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Steam Locomotive B246 following an accident on the Great Zig Zag, 4 April 1901. Photo: Flicker Commons. This image is in the public domain.

B205 Class engine No. 246 hanging precariously at Top Points, 4 April 1901. Photo: State Library of NSW, Wikimedia Commons.

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Accidents on the Great Zig Zag

David Matheson

 6 Jul2023

The Great Zig Zag near Lithgow was opened in 1869. Westbound trains descended the zig zag, most of which had a gradient of 1 in 42 (2.4%), with trains changing direction at Top Points and again at Bottom Points. Eastbound trains heading towards Sydney climbed the zig zag and often required an assistant engine if the train had a large load.

Read more about the Great Zig Zag:


Various accidents have occurred on the Great Zig Zag, during regular operations in the 1800s, the 1900s, and as a tourist railway.

Accidents in the 1800s

Several runaways occurred on the steep gradients of the Great Zig Zag. On 20 February 1870, only four months after it was opened to traffic, a runaway occurred on the top road. A mixed train was travelling down the line, running tender first in drizzling rain. The driver lost control of the train, which crashed into an embankment at the end of Top Points. A goods wagon rose up and crashed into a compartment of one of the passenger carriages, which was fortunately vacant at the time. The fireman had his foot cut off in the crash. Following this accident, the gradient at Top Points was made steeper in an attempt to prevent further accidents of this kind.


On 16 May 1883 another runaway occurred, this time on the bottom road of the zig zag. A livestock train heading towards Sydney stopped at Bottom Points to take water. Although the fireman applied the handbrake on the locomotive, a broken screw coupling caused the wagons to break away and they started to run back down the gradient towards Eskbank. The guard applied the brake in the brake van and applied handbrakes on some of the wagons by running alongside the moving train and then climbing aboard. He eventually jumped clear of the train when it failed to stop. A mixed goods train had by this time departed Eskbank, also heading towards Sydney. When the driver saw the runaway train approaching, he tried to reverse his train, but was unable to avoid a collision. The brake van at the rear of the runaway train was shattered. One of the runaway wagons was forced by the crash on top of the locomotive hauling the mixed goods before it fell down an embankment. On the footplate of the locomotive were the driver and two firemen. The driver jumped clear and the train then ran out of control back to Eskbank without further incident. One of the firemen was buried under the debris from the crash and died, while the other suffered only minor injuries. No blame was attributed to any of the employees involved in the running of either of the two trains.


Another runaway occurred on 10 October 1891. Two engines were leading a westbound goods train, which consisted of 21 goods wagons and two brake vans, one in the middle of the train and one at the end. As the train was proceeding down the middle road of the zig zag, a coupling between two wagons broke and the rear part of the train, consisting of a brake van and five wagons, began to run out of control down the gradient. Initially the two guards on the train, one in each van, were unaware that part of the train had broken away; by the time they realised what had occurred and applied the handbrakes the train could not be stopped. The runaway wagons continued to Bottom Points, where they crashed into a rock wall. The two guards and a passenger in one of the vans jumped clear before the crash. Another passenger who had been riding in the van at the end of the train was thrown through its roof and was fortunate to escape serious injury. The brake van was shattered to pieces and the five wagons were broken and splintered.


A goods train being hauled by B205 Class engine No. 246 and consisting of 36 wagons was travelling down the top road of the Great Zig Zag on 4 April 1901. As the train passed the distant signal approaching Top Points, the driver became aware that the train was out of control. Although the air brakes and handbrakes were applied the train continued onwards, only slowing on the uphill gradient through Top Points. The train’s momentum pushed it through the buffers, with the engine continuing over a three-foot high rock wall. When it came to a stop the front wheels of the engine were hanging precariously above the gully below. The driver and fireman had jumped from the engine and were virtually uninjured. A goods truck directly behind the engine had been completely smashed. Two locomotives were required the following day to pull the stranded engine back to Top Points. A large concrete buffer was placed at Top Points afterwards to prevent any future runaways from going over the cliff.


Accidents in the 1900s

A serious accident occurred on 8 December 1908, again involving a runaway. A Sydney-bound train being hauled by a J483 Class engine was conveying goods and 11 passengers. It was assisted up the zig zag by a bank engine. At the western end of Clarence Tunnel, the train stopped for the bank engine to cut off and return to Eskbank. When the driver re-started the train it began to slip and stalled inside the tunnel. The train was divided, and the fireman and the guard applied handbrakes and spragged the wheels of the rear portion, which consisted of about 25 wagons, one passenger carriage and a brakevan. These actions should have held the rear section of the train, but it began to roll backwards. On board the runaway section were the guard and ten passengers. It passed Edgecombe at an estimated 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) and the Night Officer on duty immediately telephoned Top Points to advise of the runaway. A following train also being hauled by a J483 Class locomotive was by this time at Top Points ready to depart. The runaway train was observed crossing No. 1 viaduct at an estimated 60 to 70 miles per hour (97 to 113 km/h). It soon arrived at Top Points, where the brakevan, passenger carriage and some wagons sped through the points but the following wagons were derailed. The impact of the derailment brought the carriage containing the passengers to a stop. Although the points at Top Points had been changed to avoid a direct collision, the impact of the derailment caused considerable wreckage. The contents of the wagons, including wool, wheat and copper, were scattered widely. One wagon was completely turned upside down. James Costello, the guard of the train at Top Points was struck by falling debris and died as a result of his injuries. Part of the wreckage also caught fire. Fortunately, none of the ten passengers on the runaway train were injured. Breakdown gangs, as well as workers employed on construction of the Ten Tunnels Deviation, were sent to assist with the cleanup work. It took several days for the line to be re-opened and the wreckage cleared. The fireman and guard on the train were charged with manslaughter but found not guilty.


During the life of the Great Zig Zag there were numerous other minor incidents, including derailments and collisions. The safety of trains crossing the Blue Mountains was enhanced when the zig zag was bypassed by a deviation in 1910.


Accidents in the tourist railway era

The Great Zag remained disused from 1910 until 1975. On 18 October 1975 it was re-opened for heritage train services. Thousands of visitors have ridden on the Zig Zag Railway while it has operated as a tourist railway but there were also accidents.


A collision occurred between a passenger train and a works train at 1.40 pm on 25 January 1996. There were no injuries in the accident but the crew were sent to hospital for observation. The passenger train, which was hauled by former Queensland BB18¼ Class steam locomotive No. 1072, travelled from Clarence to Top Points and was followed by the works train, which was hauled by light diesel locomotive Kemira. At Top Points the works train proceeded ahead of the passenger train to Bottom Points. Approaching Bottom Points the crew of the passenger train saw the works train ahead moving slowly. Although an emergency brake application was applied, the two trains collided. As a result of the accident steam locomotive No. 1072 was tipped on its side and came to rest against a cutting wall. Two flat wagons from the works train were pushed at right angles to each other. A full-time employee was dismissed and safeworking procedures were revised following the accident.


Another accident during the tourist railway era occurred on 1 April 2011. A rail motor, which was running without passengers, collided with a Hi-rail vehicle (a vehicle that can run on both roads and railway lines) on No. 1 Viaduct, which is located between Clarence and Top Points. The accident was reported to the Office of Transport Safety Investigations. Another collision on 28 July 2011 resulted in further investigations and inspections. All services were subsequently suspended. Tourist train services on the Great Zig Zag resumed in May 2023.



A terrific impact: The runaway train’, The Daily Telegraph, 10 December 1908, p. 7.

‘Accident on the zigzag’, Australian Star, 8 April 1901, p. 6.

Bayley, W A, Lithgow Zig Zag Railway, Locomotion Productions, Mount Victoria, 2000.

‘Collision on the zigzag’, Lithgow Mercury, 9 December 1908, p. 2.

‘Country news: railway accidents’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1901, p. 6.

Langdon, M, Conquering the Blue Mountains, Eveleigh Press, Sydney, 2006.

O’Neil, S, ‘Zig Zag Railway – where to now?’, Railway Digest, vol. 50, no. 5, May 2012, pp. 32–7.

 ‘Railway accident’, The Daily Telegraph, 12 October 1891, p. 5.

‘Railway accident at the zigzag’, Empire, 21 February 1870, p. 2.

‘Shocking railway casualty’, Nepean Times, 19 May 1883, p. 2.

‘The Eskbank accident’, Nepean Times, 26 May 1883, p. 2.

‘Zig Zag accident’, Railway Digest, vol. 34, no. 3, March 1996, p. 8.

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J483 Class engine among the wreckage from the accident on the Great Zig Zag, 8 December 1908. Photo: NSW State Archives and Records. No known copyright restrictions.

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Recovery work taking place following the accident on the Zig Zag on 8 December 1908. Photo: NSW State Archives and Records, Wikimedia Commons.

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