The Story of Sydney's Railways

Building Sydney's City Circle Railway

J.C.C. Bradfield's original city railway proposal, upon which today's City Circle loop is based, saw St. James as a busy junction and changeover point. In addition to the lines now in use, a double track railway was to be built from Gladesville joining the City Circle on its western arc and leaving it on its eastern side for Watson's Bay and the South Eastern suburbs. This line was to enter the city from the west at Darling Harbour, run underground and curve around from Town Hall, under O'Connell Street, to St. James, where it would utilise the two spare centre platforms. Two lines would run under Hyde Park and Oxford Street to Taylor Square, where there was to be a junction. One pair of lines would go to Watson's Bay and the other through Paddington and Randwick towards Botany.

The first section of the city railway loop was above ground between Cleveland Street (now Redfern) and Central station. It was designed for use by electric trains only and the first service ran between Central and Oatley. The 2.0 km section between Central to St. James via Museum was opened on 20th December 1926. The 2.6 km western arm of the underground railway from Central to Wynyard via Town Hall was opened on 28th February 1932 with the opening of the Harbour Bridge.

The City Circle is a complicated system. In one section there is a tunnel running on top of another for half a kilometre. Tunnels cross each other skew-wise at various places. In two sections there are four tunnels running side by side on the same level. To keep disruption to the city down to a minimum during construction, most lines were planned to pass under public parks and roadways. The greatest difficulties were encountered where the tunnel had to pass under building foundations on the section between Central and Wynyard. Where possible the lines were placed under George Street, but the section linking Central Station to George Street in particular had to be constructed under buildings. On the eastern side of the city, the bulk of the tunnelling between Goulburn Street and St. James Station was through ironstone clay and shale, with the sandstone mainly below the middle section of the tunnel.

Tunneling under Hyde Park, 1923

St. James and Museum Stations
St. James and Wynyard were busy terminals until 1956 when these two stations were connected by the line through Circular Quay, allowing trains to run into the City and back out again without having to stop and reverse direction. St. James was intended to be the junction station of the city circle loop. It was built as was much of the City Railway by the cut and cover method. In this way, a hole was dug in the ground, the walls and roof of the tunnel were built after which the hole was filled in. The outer two platforms of St. James were for the trains travelling to and from Circular Quay which is their current use. The inner two platforms were for trains travelling to and from the Watsons Bay / Randwick area (then referred to as the Eastern Suburbs Railway). These have never been used by trains although the tunnels exist for some distance in either direction.

The City Circle loop was finally completed in 1956, the final link in Bradfield's masterplan being incorporated into the design of the Cahill Expressway on Circular Quay. The 1.2 km section between Wynyard to St. James via Circular Quay was opened to traffic on 22nd January 1956. At the time, a new series of suburban rail carriages were introduced to provide maximum comfort for passengers using the tunnels of the city underground. Bradfield had input into their design, and consequently they became known as Bradfield cars.

Central section of St James Station. The two centre tracks were never used and the area between the platforms was eventually filled in. The arched doorway is the original entrance for one of the lines into an unused tunnel.

Two platform islands were built at St. James station, with each designed to have a track running on either sides, thus catering for four lines. The outside lines were brought into use when the station first opened in December 1926, and are still used today. The inner two lines were never built, leaving the two centre platforms with no tracks alongside them. During an upgrade of the station in 1990, the gap between the two platforms where the tracks should have gone was filled in and the tunnel portals for the unused lines closed.

After the city stations were brought into service, the electrification of the suburban railway expanded rapidly, reaching Sutherland, Liverpool, Parramatta, Bankstown and Hornsby by 1929. Progress then slowed until outer suburban development required extension of the electrified system to Penrith in 1955, Lithgow in 1957, Cowan in 1959, Gosford 1960, Campbelltown in 1968, Waterfall 1980, Wyong 1982, Newcastle 1984 and Wollongong in 1985.

The North Shore Connection
By the time the eastern arm of the underground railway had been completed, Bradfield had recommended an alternative design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a single span steel arch, which was given the go-ahead and completed in 1932. Bradfield's proposed a tramway service from St. James station to Mosman using the tracks on the eastern side of the bridge gained widespread support. Thus, at North Sydney, there are tunnels leading half a kilometre towards Mosman for the Peninsula Railway, the entrance of which can be seen beyond the Waverton end of platform 2. At Town Hall, additional platforms were provided at the lower level for a line to Gladesville. These are now used by the Eastern Suburbs Railway.

The original intention was that Platforms 1 and 2 of Wynyard Station would eventually serve the eastern pair of railway tracks across Sydney Harbour Bridge, and in the interim were used as a terminus for North Shore tram services on Sydney's original tram network, a service that operated over those tracks from the bridge's opening in 1932 until 1958.

The lines to Mosman and Gladesville, though agreed to in principle and allowed for in the construction of Wynyard and North Sydney stations, never gained Government approval. After the bridge was opened, a new suburban railway line between St. Leonards and Eastwood was given the green light instead, but funds for that project dried up during the great depression of the 1930s and the line was never built. After the tram services were withdrawn, the space occupied by platforms 1 and 2 was converted into the current underground car park for a neighbouring hotel, which explains why the platforms of Wynyard Station are numbered 3 to 6.

A tram at Wynyard Station

The eastern rail tracks on the Sydney Harbour Bridge that were used by trams from 1932 until 1958 were removed and their lanes were used for two extra road lanes on the bridge which fed onto the newly completed Cahill Expressway. The entrance to the disused tunnels and the ramp at the city end of the bridge that formerly connected the station to the eastern rail tracks on the bridge can still be seen below the outer two lanes of the road deck alongside the walkway onto the bridge from The Rocks (above), mirroring those still in use to the west of the bridge.

Planning for the future: The Eastern Suburbs Railway
Tunnelling for the eastern suburbs railway via the branch line south from St. James station commenced in 1917, but the project remained uncompleted for decades. The Great Depression, which saw passenger numbers fall dramatically, led to many of Dr. Bradfield's proposals like the eastern suburbs railway never leaving the drawing board. Politics and lack of money were the final nails in the coffin as the Country Party was opposed to expansion of the urban rail network at the expense of more lines to "open up" the bush.

The growth of the Government bus network in the early 1930's also played its part. Another factor preventing completion of the South-Eastern Suburbs tunnels was the high cost of land resumption required for excavation along Oxford Street towards Taylor Square. This would have played a major part in the 1940s decision to change to the present route via Martin Place, Kings Cross etc. Government after Government embarked on a bit of excavation work here and there along the route, a token gesture to shows its supporters that they were working on it, though in reality it was in their "too hard" basket. It wasn't until the vocal minority became a vocal majority that the Government bit the bullet and spent the necessary dollars to make it happen in the 1970s. On 23rd June 1979, the line became operational as far as Bondi Junction, the last leg being left for a future generation to complete.

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Electrified Railcars: Pre 1960s

"Bradfield" Railcars
In the 1920s, the Bradfield electrification program began. Until then, trains continued to be sets of steam-locomotive-hauled wooden end-platform cars. In 1921, 101 wooden bodied driving-motor cars were built by Ritchie Bros and Meadowbank Manufacturing Company. They were originally steam-hauled cars, prior to conversion to electric traction with the opening of the first section of electrified line between Sydney and Oatley in 1926.

These wooden cars had steel sheathing for additional strength, and became known as the Bradfield cars. Some Bradfield cars were converted to parcel vans after accidents. Other Bradfield cars were rebuilt to resemble Standard suburban (1927-type) cars in the 1960s, to prolong their lives until new double-deck cars could be delivered to replace them. The last Bradfield power-cars were withdrawn from service in 1975.

At the same time, 193 steam-hauled end-platform cars were rebuilt into 184 electric trailer cars and nine driving trailer cars. They were in service much longer than intended, being finally replaced by the Tulloch single deck, and later double-deck, trailers from the 1950s onwards. Examples of Bradfield railcars are on display at Trainworks, Thirlmere.

"Sputnik" Railcars
Between 1926 and 1960, a total of 417 motor cars and 417 trailer cars were built by various contractors including Leeds Forge Co. of England, Walsh Island Dockyard, Clyde Engineering, Tulloch Limited and Comeng. The pre-war "1927 type" cars were known as the "Standard" cars as they dominated the suburban fleet, and featured First and Second Class travel until 1 January 1940. More cars (the majority being trailer cars), were delivered by Tullochs Ltd between 1940 and 1957 to cater for system expansion, and to replace many of the decrepit Wooden trailer cars. The 80 cars built by Comeng from 1957 to 1960 (40 motor and 40 trailer cars) became known as the "Sputnik" cars.

They had 4 single power operated doors on each side and were of spot-welded construction. These cars were introduced at the time of electrification extension from Parramatta to Penrith. These single deck electric multiple unit (EMU) sets were the backbone of the Sydney suburban network until the stainless-steel double deck cars took over. The last of the Sputniks had their final retirement in 1993, by which time they had become known as "Red Rattlers". Examples of Sputnik railcars are on display at Trainworks, Thirlmere.

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