During the construction of the Great Western Railway it appeared almost impossible to construct a railway line over the Blue Mountains. It was eventually achieved by constructing a line with gradients as steep as 1 in 30 (3.33%), with curves of 8 chain (160 m) radius and the use of a zig-zag at Lapstone. The line was eventually opened up for traffic as far as Weatherboard (Wentworth Falls) on the 11th of July 1867. Further extensions to this were progressively built and opened, reaching Mt Victoria (1868) and Bowenfels via the Great Lithgow Zig Zag (1869).
This was a single line operation catering for both “Up” (east bound) and “Down” (west bound) trains crossing the Blue Mountains. On arrival at Penrith, down trains required the assistance of a second locomotive (Pilot) for the climb to Katoomba. The line included many small stations, some with passing loops or sidings to allow for the safe passing of trains traveling in the opposite direction.
On the 17th May 1875 a platform was opened to service the private residence of the Colonial Treasurer. the Hon. Geoffrey Eager MLA/MLC. The residence was originally The Valley Inn, later the Woolpack Inn and then the Welcome Inn. When the Hon. Geoffrey Eagar purchased the Inn he renamed the residence The Valley and later renamed it Wyoming. The platform was originally called Eagar's Platform. Public facilities and waiting shed were erected in 1877 and the platform renamed The Valley and in 1890 it was renamed to its present name, Valley Heights.
The present island platform was built during the duplication of the line between Glenbrook and Springwood in 1902, but the locomotive depot was not constructed until 1913 when the duplication of the line between Glenbrook and Emu Plains was completed. The depot was available for service on the 21st December 1913, but was not officially opened till 31st January 1914, at which time the locomotive depot at Penrith was reduced in status. With the duplication and regrading of the line, the heavy grades below Valley Heights had been eliminated, the ruling grade from Penrith to Valley Heights being 1 in 60 (1.67%).
The depot at Valley Heights was a crucial piece of infrastructure, vital to the operation of the Blue Mountains railway and the movement of trains across the mountains. It consisted of a locomotive yard, 10 bay roundhouse, 18 metre (60ft) turntable, an elevated coal stage, water tanks and columns and provided pilot (assistant) engines for trains travelling to Katoomba and beyond. Pilot engines were placed in the lead of the train's "through" engine over a given section of track. The engines at Valley Heights not only piloted over the longest distance in NSW, but also had the envious distinction of having to operate over the longest continual and most steeply graded mainline in Australasia. The section from Valley Heights to Katoomba, a distance of 20 miles 16 chains (32.7 km) has a ruling grade of 1 in 33 (3.33%), rose a total of 2,200 ft (670 m), the gradients varying from 1 in 60 (1.67%) to the steepest of 1 in 31 (3.23%).
During the steam era the depot had a continual allotment of eight D50 or D53 class standard goods engines and generally two C32 class engines. The standard goods engines based at Valley Heights gave sterling service as they piloted almost every freight and passenger train destined for Mt. Victoria, Lithgow and beyond. Such trains being the Central West Express, the Mudgee Mail, the Forbes Mail, the Cowra Mail, the Coonamble Mail, The Fish and numerous freight trains. The pilot engine on arrival at Katoomba would be detached from the train, turned on the turntable and return, light engine back to Valley Heights where it would be assigned further duties.
The 1940s and 1950s were the depot’s peak period of operation. During this time, an average of 30 trains during any 24 hour period required piloting from Valley Heights. The 32 class engines, although used for pilot working were also used to operate passenger trains emanating from Valley Heights, one such train being The Chips. It is believed that approximately 80 men staffed the depot ranging from firemen to fuelmen, fitters, drivers, cleaners, chargemen, drivers, roster clerks, call boys and a District Locomotive Engineer. Engine tone ups and minor repairs were carried out at the depot but major repairs and overhauls were carried out at Enfield depot. Valley Heights depot never had its own allotment of engines, they were loaned from Penrith and, on its closure, from Enfield.
Water for the depot was supplied from the dam at Wentworth Falls (Wentworth Falls Lake), to a storage tank at Lawson (at the site of the present day Bowling Club). It was then gravitated through pipes beside the railway line to Valley Heights where it supplied water to the Depot’s water tank and to two elevated Parachute Tanks located in the down yard, at the western end of the Station.
The coal stage was an important part of the depot. The coal stage was the source from where the steam locomotives were supplied their fuel to burn. This resulted in the generation of steam which powered the locomotives. Engines were coaled by chute from an elevated coal stage.
The coal stage was a timber storage bin with a capacity of 400 tons, supported on a timber trestle. Coal was hauled from the coal storage siding to the coal road and then propelled back across the steep timber trestle to the top of the bin. The Coal Stage was demolished shortly after electrification of the line.
Ash Disposal Tunnel and Pits
The ash pits and tunnel were located below the coal stage. Ash raked from teh smoke box and ash pan of steam locomotives was raked and shovelled into the pits, and railed through the tunnel. 1943 air photographs show the growing mound, which has now been levelled and on which the tram shed and lower car park have been built.
The Signal Box was a crucial piece of infrastructure vital to the movement of trains across the mountains.
The Signal Box was a three storey brick and timber construction, comprising 48 levers operated by a Signalman, from the top level. The Signal Box controlled signalling equipment, track work and train movements along the main line and from the depot to the station.
In December 1951 the top level of the Signal Box was destroyed by bushfires resulting in operations being relocated to the ground floor.
The 1950s was a time of great change for the railways on the Blue Mountains, with the end of the steam era and the beginning of the cleaner and more efficient electric era. Electrification of the western line beyond Penrith began in the mid 1950s with the section to Valley Heights being completed on the 23rd October 1956. Once electrification began, steam engines were destined to become a part of history.
The 2nd February 1957 saw the end of steam operations from Valley Heights. On this day No. 27 passenger was hauled by steam locomotive 3662 and on arrival at Valley Heights electric locomotives 4611 and 4617 backed out of the depot and assisted the train to Katoomba. From that train all steam hauled trains, both freight and passenger were electrically assisted to Katoomba, until complete electrification saw steam removed from the scene. Valley Heights depot was still required for duties and supplying engines for a few locomotive hauled passenger trains. Valley Heights drivers also worked "The Chips" and other commuter trains into the Mountains.
After electrification of the line, both the need for pilot locomotive work and the number of staff employed at the depot declined significantly. However, the Valley Heights depot still had an important role to play.
The depot in latter years was basically a very efficient freight wagon and electric locomotive repair workshop, the electric engines receiving minor repairs and complete overhauls at the depot. Additional work through the repair of freight wagons was performed which secured employment for locals and extended the depot’s operational life for another 30 years after the end of steam.
Continuous improvements in technology led to the development of larger and more powerful locomotives. This resulted in fewer trains requiring piloting reducing the demand for the depot’s existence. The demise of Valley Heights began when the 85 class electric locomotives were introduced in 1979 and through working of freight trains commenced. This demise was accelerated with the introduction of the 86 class locomotives in early 1983. From the mid 1980s the number of trains requiring piloting from Valley Heights had been reduced to a handful each day, the number of locomotives required for this duty being reduced to only 3, sometimes as few as 2 being necessary. With the announcement of the closure of Valley Heights depot by the Greiner Government in October 1988, the depot was gradually closed and equipment removed. In December 1988, after 75 years of continuous service for the railways, the depot’s life as an operational workshop facility came to a close.
One electric locomotive was kept available for a short period of time after the depot’s closure, for any pilot work required. Finally, on 27 April 1989, the last pilot operation occurred when electric locomotive 4610 reversed out of the depot, to assist a train from Valley Heights to Katoomba, thus ending a chapter in the history of the Blue Mountains railway.
And so a milestone in NSW railway history had ceased operation and had faded into history.
Landmark for aircraft
An interesting aspect regarding the Valley Heights Loco Depot, according to Valley Heights resident Mr. Clyde Bruce, was that fledgling pilots in the late 1940s and early 1950s used the depot as a bearing on their flight path as they headed west from Sydney. The smoke from the depot could easily be seen from a height of a few thousand feet and was an ideal location to be used as a sight for their bearings. Mr. Bruce obtained his private pilots licence through the Kingsford-Smith Flying School at Bankstown.
Preservation and heritage listing
The depot and station yard including the signal box and station building have been protected for future generations, being officially listed on the State Heritage Register as an area of State Heritage significance.
The roundhouse building is the oldest remaining roundhouse style building left in New South Wales and the oldest roundhouse still being used for its intended purpose in Australia.
Thanks to the efforts of the local community and a host of dedicated volunteers, the site has been conserved and transformed into a museum. The museum preserves an important part of local history in the Blue Mountains and of the nation’s railway history.
Places of Historic Interest on the Lower Blue Mountains. (Springwood Historical Soc.)
Blue Mountains Railways. William A Bayley
Lapstone Zig Zag Railway. William A Bayley
Local Railway Men
The Railway News, Sept/Nov. 1973
Vh004 : Railway Roundhouse, listing by Local Government Agencies, accessed 2018-05-04