These pages have been developed from an earlier version of the Great Zig Zag Railway website.
The official site is Zig Zag Railway, Lithgow, New South Wales, Australia.

There are several words to describe zig zags:
- Zig Zag, Zig-zag and Zigzag - particularly in UK and Australia - two changes of direction, but may also be used to describe number of changes of direction, sometimes three changes of direction are described as three zig zags!
At each change of direction there is a reversing station.
- Switchback - mostly in North America - may be one or two changes of direction - two changes sometimes called double switchback. A single change of direction may be a described as a hairpin bend, or a horseshoe (French: fer a cheval) bend or loop.
- Switchback is also used in North America to describe a vertical change of direction, similar to a roller coaster.
- V-Switch - mostly in North America, single change of direction, or a single switchback.
- Reversals
- Reverses
- Reversing station (Spitzkehrenbahnhof in German)
- Revertion station
- Reversion station
- Backshunt
- Spitzkehre (German) hairpin
- Lacet (French) hairpin bend

This site concentrates on railways that have or have had at least one reversing station.

There are several ways of solving the problems of sharp corners and steep gradients.

One is by means of a Zig Zag, (Zigzag, Zig-Zag), with reversing stations.
Another is to use tight curves if there is enough space, sometimes referred to as a Zig Zag! Generally only feasible with narrow gauge.
A variant using tight curves is the helix or spiral, some of these go through mountains, others use bridges.

For details of different solutions to sharp direction changes: Helixes, Tunnels, Spirals, and Other Unique Trackage.

Where there was plenty of space a 'balloon loop' or 'reversing loop' was used to turn a whole train round to go back the way it had come.

Where there was less space a 'triangle' (UK) or 'wye' (USA - looks like the letter 'Y') was used. In this case the train was taken on to the first side of the triangle, and the engine detached. It then proceeded into the first reversing station, reversed out onto the second side, into the second reversing station, came out facing forward again onto the third side of the triangle. It then went onto the original track, backed up onto what was the rear end of its train, and set out back the way it had originally come.
If there was space for long reversing stations then the whole train may be taken round the triangle; this is sometimes done to ensure airline type passenger seats always face the same way.

Particularly useful references are:
Rob Dickinson's Railway Reverses (Zig Zags)
Wikipedia list of zig zag locations
Bo Justusson's website with zig zag diagram.
English version of German list of Zig-Zags/Spitzkehren/switchbacks

True Zig Zags are now rare, for the same reason the Lithgow Zig Zag was superseded.
They are only suitable for limited traffic, because they are inherently slow.
They are also less safe if there is only a single track, as it is now regarded as safer to have the locomotive at the leading end.
At the Lithgow Zig Zag Railway locomotives could not change ends before changing direction until the track was duplicated in the reversing stations in the 1880s.

Readers who have more information on railways with zig zags / switchbacks / spitzkehren / lacets please email: harburgsATgmail.com (Anti Spam - replace AT with @)

Mountain Webwitch: Mayling Hargreaves
Updated 26 September 2013