I remember the childhood joy of riding the old Sydney monorail – a single-loop that connected Darling Harbour, Chinatown and the Sydney central business and shopping districts. You had to board with a little gold token and were whizzed through what seemed like futuristic tubes wrapping each station. While it captured my young imagination, in reality it was one of the most critiqued and controversial pieces of transport infrastructure in Sydney’s recent history.
The monorail was a gift to Sydney for the Australian Bicentenary in 198 from transport mogul and the head of TNT, Sir Peter Abeles, with the approval of the NSW Minister for Public Works, Laurie Brereton.
Brought under the authority set up to plan and oversee the construction of the Darling Harbour Project, the installation of the Monorail overrode thirteen existing laws, including those on environment and planning, heritage, traffic and fire safety, as well as the authority of the Sydney City Council.
Apart from being considered a general eyesore and an intrusion on heritage and architectural values of the CBD streetscape, the Monorail was impractical because it didn’t actually connect with any of the major transport hubs in the city. Nor did the investment make economic sense, critics pointed out the construction of Light rail would have been $20 million cheaper to build, service more passengers per hour and cost 40% less for a ticket.
It quickly attracted some barbed commentary from Sydney’s cultural elite including Patrick White who described it as ‘one of many autocratic farces perpetuated by the powerful on our citizens’ * , and Clive James who noted it would probably only break even as an investment ‘on the day hell freezes over… after ….it runs from the middle of downtown Sydney…. to the middle of downtown Sydney…after circumnavigating the
middle of downtown Sydney’.*
Originally intended to run until 2038, as time went on the ill-fated rail became harder to justify economically. It was also dangerous, with accidents putting passengers at risk. These events culminated in 2010 when the failure of an underground cable led to the system shutting down, leaving nearly 100 passengers stranded above the city for several hours until they were rescued by the NSW Fire and Rescue Service.
Decommissioned in 2013, the Monorail has been revived in surprising ways. Outlandish proposals have included the conversion of the Liverpool Street station into a giant fish tank.* And while some of the carriages have gone to the Powerhouse Museum, others were souvenired and made availble to the public in 2015 via an online Gumtree advertisement. Complete with an accompanying inspiring video, the advertisement encouraged potential buyers of one (or more) of the 22 large carriages that were available for $3,000 each, to contemplate possibilities like ‘making a cubbyhouse, a caravan or even a monorail coffee shop.’* Google purchased two carriages for meeting rooms in Pyrmont, and most recently the Sydney Metro Northwest project used 60 steel monorail beams, many of them removed from Pitt Street in 2013. Even though we thought we got rid of it, these vestiges mean the Monorail still lurks within the veins of our city.
Take a seat on the monorail’s last journey and watch the world go by, care of City of Sydney Council photographer Paul Patterson on the Dictionary here:
and read Garry Wotherspoon’s Dictionary entry on the history of the monorail here:
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Woodford Academy and Middle and Georges Head . In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!
For more Dictionary of Sydney, listen to the podcast with Minna & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.
* ‘Monorail Should Be a Lesson to All Transport Ministers’;, National Times, 24 June 2013,http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/editorial/monorail-should-be-a-lesson-to-all-transport-ministers-20130623-
2oqjq.html, viewed 3 July 2013
* Clive James ‘A Postcard from Sydney’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000d29l/clive-james-2-postcard-from-sydney, accessed on 26 August 2020.
* Saulwick, J 2013 Plans for Sydney’s abandoned monorail stations include a giant fish tank https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/plans-for-sydneys-abandoned-monorail-stations-include-a-giant-fish-tank-20131108-
2×730.html, accessed on 26 August 2020.