The International Steam Pages

Railway Reverses (Zig Zags)

Some of the biggest challenges faced by railway builders through the years have been presented by hills and mountains. Splitting trains, multiple locomotives, tunnels, curves, even horseshoes and spirals are all commonplace in my book, sometimes it needs something a little more interesting... For some general coverage in Wikipedia, see a short list of relevant articles at the bottom of this page to get started there. These pages instead highlights outstanding currently open (and relatively recently closed) examples especially outside Europe and North America, particularly where reports exist on this website.

By and large there are three solutions for when the problem gets really serious, each one reflecting a more extreme need to climb, these are covered in these pages:

Home Reverses / Zig Zags
(20th Jul 2016)
Rack / Cog
(19th Nov 2016)
Cable Haulage
(5th May 2015)

I would like to thank James Waite for not only suggesting the creation of these pages but also doing a lot of the spade work both in the field and virtually. I would welcome further pictures to illustrate them.

This page is given as a link to the world's zig zag railways on the Lithgow Zig Zag Railway site - Now updated again, it's, a fascinating read.

Another smaller site is Bo Justusson's (Domain dead by 31st October 2017). Note please, by (not just my) convention, "1 zig zag = 1 reverse = 2 reversing stations", this is not always followed in the websites I have visited. The locations below describe operating railways plus a few more which may one day return to service or have worked in the not too distant past. I have NOT included simple single reversing stations which will require a 'run round' for locomotive hauled trains, this would be worthy of a page on its own!

Recent addition:

History of the Barkly East Reverses (19th June 2015)

History of the Boscobello Reverses (20th July 2016)


South Africa

Probably the last operational reverses in Africa were on the 1067mm (3' 6") gauge Aliwal North to Barkly East branch which closed to traffic in 2001. Tradition had it that these were first installed as a temporary measure when a bridge was lost at sea, traffic on the line never justified further investment - still it made for great steam action and photography as anyone with a copy of 'The Great Steam Trek' will know. The book talks about 8 reverses, but I think it means 8 reversing stations, or 4 reverses.

In June 2015, I was sent a fascinating article about the Barkly East branch reverses by Johannes Haarhoff in which the 'lost bridge' story is firmly debunked; the reverses were built because the bridge would have been 'over the budget' despite the fact that preliminary work had been done including a tunnel before it became apparent! A copy of the article which first appeared in the May 2013 edition of 'Civil Engineering' (the magazine of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering) is available as a PDF Download (just click the link). I would like to thank Johannes for putting the record straight and making the article available. Johannes has now sent a second account, this time of the Boscobello reverses, also available as a PDF Download (20th July 2016).

For the record he lists South Africa's railway reverses (ie reversing stations as by my convention above)::

Three reverses at Van Reenen, constructed in 1891, on the main line between Ladysmith and Harrismith. Eliminated by a tunnel in 1925.

Two reverses at Boscobello, constructed around 1893, on the line between Newcastle and Charlestown. Eliminated by a tunnel in 1938.

Six reverses near Lady Grey, constructed in 1911, on the line between Lady Grey and Barkly East. Never eliminated, still intact, although line was closed in 1991.

Two more reverses near Barkly East, constructed in 1929, on the same line between Lady Grey and Barkly East. Never eliminated, still intact, although line was closed in 1991.



See Trans-Andean Railways in Wikipedia for a general description of mountain railways in South America.. 


The metre gauge Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) runs from Salta up to the Chilean border and has two reverses as well as two spirals and numerous tunnels and viaducts. Freight trains continues to Antofagusta in Chile.

Some old pictures and more links - (Domain dead by 31st October 2017)

Wikipedia -


The Guayacil and Quito (G & Q) 1067mm (3' 6") gauge railway has suffered years of neglect and damage by 'Acts of God' and is now open only in parts although the government claims it will have it reopened throughout by 2010 (don't hold your breath though). Tourist operations work over parts of it, maybe including the reverse on the famous Devil's Nose (Riobamba - Alausí - Sibambe section).

Railways of Ecuador - Brief Survey -

Wikipedia -

This is Christian Cederberg's 2003 picture of steam on the Devil's Nose - for the record the locomotive is #53.


See some maps of Peru produced by Stephen Phillips -, (Link broken by January 2024. RD) when I followed the links some of the files appeared truncated.

The standard gauge Central Railway of Peru is one of the 'Railway Wonders of the World'. It runs inland from the coast at Callao, through Lima and into the mountains reaching a highest point of some 4835m (16,000 ft) at La Cima. There are numerous reverses.

Some old pictures and more links - (Domain dead by 31st October 2017)

Outline Map -

Originally part of the mainly standard (1435mm, 4' 8˝"), gauge Peru Southern Railway, the 914 mm (3') gauge railway from Cuzco to Agua Calientes (for Macchu Picchu has 5 reverses to climb before descending again.

Official website - (link dead by 25th October 2016)

Wikipedia -


The standard gauge Cass Scenic Railway is part of a former logging line in West Virginia which operates its train with geared locomotives of the Shay, Climax and Heisler variations. It has a single reverse.

Website -

Wikpedia -

The 914mm (3') gauge Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad is a tourist railway in California. The reverse is not original, it was installed in the 1970s to replace a burned out trestle bridge. It has a mixed roster of diesel and steam, most of the latter are geared.

Website -

Wikpedia -


Burma (Myanmar)

There are sets of reverses on two of the country's metre gauge hill lines, both also have a spiral:

Thazi - Taunggyi - The two reverses are in the section between Thazi and Kalaw. Journeys on this line are relatively easy to make in the daylight. See my report on "The Slow Train to Kalaw" from 2009 and Seat61 for the latest available timetable.

Mandalay - Lashio  - The two reverses are in the section between between Mandalay and Maymyo (Pyin-U-Lwin), but as of 2009, train timings are less than ideal to enjoy a journey. However, further up is the rightly famous Gokteik Viaduct, described in my 2009 report "The Gokteik Pienapple Express". See Seat61 for the latest available timetable

Mike's Railway History - and


The various 'big pits' with steam and electric operation used reverses as a matter of course - universally standard gauge as far as I know. Most like those at Fuxin and Hegang are worked out now, but that at Jalainur - see picture below and ../china/trains/china251.htm and the SY Country section of this site - was still at least partly open in late 2009 although it was slated for early conversion to road haulage. That will most likely leave the open cast coal mine at Sandaoling as the last such steam worked system. The electrified system at Fushun was still open quite recently and It is possible that some others survive active too, eg at Pingzhuang.


The 610mm (2') gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway features 3 spirals (two more are out of use) and 6 reverses on its journey from New Japalaiguri to Darjeeling. The reverses are all between Siliguri and Kurseong. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but that didn't stop Indian Railways dieseling the principal through services.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Official Website - (Link broken by January 2024. RD) which includes the current timetable.

Darjeeling Himalayan Society - - the UK based supporters group for the railway which also organises tours there.

Wikipedia - 

Unesco Listing -

Mike's Railway History -

These pictures were taken in 1976, these days you usually have to charter a train or be very lucky to get steam on the lower section:


The Tateyama Sabō Erosion Control Works Service Train is an extraordinary 610mm (2') narrow gauge system - be advised this is not normally open to the public and would be visitors have to enter a lottery for a possible tour..

Official Website - link dead but active by 31st October 2017

Wikipedia -

There are other reverses in the country listed in the Wikipedia link below.


Now of historical interest only, the 1050mm gauge line from Beirut to Damascus featured Abt rack operation, it also had reversing stations at Chouit-Araye and Aley. There is very little information on this railway on the web save:

Introduction - (Link broken by December 2023. RD)


The broad (1676mm, 5' 6") gauge Khyber Pass railway features 1 reverse. For many years a public train ran every Sunday which was later changed to Fridays. More recently, it charters were run out of Peshawar but these were halted for security reasons. Now large sections of the railway have been washed out and it will need a big shift in the political situation for trains to ever run again. Traditionally trains had two steam locomotives, one at each end to facilitate operation.

Owais Mughal's account -

Wikipedia Listing -

Mike's Railway History -

These pictures were taken by the late John Tillman in 1998 and show the train waiting at and then leaving the first reversing station, the line on the left is actually the 'escape road'!

First reverse


Leavng the first reverse

South Korea

A section of the Yeongdong Line contains a reverse, but the line is being rebuilt and a new spiral tunnel will come into use soon to eliminate it.

Wikipedia -


The Alishan Forest Railway is a 762mm (2' 6") gauge railway running from Chiayi to Alishan, now operating only for tourists. It has a complex triple spiral and four reverses. At the time of writing a section is still closed following monsoon damage in 2009. Historically, the railway used Shay locomotives, some are still used on special occasions but all regular services have been dieselised for some time. Being based in Beijing at the time this was prepared I could not verify Taiwan based websites, just search for Alishan using your favourite search engine..

Wikipedia Listing -

Wikipedia Photographs - 

List of extant Alishan Shays



The 1067mm (3' 6") gauge Lithgow Zig Zag Railway is a remnant of the former main line west of Sydney and was replaced by a deviation with a mere 10 tunnels as long ago as 1910  It was reopened in stages between 1975 and 1988 and now runs trains almost daily during the year. See their own website for more information - and this page for some history of the line

New Zealand

The 381mm (15") Driving Creek Railway is a charming short narrow gauge tourist railway on the Coromandel Peninsular not far from Auckland on North Island, see (link broken 5th April 2019) and (link broken 5th April 2019) for a map.



Le P'tit train de la Haute Somme (Froissy - Cappy - Dompierre) is a preserved 600mm railway with a single reverse - (Link broken by December 2023. RD)


I suspect that have not checked exhaustively that the lines listed in Wikipedia have just a single reversing station and this do not qualify for this section.


The preserved 760mm (2' 6") gauge forestry railway at Nagybörzsöny tourist railway has a reverse, clearly shown on a map of the Szob-Márianosztra tourist railway from a report of an August 2009 visit, They are actually parts of the same system and there are plans to rebuild the section between them in due course. I have yet to track down the Nagybörzsöny tourist railway's own website but you can try translating this A link to the timetable is allegedly on but it didn't bring up anything useful for me! Basic English information is here - (domain dead by 31st October 2017)   


Part of the former Kysuce-Orava railway is a 7km 760mm (2' 6") gauge line starting from Skanzen Station, about 20km east of Čadca, it includes a reverse. As far as I can gather it is part of the Kysuce Village Museum. See:

Website - which had a map and information but the original link is dead.(Slovak language) (link is dead but it was a good source on Slovak railways in general) states that "The Kysuce-Orava Forest Railway (KOLZ) came into existence by joining the Kysuce Forest Railway and the Orava Forest Railway - both railways are 760 mm gauge. At the peak of its fame, it had 110 km. It had exclusively served for transporting wood. Its exceptionality lies in its well-preserved system of switch tracks. At present, the railway is divided into two parts: the part in the region of Kysuce as the Historical Forest Zig Zag Railway(HLڎ) and the part in the region of Orava as the Forest Zig Zag Railway Tanečník - Beskyd (Lڎ). In future, the two railways shall be reconnected." It will be the former which is described above, the latter appears to be diesel powered.

As always Wikipedia is some help in a specialist subject but when 'push comes to shove' you soon find gaps in the coverage, not to mention things which are downright wrong...  Worse still are the 'Look Alike' sites which lift material from Wikipedia in a bid to make money from advertisements and thereby foul up the search engines.

Hill Railways in General - (link corrected 26th April 2014)

Mountain Railways - 

Rack Railways - and - look for conflicts!

Reverses -

Funiculars -

There are many sub-links within these pages, some to specialist technical information, others to items on individual railways.

Rob Dickinson