In the 1880’s a mistake was made building the rail line between Sydney and the Illawarra.
The Otford tunnel was built with too steep a grade, one in forty, trains couldn’t get through safely. The steam trains would stall, passengers and crew would choke, become overcome with fumes, suffer burns in the tunnel.
A ventilation shaft was built in 1891, but the problems persisted. Eventually the line between Waterfall and Stanwell Park was duplicated then replaced.
The remnants of the line are still present, the most significant, the longest being the Otford to Stanwell Park tunnel, 1550 metres.
The Otford tunnel is another significant attraction, an historically significant landmark, one that fits into Wollongong’s tourist and healthy lifestyle plans.
Three active residents of Wollongong Council’s ward one, the north ward that takes in Helensburgh, Otford and Stanwell Tops, have gotten together to push for the Otford tunnel to be open for walkers and cyclists.
Helensburgh Off Road Cycle Club members Christina Robinson and John Noonan joined Rail Trails for NSW to help make this happen.
The third member of the the action trio, Warwick Erwin, had been studying the tunnel for a number of years. Warwick’s enthusiasm is for rail and rail heritage. Warwick is a great believer in rail, especially for freight. He has seen first hand the load that the new Port Kembla terminal has placed on local roads.
The trio provided a tour of the area and the tunnel to Rail Trails for NSW members John Moore, Tim Coen and Jamie Honan.
The most significant aspect of the tunnel for the dedicated cyclist is the ability to go from Otford to Stanwell Park safely. At the moment, there is a short, narrow climb from the Otford Pie shop, then an easy descent to Bald Hill where the hang gliders launch, then a very narrow, steep descent down to Stanwell Park.
Christina Robinson outlined the problems she has coming up from Stanwell Park to Bald Hill on this road. Sometimes she rides on a tandem bike with a blind fellow cyclist. Every so often there is coal truck, there is nowhere to go if the truck veers or refuses to give space.
Warwick is also a local history buff, everything from the railway line, to the orchard at Darkes Forrest.
The tunnel is very easy to access on the Stanwell Park side, the current Chellow Dene Ave and Lawrence Hargrave Drive are built on the old railway. At the end of Chellow Dene Ave is the entrance to the tunnel. Rail Heritage has attempted to keep graffitists out with a grill and gate, but this is generally open.
Very close to the entrance the tunnel has been repaired with concrete. During the second world war, plans were made to slow down any advancing Japanese invasion by destroying tunnels, bridges and roads.The blowing up of the start of this tunnel was a test run.
The tunnel was fixed after this destruction either by the mushroom farmers who held a lease for a number of years, or by the water board who laid a pipe along the length of the tunnel, depending which version you hear.
The northern end of the tunnel at Otford lies in a property which has a private lease, it is recommended that people keep away from this part of the tunnel until is has been opened properly.
This youtube video shows the conditions.
Warwick took us to lunch at the pie shop. It’s only open weekends. The proprietors are well known, semi retired locals. Many a cyclist will fondly remember the pie shop after the long climb up from the Royal National Park.
Warwick did offer the option of a Robber’s Dog. The Hot Dog trailer at Bald Hill was run for many years by Rex ‘Buckets’ Jackson, the infamous Minister for Corrective Services who was himself sent to prison for organising the early release of prisoners to meet his gambling debts. Jackson is still well regarded in the area, Helensburgh has a Rex Jackson park.
A Robber’s Dog is a hot dog with a number of embellishments.
The original hot dog trailer is undergoing repairs.
After inspecting the entrance to the Otford tunnel, we took the opportunity to explore the other tunnels in the area. The two most easily accessible are in Helensburgh.
One runs down past the old station siding and into the Helensburgh colliery. Underground, a wall has been built and that part of the tunnel is used for water storage.
Christina mentioned that the tunnel used to be completely submerged, the water filling the cutting where the station siding is. She used to kayak in the dammed up water.
Across the road is a short tunnel, coming into Helensburgh. The impressive cutting is a reminder of the extensive work that was needed to lay the original rail line.
Warwick took us to the modern Helensburgh station, only fifty five minutes from central. He was able to give us a brief rundown on the difficulties commuters face.
We retreated to Otford Cottage, a bed and breakfast were we stayed overnight for coffee. Our host, Barbie Flentje has converted the old railway house next door to her house into a a beautiful bed and breakfast.
Barbie was able to give us local colour of life in Otford. For example, the deer that were introduced for hunting into the the predecessor of the Royal National Park are often a concern. The cockatoos in this area are very clever. They know the bins with the red lids are the only ones with edible take away, hence the rocks and other objects on those bins.
The next day two of the Rail Trails group, John Moore and Jamie Honan, together with their wives Virginia and Nan, continued touring. The Apple Shack at Glenbernie Orchard sells their famous ‘Howler’ Cider, together with their apples, nectarines and the ability to pick your own fruit.
Our host, Jo-Anne Fahey conducted us along with a local bus tour down to the Orchard, where she explained how to pick the fruit, and sang for us.
The area has so much to offer, the Otford tunnel will be a significant enhancement.
Photos and story, Jamie Honan
Terry Boardman contacted me with more accurate historical information.
Terry pointed me to the resources of the NSW division of the Railway Historical Society http://www.arhsnsw.com.au/
Terry writes (with my paraphrasing and possible errors on my part)
“It was not a mistake made in building the line at a grade of one in forty but in so doing this was following the standards of the day having regard to the financial and engineering resources of the colony. The line also needed to descend from Otford to an exit point closer to sea level to avoid then construction of the Stanwell Park viaduct which would have taxed the resources of the 1880″s
“As Illawarra industries multiplied and passenger numbers increased trains became heavier and the steeply graded track began to cause problems
“When winds blew from the south and trains were ascending towards Otford the locomotive smoke tended to follow the train into, and through, the tunnel…
“PS John Oakes, a retired school teacher, has done a lot of research into the now disused tunnels on the Illawarra Railway Line and has led several walks along the now largely disused track bed of the original line between Waterfall and Coalcliff under the auspices of the Australian Railway Historical Society NSW
“John is the author of several small volumes in a series Sydney’s Forgotten Railways, one of which is Sydney’s Forgotten Illawarra Railways, all published by the ARHSnsw. The Society has research facilities, the Railway Research Centre, and a bookshop at 67 Renwick Street, Redfern- see http://www.arhsnsw.com.au/
“PPS In regard to the concrete section in the tunnel John’s books says:-
“‘… Eden Industries set up a mushroom cultivation farm in the tunnel in 1961. During the 1970s, the debris from the explosion that blocked the tunnel was cleared by them and a rectangular concrete section was erected to replace the curved brick walls and ceiling at this point.'”