The Tunnels of Old Helensburgh
Tucked on the fringes of the South Coast lie a series of 7 tunnels. Some that accessible to the public: others not.
I will focus on the tunnels that you are eligible to see.
But let me give you a bit of an overview first.
The original railway route of the South Coast travelled through these tunnels before its closure in 1915 (now relocated) due to health issues of trains passengers. Their lungs inhaled steamy smoke as they moved through the tight walls of the tunnels.
- To note*- The Preservation of these tunnels is a high priority for local groups such as The Helensburgh and District Historical Society , so please do not disturb the remnants of each site.
This article will guide you through three tunnels.
Cawley Tunnel may be accessible to visitors but it’s a challenge to get here!
It is 380 metres long and was used as a Mushroom farm after its closure until 2000. The Northern Entrance is not fenced off but it is gated at the Southern End.
It is difficult to trek by foot because people must venture through shrubs and past a swamp to get to the Northern end.
To get here, first you must travel over the railway bridge near Helensburgh station. Follow Wilson’s Creek Road over a second railway bridge and turn right into the Garrawarra State Conservation Area. The dirt road soon becomes tarred again which fords three creeks (a shallow part of the creek).
Before you cross the first creek, a cutting is seen to the right where it makes way for the Northern portal of the Cawley tunnel.
Robert Hails, a coal miner at Helensburgh’s Metropolitan Colliery, was tragically killed by a train in 1895 as he walked through the tunnel on his way home from work. Read here for more. So if you decide to pay a visit, you may bring flowers to lay in his memory if you wish.
Helensburgh Tunnel is among one of the shortest tunnels in the alignment, spanning a length of 80 metres. The tunnel entrance is gated off on both ends.
It is supposedly believed that a young man had hung himself at this tunnel. And after my visit here, I am leaning towards this rumour to be true …
“When I approached the entrance to the Southern portal to take a few photos for this article, I jumped at the sound of a moan (what sounded like a human voice) that echoed through the walls inside the tunnel. No one was around. No one was standing inside the tunnel. I could not hear the sound of a nearby train. The moan quickly faded after a few seconds and it returned to silence.”
There may have been an explanation to this experience but I wonder if it might be more than just a coincidence.
The Helensburgh tunnel on the Old Illawarra alignment is very easy to access by car and by train. It looms behind one side of a street intersection and the Metropolitan tunnel is located opposite. Check out the map below to see for directions.
This tunnel is perhaps one of the most interesting on the alignment. It emerges right at the heels of Old Helensburgh Railway Station.
There are few remains of the old station left but the platform is still preserved as are the posts that supported the station sign. The sign itself was removed after vandals stole letters. The station building has also since been demolished.
Railway cottages have been preserved next to the old site. One where the stationmaster used to stay in and the other where the night officer lived in. The original railway tracks have been removed but a replica has been laid down.
Upon entering the site, a information plaque tells visitors a bit about the history of the site and the old station.
But what really draws visitors to this site is the tunnel itself. The Metropolitan Tunnel follows a length of 624 metres and it descends. Despite the long distance, passengers could still see through to the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and when the light disappeared, travellers knew a steam train was coming.
Today the other end has been blocked off and the tunnel has turned into a ‘lake’ where water eventually reaches the roof of the tunnel at the farthest end due to the falling grade. You won’t be able to walk the whole tunnel length but you may see glow-worms in the tunnel, maybe thousands!
So if you decide to pay a visit, I recommend wearing shoes or boots as areas of the old railway station are prone to surfaces of wet mud and water.
Other things to do nearby
Once you have explored, you may be interested to see what else there is to do around the local area. Read Melanie D’s article for local activities.