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Up Brisbane Limited on the Cougal Spiral above Border Loop No. 1 Tunnel, 1940. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

Information sign, Lions Road.

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Cougal Spiral

David Matheson

 16 December 2023

The Cougal Spiral, also known as the Border Loop Spiral, is one of two railway spirals in Australia, and was the first to be built. It is located on the New South Wales North Coast line, on the New South Wales side of the border with Queensland. The spiral was opened on 27 September 1930 with the completion of the line from Kyogle to South Brisbane. The line is single track, so trains travelling in both directions use the spiral. Northbound trains climb the spiral and southbound trains descend. Trains pass through two tunnels: Border Loop No. 1 Tunnel is 192 metres in length and Border Loop No. 2 Tunnel is 177 metres. Trains on the upper section of the spiral pass over Border Loop No. 1 Tunnel, which is located on the lower section. Also on the spiral is an underbridge with five steel spans, each 20 metres in length. The gradient on the spiral is 1 in 66 (1.5%) throughout.


Located around 3 km north of the spiral is Border Tunnel, which is 1160 metres in length and takes trains across the New South Wales–Queensland border. Construction of this tunnel was undertaken from both ends, and there is a story that when a breakthrough was made a young Aboriginal boy who was taking lunch to his stepfather working on the line was passed through the gap and became the first person through the tunnel. The boy was Neville Bonner, who in 1971 became the first indigenous member of the Australian Parliament. A crossing loop named Border Loop was once located close to the New South Wales entrance to Border Tunnel.


Design and Construction

The railway between Casino and Kyogle opened as a branch line off the Grafton–Murwillumbah line on 25 June 1910. A railway league was established in the Kyogle area, which pushed for an extension of the line further north towards the Queensland border and on to Brisbane. The Commissioner for Railways, Tom Johnson, asked the Public Works Department in 1913 for a possible railway from Kyogle to the border. William Hutchinson, Chief Engineer of Railway and Tramway Construction, undertook the survey, which included the recommendation of a spiral tunnel. Spirals had not previously been used on railways in Australia. Hutchinson returned in 1916 to carry out a more detailed survey, and his proposed line included a maximum gradient of 1 in 80 (1.25%) and a maximum curvature of 15 chains (302 m), although the final design included sections with 1 in 66 (1.5%) gradients and 12.5 chain (251 m) curves. The design for the line would enable the line to carry heavy goods and passenger trains between northern New South Wales and Brisbane.


At the same time consideration was given to construction of a line between Murwillumbah and Brisbane via Tweed Heads. Ultimately the route via Kyogle was chosen as it was shorter, provided the opportunity of opening up the country north of Kyogle, and would be more easily defended against attacks from the sea. New South Wales and Queensland were both enthusiastic about the new line and the possibility of a shorter railway route between Sydney and Brisbane than the existing route via Wallangarra (on the New South Wales–Queensland border near Tenterfield). However, other sections of the New South Wales North Coast line remained incomplete, so the prospects of heavy interstate traffic remained some years away.


In 1921 a Royal Commission into a uniform railway gauge in Australia recommended that a line be built between Kyogle and Brisbane as a standard gauge line operated by New South Wales. Contracts for construction of the line were finally signed in March 1926, and a ceremony to mark the inauguration of work was held in Kyogle on 23 June, with Commonwealth Attorney-General John Latham turning the first sod. Notwithstanding, construction work had already begun near Brisbane, and the line between Grafton and Kyogle was in the process of being upgraded. Funding for construction was contributed by the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Queensland Governments.


The terrain through which the railway passes between Kyogle and the McPherson Range on the New South Wales–Queensland border is steep and rugged, presenting considerable difficulties for railway construction. High rainfall led to frequent flooding and muddy ground. Workers lived in tents, and horses were used to assist with excavation and other tasks. Eventually work was completed and the entire 153 km line between Kyogle and South Brisbane was opened on 27 September 1930. Special guests at the opening included the Acting Federal Minister for Customs, Frank Forde; the Federal Country Party leader, Earl Page; the Commissioner for Commonwealth Railways, George Gahan; and the Chief Commissioner for New South Wales Railways, William Cleary. C32 Class steam locomotive 3320 hauled the first train. A reception was held following the train’s arrival at Brisbane. Two years later, the opening of the Clarence River Bridge at Grafton on 8 May 1932 marked the completion of the standard gauge railway between Sydney and Brisbane.


The Spiral Today

Numerous trains have operated over the Cougal Spiral during its existence, including locomotive-hauled passenger and freight trains and rail motors. In 1999 the railway between Cougal and Border Loop was recognised on the NSW State Heritage register as “a notable engineering achievement, revealing a twentieth century engineering solution that allows trains to pass through the steep topography at the NSW/Queensland border.” Today the line has one passenger train daily in each direction and a number of interstate freight trains, most of which run at night time.


Cougal Spiral can be seen from a viewing area off Lions Road, which is a scenic road linking New South Wales and Queensland across the McPherson Range. The XPT that operates between Sydney and Brisbane traverses the Cougal Spiral once daily in each direction. However, the northbound train operates overnight and is at the spiral during hours of darkness. The southbound service is scheduled to pass over the spiral at around 7.30 am.

Overhead video footage of a freight train climbing the spiral can be seen on YouTube <>.



Garvan, JJ, R Blake & FM Whyte, Report of the Royal Commission on the matter of uniform railway gauge, Parliament of the Commonwealth of

     Australia, Canberra, 1921.

‘Kyogle–Brisbane railway: enthusiastic opening’, The Kyogle Examiner and Upper Richmond Advocate, 30 September 1930, p. 3

Lee, R, First fruits of federation: the Grafton–Brisbane uniform gauge railway and Clarence River bridge, LocoWorks, Sydney, 2009.

Jordan, B, R Caldwell & J Brougham, Grafton to Brisbane national railway link: nomination for recognition as national engineering heritage

     landmark, Engineering Heritage Australia, Newcastle, 2009.

‘Cougal to Border Loop, Railway Spiral and Landscape’, Office of Environment & Heritage,

     <>, accessed 21 March 2019.

‘The Border Loop’, YouTube, <>.

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Cougal Spiral viewed from above. Photo: Achetron, Free Social Encyclopedia for the World.

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