There is nothing people like more than a secret tunnel. And while a lot of people have heard about the tunnels connected with St James Railway Station, few have been lucky enough to visit them… until now.
But before we satisfy your curiosity, let me tell you why these tunnels even exist.
The City Circle railway was conceived as far back as 1908, when JJC Bradfield submitted a design for the underground city loop to the Royal Commission on the Improvement of Sydney. Bradfield’s concept was picked up by the state Labor government in 1910, and they tried to pass legislation to get the railway extension design approved, but conservative politicians condemned the infrastructure projects as “an orgy of extravagance”. Bradfield was later invited to revisit his design in 1914-15.
In the end the City Circle line took 25 years to build, in between WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. As well as world events, party politics kept intervening so the infrastructure for modern Sydney was a real stop-start affair.
The first stations to open were Museum and St James, branching out from Central. This was in 1926. Town Hall and Wynyard followed suit in the other direction, opening in 1932 just three weeks before the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The engineer Bradfield planned for multiple lines feeding into the city circle. At St James Station there was a planned line branching off to the eastern suburbs. At Wynyard, Bradfield designed an option for a line heading out to Balmain. The disused platforms are a testament to the grand plans of the 1930s railway network planned by Bradfield.
If you ever have caught the train at St James station, you may have noticed that there are a couple of platforms that are joined and unused. This was part of the broader network plans. To the north and south of the public platform area, tunnels and platforms built during the 1920s for proposed extensions and lines of the city underground remain in place.
The “ghost” platforms were designed in the same manner as the other platforms at St James, but were never completed. Steel doors deny access, and staff have used the platforms for storage.
An interesting part of the history of these planned but not used tunnels is their repurposing during WWII.
The unrequired tunnel excavated to the south of St James was converted into an air raid shelter. This section of the tunnel includes concrete blast doors and walls, as well as a range of graffiti. The air raid shelter areas in the southern tunnels are rare surviving elements of Sydney’s WW2 defences.
To the north a tunnel leads a short way and then stops in the dark, but a drip, drip, dripping is an aural cue for the underground lake that has formed beneath the botanic gardens.
Years ago the Australian Railway Historical Society used to do regular tours of these abandoned tunnels, but these days it’s pretty hard to get into them. But there are ways to experience them today.
Sydney Trains gave artists Julia Davis and Lisa Jones exclusive access to the tunnels as an underground studio where the tunnels became both the muse and the medium for their art. The result is the exhibition “Thresholds” currently on at the Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney. Ghostly tendrils of roots, cut off steelwork, muddy puddles all feature in the works. The centrepiece of this exhibition is an extraordinary three-channel HD video installation with surround sound. The exhibition is on until the 19th February, and it’s FREE! so be quick to catch this evocative exhibition. Find out more on Sydney Uni’s Tin Sheds page here:
And if that wasn’t enough, you can now do a virtual tour of the air raid shelter tunnels at St James. Sydney Trains partnered with Sydney Living Museums to create the virtual tour for a special online Sydney Open festival in 2020. And now we can all access the site! Head to the Sydney Living Museums page here.
If you want to read more about the railway and its influence in Sydney, check out these articles on the Dictionary too:
• Mark Dunn, Electrification of the Sydney Suburban Train Network, Dictionary of Sydney, 2017, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/electrification_of_the_sydney_suburban_train_network
• Mark Dunn, City Underground, Dictionary of Sydney, 2017, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/city_underground
• Bob McKillop, The Railways of Sydney: Shaping the City and its Commerce, Dictionary of Sydney, 2016, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_railways_of_sydney_shaping_the_city_and_its_commerce
• Garry Wotherspoon, Transport, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/transport
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the 20201 Dr AM Hertzberg AO Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio