The fascinating history of Sydney’s electric railway

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In 1916, Dr John Bradfield drew up plans to electrify Sydney’s trains, build the City Circle and a bridge across Sydney Harbour. His vision and drive helped to revolutionise the city and took us out of the steam age.

When Sydney’s first electric train pulled out of Central Station in March 1926, it was a giant step forward. No longer would passengers have to contend with soot, steam and smoke belching from the fleet of steam locomotives, or the relatively slow and jolting journey.

How electric came to be

Dr. John Bradfield was the Chief Engineer of Metropolitan Railway Construction and the Sydney Harbour Bridge project, and one of Australia’s most celebrated civil engineers. He had a vision to provide Sydney with a world-class electric rail system, inspired by those he had seen in New York and London in 1914. With the city growing rapidly, he saw that Sydney needed trains with shorter loading and unloading times and faster acceleration.

In 1916, he outlined a scheme for Sydney’s railways involving the electrification of the suburban lines, a city underground rail loop, lines to the Eastern Suburbs and the west and a railway bridge crossing Sydney Harbour.

On 1 March 1926, 10 years after Bradfield drew up his plan, the first electric passenger train left Central Station bound for Oatley. At the time, it was hailed as a local wonder.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported: “One scarcely knew that the train had left the station, so smoothly it commenced to move, and as one watched the platform falling swiftly behind, one felt the exhilaration of slipping over a polished surface like ice.”

Museum station under construction c1925 showing the unfinished interiors of the new underground city railway. Source: National Library of Australia

The speed of the trains even prompted the Railway Department to warn: “Those people whose habit it is to arrive late at the station, on the assumption they can jump on the train as it is moving out.

“Whereas this practice of boarding the train as it moves may generally be safe on the steam train – on the electric train, which gathers speed very quickly, it is always very dangerous.”

The creation of the City Circle

At the same time, Bradfield was overseeing work on the city underground loop, today known as the City Circle. While the idea had been discussed for some years – due to the need to bring trains closer to the city centre – it was Bradfield’s dogged determination that brought the project to fruition.

For Bradfield, the underground was not just a city rail loop, but “the heart of a far-flung system of electric railways.”

Work began in 1917, but lapsed because of the financial demands of World War I. When building did restart in 1922, it caused inevitable controversy due to the need to excavate over half of Hyde Park for the underground stations at Museum and St James.

The underground line was opened on 20 December 1926, with the first train running from St James to Central, via Museum Station, and then into the suburbs. It made Australia the 15th country in the world to have an underground system.

In 1932 two more city stations, Town Hall and Wynyard, were opened, together with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which connected lines on both sides of the harbour.

Work on Circular Quay Station was interrupted by the Great Depression and, later, World War II. But when it was completed in 1956, at least part of Bradfield’s vision for an underground loop was finally realised.


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