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The Railways and the Blue Mountains

Sep 6, 2019 | Blue Mountains History

The History of the Railway in the Blue Mountains

 When you look back at the history of the Blue Mountains, there are several events and moments that stand out as being crucially important. The famous crossing of the mountains by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson in 1813 was undoubtedly the headline act, and let’s not forget the thousands of years of Aboriginal history in the area before European settlers had even set foot in this wide brown land.

But there’s one other event, one which is sometimes overlooked, that also had a huge impact on the growth of the Blue Mountains region: the arrival of the railway.

An arduous journey

In 2019, a trip to the Blue Mountains is a comfortable day trip for most Sydneysiders. Drive out in the morning, tackle a bushwalk, have a late lunch at a Katoomba café and then head back down the Great Western Highway to be home in time for dinner.

But it wasn’t always that easy. In the first half of the 19th century, travelling to the Blue Mountains was quite a big undertaking. As an example, when Governor and Mrs Macquarie travelled inland by horse-drawn coach to establish the town of Bathurst in 1815, it took them 10 days to arrive. Travel times were drastically reduced in the intervening decades thanks to improvements to the Western Road, but the trip remained slow, arduous and sometimes dangerous.

Then gold was discovered at Ophir in 1851, prompting a dramatic increase in the number of travellers heading west. And with abundant natural resources to be found on the other side of the mountains, demand for a western railway link grew.

An impossible task

As plans were made to begin constructing a railway across the Blue Mountains, the size of the task facing the engineers soon became apparent. In fact, a Royal Engineers Report from 1857 determined that the ravines, torrents and inclines that stood in the way would prove to be insurmountable obstacles: “a direct line between Sydney and Bathurst cannot be obtained,” was the initial conclusion.

But this was far from the end of the story, as the railway made its way to Penrith by 1862 and John Whitton, Engineer-in-Chief of the NSW Railways, was tasked with finding a suitable route over the Blue Mountains. In order to conquer gradients as steep as 1 in 33 and provide a route the trains of the day could safely navigate, Whitton’s solution was to construct a Zig Zag railway.

Using the Zig Zag system at Lapstone and Lithgow, this remarkable feat of engineering was completed. The first train left Penrith for Wentworth Falls in July 1867, and at that time there were only five stops along the way. However, all that was about to change.

A new dawn

With the arrival of the railway, the Blue Mountains went from being a faraway destination to somewhere a whole lot more accessible. What followed was an exciting new era of exploration, tourism and growth — the Blue Mountains were about to change forever.

In the ensuing decades, the population boomed as 26 new villages were established along the train line. As the land opened up and more jobs became available, increasing numbers of settlers started leaving the city and heading west in search of new opportunities.

At the same time, word of the stunning natural beauty of the mountains began to spread. The most affluent Sydneysiders looked to the Blue Mountains as the ideal spot to build luxurious country retreats — Henry Parkes, the man often referred to as Australia’s “father of Federation”, purchased his Faulconbridge estate in the 1870’s.

Plenty more soon followed with plans of building their own country estates, while others with time and money to spare began visiting the area for day trips and tranquil getaways. Before long, the Blue Mountains became a popular leisure spot for some of Sydney’s wealthiest residents.

The period from the turn of the century to the 1920’s is seen as the golden age of leisure in the Blue Mountains. It was during this time that some of the region’s most iconic guest houses and cottages were constructed. One iconic hotel is the iconic Hydro Majestic in Medlow Bath, which first opened its doors in 1904 and is still welcoming guests to this day.

A bright future

These days, a train ride from Central to Katoomba takes less than two hours. While the route and the trains making the journey have changed a fair bit since the heady days of the 1860’s and 70’s, this journey west from Sydney remains one of Australia’s most iconic railway routes.

And who knows what the Blue Mountains would have looked like today if the railway didn’t arrive when it did. Would the area be the same popular tourist destination it is today? Would it still be one of the most-loved World Heritage areas in Australia?

We’ll never know the answers to those questions, but one thing is for sure: the introduction of the railway was a hugely important moment in the history of the Blue Mountains.

That’s why in 2017, the Blue Mountains community and train enthusiasts from far and wide came together to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of railway history in the Blue Mountains. Those lucky enough to get tickets could board a steam train at Central and ride all the way to Wentworth Falls, re-creating (as far as was possible) that first journey a century-and-a-half ago.

Upon arrival, the train was greeted with much pomp and ceremony, and a full weekend of events and activities followed. It was fun, festive and a worthy acknowledgement of the impact of the railway, so here’s hoping the celebration of the 200-year anniversary is even more spectacular.




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