The Illawarra Railway

(Courtesy of C.C. Singleton, Railway History in Illawarra, New South Wales,
Illawarra Historical Society,Wollongong, 1984)

The story of the Illawarra public railways has seldom been without contention, and issues, from those surrounding its original construction, to the ongoing land movement problems which have plagued its existence, to the commencement and subsequent cancellation of an important extension to the system, the Maldon-Dombarton rail line in the late 1980s.  The line formally runs from the Illawarra Junction in inner southern Sydney to Bomaderry, across the Shoalhaven River from Nowra.  A spur line runs from the main line to the Port Kembla industrial area, and a major branch line from Unanderra, immediately south of Wollongong, to Moss Vale, to connect to the main south intercity line.  This section deals only with that part of the system within or originating in the Illawarra area.  The line north of the Illawarra has its own interest and is covered elsewhere (see for example, Singleton (1) and Oakes (2)).

Public agitation for rail transport in the Illawarra was much driven by the difficulty of sea or road travel out of the region.  There was much public debate about the issue in 1872, to the point where in 1874 a survey was carried out to determine whether such a rail line might be a viable private commercial proposition.  This was not the case, leaving the issue to be carried by the state government.  Ongoing public pressure led to the government directing the Railways Engineer-in-Chief, John Whitton, to investigate the issue and identify a route for the line, to run from Sydney to Kiama.  It was not until September 1882 however that the first contract (with C & E Millar) was let for a section of the line (the “first section” from the Illawarra Junction to Waterfall).

That first section (of 23 miles 13 chains (37.3km)) demonstrated the type of issues and compromises which were to characterise the construction project.  Landowners along the proposed route in one case demanded very high prices for crossing their land, leading to a significant diversion from the most favourable route; in another case lobbying of the government led to the line again being diverted through land owned by speculators who duly gained from the diversion.  The main water crossing in Sydney was constrained to be a single-line bridge, a problem which was to impact on the line for many decades after

In probably the most major interference, the NSW premier of the time, (who had significant land holdings in the Illawarra) caused work to be stopped after 13 miles (21 km) while an alternative route to that designed by Whitton (but which favoured the premier’s land holding) was assessed.  The premier was also a mine owner in the Illawarra. The line was not diverted, but the disruption led to the prime contractor for that first section (Millars) refusing to continue with the contracted work, and subsequently being paid out £20,000 for their losses in the matter.

Sir Alexander Stuart, Premier of NSW, 1884
(Courtesy of the Illustrated NZ News, Dunedin 1884 via
Wikimedia Commons)

The work for the completion of Millars’ original contract was let to Rowe & Smith, who already held the contract for the a section of 10m 67ch (17.5km) from Waterfall to Coalcliff.  The latter, while not one of the longer sections and having only one intermediate station (Otford), was arguably the most problematic section along the route because of the terrain.  In one seven mile length, there were seven tunnels, one of which was almost a mile long.  There were many deep cuttings to be made in rock, and a need to cross large creeks by means of brick arch culverts up to 30ft (9m) long.  The difficulties of construction meant that other sections further south were completed and opened before this section.

Rock cutting (Cawley) ca 1920
(Courtesy of the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society P09197)


Otford Station ca 1900
(Courtesy of the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society P02487)

The contract for the third section of track (between North Clifton and Yallah) of 26 miles 15 chains (or 42 km) including the Clifton Tunnel of 3289ft (995m) was let to Proudfoot and Logan on 30 October 1883.  As in the second section, the tunnel workers were mainly Italian, living in camps for the duration – near Otford and Helensburgh in the first case, and Thirroul in the second case.  The fourth section was undertaken by Monie & Co, and covered the 10 miles 28ch (45.7km) between Yallah and North Kiama (now Bombo), the site of a blue metal quarry.  That was to remain the southern terminus of the Illawarra line for five years, until in August 1890 Pritchard & Co signed a contract for the 22 miles 73ch (36.9km) for the extension to Bomaderry.

The difficulties on the second section meant that sections south of that were opened earlier.  The part between Clifton and Wollongong was opened on 21 June 1887, and that between Wollongong and North Kiama on 9 November of that year also.  It was not until 3 October 1888 though that trains could run the entire distance from Sydney to North Kiama with the second section completed.  The final section to Bomaderry was duly opened on 2 June 1893, marking the end of a major project.

The end of the line – Bomaderry, 1896 (Nowra south across the river)
(Courtesy of the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society P03745)

Ongoing Modification

The completion of construction did not mark the end of work on the line.  A variety of issues including unstable terrain, operational difficulties in a major tunnel, steep grades, and general traffic growth all meant that significant work was carried out over ensuing years.

Terrain: particularly between Otford and Bulli the initial route turned out to be over very unstable ground conditions, prone to slippage and sometimes collapse in wet weather, meaning the line was sometimes reduced to single line operation for extended periods.  Measures to stabilise the slopes above the line were developed over many years, and while solutions were developed, they were solutions which required ongoing maintenance and vigilance as to trackwork ground conditions until the present day.


The Illawarra Line at Helensburgh ca 1920s. (Note grade)
(Courtesy of the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society P13711)

Grades: the original route had included grades as steep as 1 in 40, posing major problems for loaded trains going north.  Railway policy at the time was to aim for grades of 1 in 75 to 80 – but achievement of that on the Illawarra line immediately south of Waterfall meant substantial relocation of the original line.  Surveys in 1908 showed two possible routes of which one was implemented, although at the cost of incorporating sharper (low radius of curvature) bends, imposing as a result a speed limit on subsequent traffic.


Original Otford tunnel portal, 1890
(Courtesy of the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society P09273)

The old Otford Tunnel: the Otford Tunnel between Otford and Stanwell Park was a notorious feature of the original line.  It was nearly a mile (1.6km) long, with a grade of 1 in 40 throughout, and of a narrow cross section – hence there was but little space around the engines.  Its southern portal tended to gather in southerly or south easterly winds from the sea.  The combination of these factors meant that ventilation of the tunnel was very bad, exposing passengers and rail staff alike to very nasty conditions.  It was worst for the engine drivers, fully exposed to the atmosphere while passengers and guards could at least try and close up the enclosures in which they travelled.  On some engines, they would crouch on the floor with coats over heads, in an attempt to breathe air from under the engine; on other engines they would ride on the steps of the engine to try and stay below the level of the smoke and steam around the engine.  The situation was made worse by the fact that with the tunnel’s steep grade, fully loaded trains were often unable to be taken through the tunnel.  That meant splitting the train into two or three parts, requiring multiple journeys for the enginemen concerned.  Attempts were made without success to provide better ventilation through airshafts and fans.  The old Otford Tunnel was bypassed along with others in a major deviation to remedy steep grades in 1920.  The deviation included a much shorter Otford Tunnel, with easier grade, presenting none of the issues which had characterised the old tunnel.

Stanwell Park Viaduct (note construction supports) ca 1920
(Courtesy of the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society P09329)

The branch line to the Port Kembla industrial area was brought into operation on 31 July 1916, being duplicated 25 years later.  A branch line to Metropolitan Colliery at Helensburgh, made necessary by a deviation to improve grades, had been completed in 194.


The Unanderra-Moss Vale Line.

 The construction of a line to link the main Sydney-Melbourne rail line to areas to the east was the subject of agitation and application to government by residents of the Moss Vale – Bowral – Robertson area from 1880.  It was however, despite their efforts, to be more than forty years before that objective was realised.  A number of factors mitigated against it (not least of which was cost and viability) including notably divergent interests among different groups. There were proponents of a line from Moss Vale to Robertson, others of a line from Bowral to Robertson, another of a Bowral – Barrengarry Mountain (for Kangaroo Valley) line, and variants on the routes to be taken.  Motivations for the construction of a line varied also over time – providing access for agricultural goods from the Robertson area to Sydney, shipping iron ore and coal from Mittagong to the Dapto Smelter, shipping coal from Robertson to Port Kembla, and diverse other objectives.  None were sufficiently focused or viable as to persuade the government to fund such a project.

That was to change in 1922 with the advent of a new industry for Port Kembla – the relocated iron and steel business of Hoskins Iron & Steel (HI&S) (later Australian iron & Steel).  That company wished to be able to access limestone supplies from leases which it owned at Marulan in the Southern Highlands.  Representations were made to the government, with the active participation of Charles Hoskins, one of the company’s founders.  Agreement was finally reached for a line from Unanderra (on the Illawarra line) to Moss Vale (on the Sydney-Melbourne line).  An Act was passed in 1924 authorising the construction of that line – a step made possible by HI&S agreeing to ship certain minimum tonnages on the line, or pay a substantial penalty to the government which was funding the line.  As it turned out, while the line was the subject of a ‘sod-turning’ ceremony in 1925, delays in construction meant that it did not open until August 1932, by which time HI&S were materially affected by conditions of the Depression, leading to their paying the £25,000 penalty.  This added to their constrained financial circumstances of that time.

Unanderra line construction ca 1932 (note grade)
(Courtesy of the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society P14962)

Looking west near Dombarton
(Courtesy of OF Jacobson, Illawarra Mountain Railway
Illawarra Historical Society, 1977)

The Unanderra – Moss Vale line, while only 35.4miles (57km) in length was no small task in engineering and construction terms.  Over nearly half of its length it had a grade of 1 in 30 (substantially steeper than was the steepest section of the main Illawarra Line).  Ascending the escarpment the line utilises The Gap – the lowest point in the Illawarra Range south of Mt Kembla, at 351m.  In all, the line climbs some 2000ft (605m) in traversing the escarpment.  The line itself has a number of unusual features.  Because of the steepness of the climb, and the constrained site area, several sidings were laid out in a zig zag fashion with a slight reverse grade, to allow trains to maneouvre on a relatively level surface, and then gather speed before recommencing the 1 in 30 grade.  The line also incorporates a number of 201m reverse curves to limit the grade, one of which was formed using a steel viaduct, with a 61m cliff on one side, and the Avon Dam 122m below on the other.  Several major concrete rock shelters were formed in areas of unstable rock formation.

Three engines under load
(Courtesy of OF Jacobson, Illawarra Mountain Railway Illawarra Historical Society, 1977)

Taking freight west up the line employed three engines for much of the traverse – three standard steam engines being capable of drawing a 700t load, or later, three 1800hp diesel electrics 1220t.  The same diesel engines on the main Illawarra line were capable of drawing 1830t, indicating the implicit limitation of the line.  The line saw a variety of equipment types.  Freight trains were steam drawn until the introduction of diesel locomotives in 1964/5. Three engines were used on the 1 in 30 grade sections, with two in front and one in the rear.  The latter was removed at the end of the 1 in 30 grade section; one of the two lead engines was removed at Robertson, leaving one engine to cover the modest grades to Moss Vale.   As early as 1923, consideration had been given to electrification of the line, but costs were considered prohibitive.


Passenger services were introduced in 1932, based on a petrol-engined rail motor.  From 1938, with growth in passenger numbers, steam trains were introduced, and took over the service entirely in 1940.  As private motor car ownership grew, patronage of the service progressively diminished, and scheduled services fewer.  This was to present a problem in 1964 when diesel locomotives were introduced for freight.  Use of a diesel locomotive was not considered economical for the reduced services, and consideration was given to restoration of the original rail motors.  These had however by then been converted to diesel engines with torque converter transmissions – rendering them unable to provide the braking capability needed for safe descent of the line down from Robertson.  Ironically, the solution adopted was to use a steam engine – and this continued to be the case for some years, until ultimately declining passenger numbers led to a restoration of rail motor services.

Rail motor as used in 1960s
(Courtesy of OF Jacobson, Illawarra Mountain Railway
Illawarra Historical Society, 1977)

The line itself has been the object of further study since the late 1970s.  Based on expectations of increased coal output from the western coalfields, the NSW Government in 1983 announced a project to run a new 43.9km line from Maldon (on the main south line) to Dombarton, approximately 10km from Unanderra.  Work was started, but ceased in 1988.  Some sections of track formation, a road overbridge, and some tunnelling work are still in evidence.  Since that time there have been a number of attempts to revive the project, with the more recent emphasising the dependence of the Illawarra on the original Illawarra line, with its continuing propensity to closure through weather or accident.  Despite active local support for the scheme, it has not to date been possible to persuade either state or federal governments to fund the completion of the work halted in 1988.