Some of the biggest challenges faced by railway builders
through the years have been presented by hills and mountains. Splitting
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
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
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 - http://www.harburg.plus.com/wzzrs.htm.
Now updated again, it's, a fascinating
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!
History of the Barkly East
Reverses (19th June 2015)
History of the Boscobello Reverses
(20th July 2016)
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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Andean_Railways
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 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tren_a_las_Nubes
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 - http://www.ferrolatino.ch/FLBEcuadGeschichteEng.htm
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empresa_de_Ferrocarriles_Ecuatorianos
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 - http://www.rrdc.com/images/map_fcca_new.gif.
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 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PeruRail
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
Website - http://www.cassrailroad.com/
Wikpedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cass_Scenic_Railroad_State_Park
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 - http://www.roaringcamp.com/
Wikpedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roaring_Camp_and_Big_Trees_Narrow_Gauge_Railroad
There are sets of reverses on two of the country's metre
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 - http://mikes.railhistory.railfan.net/r019.html 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
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 - http://www.dhrs.org
- the UK based supporters group for the railway which also organises tours
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darjeeling_Himalayan_Railway
Unesco Listing - http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/944
Mike's Railway History - http://mikes.railhistory.railfan.net/r007.html
These pictures were taken in 1976, these days you
usually have to charter a train or be very lucky to get steam on the
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 http://www.hrr.mlit.go.jp/tateyama
active by 31st October 2017
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tateyama_Sab%C5%8D_Erosion_Control_Works_Service_Train
There are other reverses in the country listed in the Wikipedia
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
http://almashriq.hiof.no/lebanon/300/380/385/railways/index.html (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 - http://pakistaniat.com/2006/09/26/pakistan-train-khyber-pass-railway/.
Wikipedia Listing - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khyber_train_safari
Mike's Railway History - http://mikes.railhistory.railfan.net/r019.html
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'!
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
Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeongdong_Line
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 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alishan_Forest_Railway
Wikipedia Photographs - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Alishan_Forest_Railway
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 - http://www.zigzagrailway.com.au and
this page for some history of the line http://www.zigzagrailway.com.au/history/hist1.html.
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 http://www.drivingcreekrailway.co.nz/Train_Ride.cfm
(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.
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, http://www.eurotrib.com/story/2009/8/22/6412/88217.
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 http://narrowgauge.hu/view_cikk.php?id=833.
A link to the timetable is allegedly on http://narrowgauge.hu/index.php?rfa=8
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.
Website - http://www.kysuckemuzeum.sk/
which had a map and information but the original link is dead.(Slovak language)
http://www.expea.sk/EN/sluzby_nazelanie.html (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(HLÚ) and the part in the region of Orava as the Forest Zig Zag Railway Tanečník - Beskyd
(LÚ). In future, the two railways shall be reconnected." It will
be the former which is described above, the latter appears to be diesel
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 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillclimbing_(railway)
(link corrected 26th April 2014)
Mountain Railways - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_railway
Rack Railways - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rack_railway and
- look for conflicts!
Reverses - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zig_zag_(railway)
Funiculars - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funicular
There are many sub-links within these pages, some to
specialist technical information, others to items on individual railways.