Subterranean Sydney: rail tunnels (Part 2)

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Like the city above, underground Sydney has its own unique architecture, defined by a maze of mythical passages, loops of working railway tunnels and platforms that transport millions of commuters each week, and a network of subterranean heritage platforms and tunnels built almost a century ago to cater for an expansion of the rail system that, although envisaged, never occurred.

Heritage Rail Tunnels

Darling Harbour Railway Tunnel as it looks today

The Darling Harbour Railway Tunnel, built in the 1850s, is the oldest railway tunnel constructed in NSW. It was cut under what was then known as Parramatta St between Railway Square and Broadway as part of a spur line from the newly completed Sydney Station to the Darling Harbour goods yards and docks. The Darling Harbour goods line and tunnel remained in use until the late 1940s, when freight began to be redirected to the new facilities at Port Botany.

The tunnel is a relic of the first railway line that was constructed by the privately owned Sydney Railway Company. The company was formed to build a line from Sydney to Parramatta and then onto Goulburn, primarily to cheaply and easily transport wool to the mills and port. Work on the railway first began in 1851, but the gold rush created labour shortages and progress was slow until the arrival of 500 railway workers from England in 1853.

End of the line: Darling Harbour, 1927, State Archives NSW

Fenced-off remains of the Darling Harbour Railway tunnel can be seen today at the Central end of the refurbished Goods Line walkway and you can follow the old tracks along the path down towards Darling Harbour.

Expanding underground

Sydney’s current railway system is the result of the vision and foresight of John Bradfield, one of Australia’s most respected civil engineers and famous for the design and construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The City Circle rail loop, built in stages over a 30 year-period, is based on Bradfield’s initial railway proposal, which was influenced by his experience and observations of the layout and operations of the New York City Subway. The first segment opened on 20 December, 1926 and the remainder was completed by late January 1956. The first stations to open were the Heritage listed Museum and St James stations, as part of the initial electrification of Sydney’s railway.

First train across Bridge, Dr. J.J.C. Bradfield, 1932, NSW State Archives

Town Hall and Wynyard stations opened in 1932 in conjunction with the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This section contained four tunnels – two connected to the Bridge and two City Circle tunnels that terminated at Wynyard.

In 1956, the dead ends at St James and Wynyard were joined, and Circular Quay station (the “missing link”) opened to complete the loop.

Bradfield initially saw St James as the junction and changeover point and built extra tunnels, tracks and platforms under St James and other stations to cater for future expansion.

Today, Central station is the hub of Sydney’s busy rail system. It is also a hub of passageways, tunnels and abandoned platforms.

Branching out from the grand Central station hub, the subterranean railway spokes and their underground railway stations on the City Circle, Eastern Suburbs and Airport lines are well known and used by hundreds of thousands of rail commuters daily. But most are unaware of their colourful history.

Central Station’s secrets

Central Station in 1906, NSW State Archives

For almost four decades, the “ghost” Platforms 25 and 26 have been sealed off. Constructed in 1979 as part of the Eastern Suburbs railway network, which was originally envisaged almost 60 years earlier by John Bradfield, the purpose of these platforms was to allow trains to pass on top of each other in opposite directions.

A tunnel was also constructed under Redfern station in order to connect with Centrals’ Platform 25 and 26 if the Eastern Suburbs Rail plan ever came to fruition.

Bradfield wanted rail lines to Bondi, Randwick, Balmain and the northern beaches – stretching from Manly to Coogee. When the current City Circle and Central to North Sydney lines were built in the 1920’s, he added sections of tunnel that could cater for the other lines he envisaged, if they were ever built. At North Sydney, there are tunnels leading half a kilometre towards Mosman, originally purposed for the Peninsula Railway. The entrance is located beyond the Waverton end of Platform 2.

Bradfield opening tunnel at North Sydney Station, 1925, NSW State Archives

At Wynyard, Platforms 1 and 2 were used as a tram concourse, a police shooting range and the home of a ventilation fan that caters for all 6 platforms. Today they are walled off and form part of a hotel car park.

The St James Labyrinth

Disused platform at St James, credit: instagram/beathilton

St James station is home to a labyrinth of abandoned tunnels that start under the station and stretch kilometres under the city. Built in 1926 by NSW Government Architect George McRae, St James was the first underground station in Australia, and was an adaption of the London Tube-style station.

To the north and south of the public area, other tunnels and platforms were built during the 1920s for a proposed underground metro that was put on hold as a result of the Great Depression and finally abandoned in favour of today’s electric railway and underground city rail loop. Two single-line tunnels, each a kilometre in length and originally intended for Bradfield’s Bondi and Randwick line, lie beneath Hyde Park. North of St James, a double track tunnel for Bradfield’s Balmain line sits under Macquarie Street and ends at the Botanic Gardens.

Although never put into active service, these redundant tunnels were used for a variety of purposes ranging from food production to military defense and movie sets. One was repurposed as a mushroom farm during the 1930’s.

Tunnels to the north of the station were converted into RAAF bunkers, while the disused southern tunnels became public air raid shelters reinforced with concrete hand-poured over iron rods to ensure the tunnel could withstand explosions from above and within.

These had capacity and bedding for 20,000 people and were accessed from Hyde Park using a set of wooden stairs that descended four storeys below ground. Two storeys below the air raid shelter was a large map and Morse code room for shipping and aviation coordination.

Armed soldiers were positioned in man holes built high in the walls of the tunnels, to maintain law and order in the event the tunnels were called into use. Their initialled inscriptions and loving messages for their families can still be read on the walls.

In more recent times, the tunnels were used as locations in movies such as The Matrix – the famous subway station fight scene between Keanu Reeves’ character Neo and Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith was filmed in the operational parts of St James station.

The popular 1990s TV show, Police Rescue, was also filmed inside the tunnels, in addition to music videos and indie films. Emergency services also use the tunnels as a training ground, practising emergency responses and evacuations.

Accessed through a corridor of knee-deep water that opens onto a huge flooded chamber with a domed roof, one of the tunnels is home to a pyramid-shaped bell of faceted metal that was once used by the ABC to simulate the sound of Big Ben. St James also has a large underground lake. Eerily silent and pitch black, the lake is thought to be a kilometre long, seven metres wide and up to six metres deep, and populated by albino eels.

Exploring rail tunnels

From time to time, Sydney Trains provide guided tours of and access to the St James tunnels and Central Station’s ghost platforms. Keep an eye on the Facebook page and website for details of how you can enter the ticket ballot when they are next opened to an eager public.



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