The Metropolitan Tunnel (Glow Worm tunnel) is the 4th tunnel on the original Illawarra Line, and is a 624m single track tunnel nestled between the Helensburgh Tunnel 1st (Tunnel No. 3), and the Metropolitan Colliery. It is dead straight on a 1 in 55 grade (falling south). It also shared an unfortunate trait that the Otford Tunnel also had; build up of soot, smoke and steam which was treacherous for engine crew and passengers alike. It opened on the 3rd October 1888 and closed permanently on the 30th May 1915.
Every day I’d have to commute to the Helensburgh Railway Station and catch the train to school at Heathcote. One morning as I was riding my bike to the Helensburgh station, my friend pointed into the thickets of lush green overgrowth and said “In there is an old train tunnel”. “Really” I shot back surprised. I didn’t think much about it, but the curiosity never left me. I did believe him because when one catches the train to school everyday you get to know the journey pretty well. On occasions when leaving the Helensburgh Station heading to Sydney, the bush around the 1st Helensburgh Tunnel can thin out due to fire or drought, and you can clearly see the northern portal.
After high school I use to walk past the area in Tunnel Road every Friday evening to visit a friend who lived not far from it. I would attempt to peer in to the area where the Metropolitan Tunnel is but it was either too dark to see (if I arrived late in the evening), or very overgrown and full of rubbish and water.
In years past the whole tunnel was virtually full of water, giving rise to rumours of there being an abandoned steam train under water. Early 1995 saw the clearing and removal of rubbish out of cutting to the northern portal as the Colliery had plans to use the tunnel as a water reservoir. When the tunnel was drained in 1995, that rumour was put to rest; (no steam train was found). Soon after in 1995, rail enthusiasts, local historians, and contractors from the Metropolitan Colliery were marvelling at brickwork found exposed in the earth. The archaeology discovered turned out to be of significant historical importance; part of the Helensburgh 1st Railway Station had been found in situ and intact. A good length of platform was unearthed and can be seen and visited today.
Interactive Map Provided by © Bing Maps.
Recently I had a chance to visit the site and thanks to the Helensburgh Landcare group, much of the site has been restored. In March 2002 saw the laying of some rail and wooden sleepers donated by the Metropolitan Colliery which adds dramatic effect to the already amazing area. Just meters from the northern portal of the Metropolitan Tunnel is the old railway station platform of the 1st Helensburgh Railway Station. You can walk on the platform to access the tunnel, which I walked a good way into; and as expected it is wet and muddy. The southern end of the tunnel is blocked by a concrete wall constructed by the Metropolitan Colliery about 5 meters in from the southern end of the tunnel. They have leased it for many years and use it as a dam for mining purposes and dust management.
Not being used in mushroom production has enabled the Metropolitan Tunnel to host one of the largest colonies of glow worms in NSW. If you’re thinking of heading down there, the area is very accessible although I do recommend some water proof footwear.
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I revisited the Helensburgh Reserve on the 31 October 2010. Fortunately for me and the photos, the Helensburgh Railway sign had just had a fresh lick of paint and is looking spectacular. Work is to be carried out in the first half of 2011 at the Helensburgh Railway Reserve. (new railway sleepers, re-routing of water course to prevent the railway station wall from shifting due to water build up in the soil behind it, weed management, etc… all to be carried out.
In 2012, the original Helensburgh Railway Station sign had to be remove as it had been vandalised, with several original letters forcibly removed. The sign has been removed for safe keeping to prevent further damage. It’s really sad to see such history be destroyed like this, and I plea to anyone who knows the whereabouts of the original letters removed to contact me for their safe return. You can remain completely anonymous; we would just like to see the letters returned. Use our contact form or mailing address.
It is a testament to the builders, as the site has stood for nearly 125 years. Please remember that this whole area has been Environmental & Heritage listed as a reserve and treat it with care. The original Helensburgh and Metropolitan Tunnels, as well as remnants of the former Helensburgh Station platform, is now no longer in RailCorp ownership and has been vested to the NSW Department of Lands.
Images/Photos, and Article © Ian Piggott 2010-2013 – all rights reserved,