Horseshoe curve

A horseshoe curve is a class of climbing curve in a roadbed which reverses turn direction (inflection) twice on either side of a single tight curve that varies through an angle of about 180 degrees or more.

Horse shoe shaped switch backs going down into a canyon at Canyonlands National Park in Utah..
Aerial shot of the Horseshoe Curve (Pennsylvania) sitting above and framing the upper impoundment of the Kittanning Reservoir.

Such curves are more commonly found in a railway line of travel but are also used in roads. The characteristic U shape, or even slight balloon shape, of such a curve resembles a horseshoe, hence the name. On roadways such curves, if the hard curve is tight enough, are typically called hairpin turns.


A horseshoe curve is a means to lengthen an ascending or descending grade and thereby reduce the maximum gradient. Grade or gradient is defined as the rise divided by the run (length) or distance, so in principle such curves add to length for the same altitude gain, just as would a climbing spiral around one or more peaks, or a climbing traverse (cutting) wrapping around an end of a ridge.

If the straight route between two points is too steep to climb, a more circuitous route will increase the distance traveled, allowing the difference in altitude to be averaged over a longer track (or road) length. Unlike a spiral, a horseshoe curve does not involve the track crossing over itself, and the full horseshoe involves both relatively straight sections, curve deflections in both directions and tightly curved segment; while a spiral generally has a more uniform curvature. Obviously, a horseshoe also gives rise to a severe change in direction requiring another corrective curve to regain displacement in the overall direction of travel, while a spiral generally does not.

A horseshoe curve is sometimes used where the route bridges a deep gully. Deviating from a straight-line route along the edge of the gully may allow it to be crossed at a better location.

Horseshoe curves are common on railway lines in steeply graded or hilly country, where means must be found to achieve acceptable grades and minimize construction costs. As with spirals, the main limitation in laying out a horseshoe is keeping its radius as large as possible, as sharp curves limit train speed, and through increased friction, are harder on rails, requiring more frequent replacement of outer tracks.



Map of Storegjeltunnelen and Dalbergtunnelen in Måbødalen gorge, a complex system of horseshoe curves and tunnels on Norwegian National Road 7.
The Flåm Line, 1926 shortly after construction
Credit: Anders Beer Wilse
  • The Dovre Line, the main line of the Norwegian railway network, has a horseshoe within Grønbogen tunnel from Dombås at the steep hills to the Dovre plateau, standard gauge, single track.[1]
  • The Flåm Line, Norway, has a double horseshoe, one inside a tunnel, one in the open, few kilometres below top station, standard gauge, single track.
  • The Rauma Line, Norway, has a double horseshoe through the steep and narrow valley at Verma, one inside a tunnel and one that includes the Kylling Bridge, standard gauge, single track.
  • Grybów, Poland has a horseshoe curve 2,5 km west of the town.
  • Kalisz, Poland has a double horseshoe curve leading the tracks from a flat plateau down to the valley of the Prosna river.
  • Between Jelenia Góra and Szklarska Poręba in Poland there is a five-times, elongated horseshoe curve (50°51′19"N, 15°34′17"E). Map
  • Newcastle Quayside branch, a goods-only railway from the main line to the river quayside, through a steeply descending horseshoe tunnel.
  • The Rhein-Ruhr S-Bahn in Germany has a horseshoe curve in Neviges, Velbert on the route between Essen and Wuppertal, known as the Prince William railway.
  • The horseshoe curve on the West Highland Line in Scotland between Upper Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy was built because the engineers of the railway couldn't afford to build a viaduct crossing the remote valley.
  • In Slovakia there is a significant number of horseshoe curves on the Banská Bystrica to Turčianske Teplice railway track and on the railway from Zvolen to Turčianske Teplice. More than 20 tunnels and couple of horseshoe curves were built to overcome rough terrain and elevation differences.

North AmericaEdit

United StatesEdit



  • In the Loop District of the Alaska Railroad between mileposts 48 and 51 northeast of Seward, Alaska, there was a horseshoe and a spiral, both on an extensive range of timber trestles up to 106 feet high. Track relocation in 1951 removed the original horseshoe, the spiral and all the trestles but added a new horseshoe at milepost 48.[2]



Horseshoe curves were used extensively on the many narrow gauge railroads in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, now mostly abandoned,[4] for example:

  • On the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (formerly D&RGW); 3 ft (914 mm) gauge:
    • Coxo Curve; Cumbres, Colorado
    • Tanglefoot Curve; Cumbres, Colorado
    • Los Pinos Curve; Los Pinos, Colorado
    • Phantom Curve; Sublette, New Mexico
    • Whiplash Curve; Big Horn, Colorado
    • Lava Loop; Lava, Colorado
  • Ophir Loop; Ophir, Colorado; Rio Grande Southern Railroad – 3 ft (914 mm) gauge (abandoned)
  • Altura Curve; Altura, Colorado; Rio Grande, Pagosa and Northern; 3 ft (914 mm) gauge (abandoned)
  • On the Uintah Railway; 3 ft (914 mm) gauge (abandoned):[5]
    • 66° curve; Moro Castle, Colorado;
    • Balloon Loop; Columbine, Colorado
    • Hairpin Curve and Muleshoe Curve; McAndrews, Colorado





  • Arnold Loop; on the eastern approach to Silver Zone Pass in the Toano Range in eastern Nevada; Union Pacific (formerly Western Pacific).

New York

  • Swain, New York; Pittsburg, Shawmut, & Northern Railroad (abandoned)
  • Richburg, New York; Pittsburg, Shawmut, & Northern Railroad (abandoned)





British Columbia

  • Notch Hill, on CP's Shuswap Sub near Salmon Arm, British Columbia.




  1. ^ Avslutningsrapport for Dovrebanen: avgit til Den kgl. norske regjerings departement for de offentlige arbeider. Oslo: Baneforlaget. 1926 (original), 2000 (reprint). ISBN 8291448353.
  2. ^ Prince, B.D. The Alaska Railroad in Pictures 1914-1964, Ken Wray's Print Shop, Anchorage, 1964
  3. ^ Crump, Spencer (1998). Redwoods, Iron Horses, and the Pacific (Fifth ed.). Fort Bragg, California: California Western Railroad. p. 60. ISBN 0-918376-12-2.
  4. ^ Ormes, R.M. Tracking Ghost Railroads in Colorado, Century One Press 1975 (Contains extensive local maps identifying railroad names and dates of service).
  5. ^ Bender, Henry E, Jr. (1970). Uintah Railway: The Gilsonite Route. Berkeley, California: Howell-North Books. p. 42. ISBN 0-8310-7080-3.
  6. ^ John Brian Hollingsworth (1982). Atlas of the world's railways. Bison.
  7. ^ Hugh Hughes (1981). Middle East railways. Continental Railway Circle.
  • Clark, Ken (2016). Pittsburg, Shawmut, & Northern Railroad. arcadia publishing. pp. 20, 37. ISBN 978-1-4671-1726-5.