013 NSW Bushfires and then subsequently by torrential rain.
Repairs are ongoing and trials of restored rail vehicles and track commenced in August 2016 and it was planned to re-commence limited heritage operations in 2019, until the 2019-2020 bushfires damaged key infrastructure.
Construction and abandonment
The Lithgow Zig Zag line was constructed as part of the Main Western line and opened on the 19 October 1869. Between Lithgow and Clarence, the Main Western line needed to climb the western flank of the Blue Mountains, overcoming a vertical distance of 550 ft (170 m).
The alternative eventually decided upon required the use of two railway zig zags known as Top Points and Bottom Points, where all trains had to reverse. The line had a ruling grade of 1:42 (~2.38%) on three inclines known as the Top Road (above Top Points), Middle Road (between the two zig zags) and Bottom Road (below Bottom Points). The line included several short tunnels and some viaducts.
The steep gradients and need to reverse trains proved to be a serious bottleneck to traffic on the line, and there were several accidents with runaway trains at the reversing points. Attempts were made to mitigate this by realigning the track and relocating and extending the reversing stations, but the problems continued.
As early as 1885 plans for alleviating the Zig Zag problem involved the construction of a 2 mi (3.2 km) long tunnel. This was said to provide little gain for the cost proposed. In 1908, work began on the Ten-Tunnels Deviation, a double-tracked route that by-passed the two reversing stations and the upper two inclines, although retaining the Bottom Road with its 1:42 gradient. Once this was completed, the by-passed section was closed in October 1910.
Revival and preservation
As the end of steam operation in New South Wales approached, in 1967 a group of steam enthusiasts headed by Ian Thornton were keen to establish an operating steam museum. The Lithgow Zig Zag was chosen as a suitable site based on its accessibility by day-trippers from Sydney, its scenery, abundant water supplies and availability of coal.
In March 1969 negotiations commenced with the Zig Zag Trust, the Department of Lands and the Lithgow City Council.
In 1972 the Lithgow Switchback Railway Co-op Limited was born and this became the Zig Zag Railway Co-operative Limited in 1974. At this time, the Commissioner for Railways only made heritage locomotives and rolling stock available to the officially sponsored New South Wales Rail Transport Museum.
Thus the line was relaid to 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge as used in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania rather than the New South Wales 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+1⁄2 in) to allow locomotives and carriages to be procured from these states.
In 1975 the new track was complete on the Middle Road between Bottom Points and Top Points. On 29 August 1975 1046 operated the first journey from Bottom Points to Top Points. Services commenced on 18 October 1975, the 106th anniversary of the original opening.
On 4 April 1987 the line was opened along the Top Road between Top Points and Mt Sinai Halt and on 29 October 1988 through to Clarence. A further extension to meet the Main Western line at Newnes Junction has been started with track laid for 50% of the distance.
In August 2006 the Independent Transport Safety Regulator (ITSR), an agency of the Government of New South Wales that regulates safety and accredits railway operators, identified the Zig Zag Railway (and one other operator) as a “higher risk” isolated line operator because of its complex operations and high numbers of passenger trips.
The ITSR gave Zig Zag Co-operative additional time to develop a safety improvement plan in order to comply with the Act, that took effect for all heritage railway operators from 1 January 2007.
On 1 April 2011 an incident occurred resulting in a collision between a maintenance vehicle and a two-car rail motor, between Clarence and Top Points stations. Travelling in opposite directions and carrying one passenger (in the Hy-rail) plus one driver of each rail vehicle, two injuries were sustained.
A subsequent investigation by the Office of Transport Safety Investigations found that the principal error was miscommunication. The inquiry also identified that a number of other factors were found to have contributed to the collision.
From March 2012 only railcars could be operated and in June 2012 the ITSR ordered a cessation of all services until a number of safety issues were addressed. The railway was then aiming to resume services in October 2013.
2013 Bushfire and storm damage
The Railway was severely damaged by the ‘State Mine Fire’, part of the October 2013 bushfires. The Railway suffered millions of dollars of damage which included ten passenger carriages and four accommodation carriages. The most extensive damage caused by the fires was at Bottom Points workshop where most of the north side was destroyed.
This included the spare parts stores, offices and most of the machine shop. Electrical equipment to operate signals was totally destroyed as was the repeater tower for the safety radio communication system and the internal telephone lines and exchange. One thousand new railway sleepers were also lost as was the caretaker’s converted accommodation carriage.
Locomotive 1047 which had been stored behind Bottom Points workshop was also badly damaged The caretaker was “lucky to escape with her life” according to the Zig Zag’s then CEO Michael Forbes. Much of the damage was suffered by original railway equipment from the 1920s. At that time it was estimated that the railway would take a full year to recover from the State Mine Fire.
Heavy rain then caused subsequent damage to an embankment near the western end of the Clarence tunnel, the platform area at Top Points, and to the run around loop track at Bottom Points. In September 2017 restoration of vehicles and infrastructure were still being undertaken and hopes were for recommencement of services as soon as safe and practical.
Due to the complexity of repairs and reinstatement infrastructure, the re-opening was hoped for late 2019, but all hopes were dashed with the damage from the 2019 bushfires. The railway’s website and facebook page both have updates on the redevelopment.
2019 Bushfire damage and ongoing repairs
In late December 2019 the Zig Zag Railway was hit by the Gospers Mountain bushfire. The station buildings and most of the rolling stock survived with the exception of a few already vandalised carriages.
The toilet block, storage areas, communications hut, signaling equipment, water and power supplies and main office with the past 45 years of records were all destroyed along with an estimated 1500 sleepers all of which pushed the reopening a few years back.
On July 24, 2020 diesel locomotive 1004 became the first locomotive to travel from Bottom Points Station to Clarence station since the cessation of steam services in March 2012. Works trains had previously only operated on the Middle Road (Bottom Points to Top Points) due to the extensive damage at Clarence caused by the 2013 embankment slip.
2020 Storm and Flood Damage
In March 2020 the railway was well into the project of making the rail corridor safe when storms struck Zig Zag, this impacted the return to service the railway was heading for.
The coronavirus affected most of Australia, Zig Zag Railway was affected, volunteers were kept away from the site, as it was not deemed safe for the volunteers to move from Sydney to country areas. The loss of toilet facilities forced the decision to suspend some of the work over the site, management could not guarantee the a clean safe environment from COVID-19.