Sydney's Railway Bridges: Timeline

In the days when Sydney's railway system was being put into place, there were no mechanical engineering devices such as front end loaders, graders or giant cranes to remove piles of earth or to swing steel girders into position. When a culvert or bank had to be built, the job was done by a gang of men wielding picks and shovels, with horse drawn carts the only method of earth removal. Dynamite was often used to blast the rock in tunnel construction, but in places where it was considered too dangerous the workers had to resort to chipping their way through the rock with pick axes. Construction of the bridges was equally difficult and in the case of those spanning large stretches of water, they were also very expensive. In the 19th century, there were no steel mills established in Australia which could manufacture the iron and steel girders required to build a substantial bridge. They had to be made overseas and then shipped out to Australia, often in pieces, where they would be re-assembled on site.

1855 - Darling Harbour Railway Bridge/Tunnel

Beyond Railway Square just before it becomes Broadway, George Street crosses over what used to be a branch line to a major goods yard which once existed on the eastern shores of Darling Harbour. This is not only the oldest railway tunnel to be constructed in NSW, it is the only remaining on-site relic of Sydney's first railway line of the 1850s (the first steam locomotive to use the line is preserved in the Powerhouse Museum; a ticket for passage on the line's first train journey is part of the Mitchell Library's collection). In 1855, this tunnel was cut under what was then known as Parramatta Street to carry a spur line from the newly completed Sydney Station to Darling Harbour where a goods yards and off loading facilities for ships were being built.

The original stone-clad tunnel still exists, though it has been extended to many times its original length by the addition of concrete structures which form the foundations of buildings on either side of George Street in the vicinity.

1863-67 - The Knapsack Viaduct

It was Chief Engineer for NSW Railways, John Whitton, the father of NSW Railways, who brought the Great Western Line over the Blue Mountains. Commenced in 1863, the first section, between Penrith and Weatherboard (now Wentworth Falls), was brought into service on 13th July 1867. Whitton wanted to tunnel through the hill but a tight budget meant that a zig zag (or switch-back) was constructed. Opened in 1867 it was sometimes known as the Little Zig Zag, being the first and smallest of Whitton's two Zig Zags on the route. The earthworks were carried out by William Watkins, and the track laid by Larkin and Wakeford. The device necessitated reversing the train up or down one of the three legs of the zig zag route. Gradients ranged from a steep 1 in 30 to 1 in 33. The Little Zig Zag remained in use until 1892 when it was bypassed via the Glenbrook tunnel with the same grade but it considerably speeded up travel times.

The single track tunnel itself became a bottleneck and was replaced by the Lapstone Gorge Deviation in 1913 with a grade of 1 in 60. The cuttings for the zig zag still exist and can be reached by a path at the end of Knapsack Street, Lapstone. The site may be reached by a walking track at the end of Knapsack Street, Lapstone. This takes walkers along Top Road to Top Points, and thence to Middle Road. Highway upgrading has obliterated the site of Bottom Points, but a set of stairs and a walk along the new highway leads to Knapsack Viaduct.

The route adopted by Whitton incorporated an impressive sandstone viaduct over Knapsack Gully. When opened in July 1867, the 5 span viaduct was the largest in Australia, being 104 metres long with the centre arch rising to around 38 m above the creek bed. The contract for its construction was let to W. Watkins in March 1863 and the work was completed in 1865. It was originally built to carry a single railway track. In 1913 the railway line was diverted to its current path through Glenbrook Gorge and the bridge was abandoned. Downstream is another viaduct across Knapsack Gully which was built in 1913 to take the railway along its new route which it still follows today. This brick viaduct has eight arches.

With the development of the Great Western Road the earlier sandstone viaduct was purchased by the Main Roads Board and incorporated into the Road. It was reopened for two lanes of vehicular traffic on October 23, 1926. In 1938-39 the bridge was carefully widened to ensure that its appearance was not altered. Its use as a road bridge ceased in the 1980s when the highway was diverted to its existing route. A magnificent piece of workmanship, the bridge can now be viewed at close range via a walking track which crosses the bridge along where once ran the railway and later the roadway. Walking tracks through the bush in Glenbrook Reserve along the path taken by the railway lead to a memorial to John Whitton and the Lapstone Zig Zag.

1863 - Menangle Railway Bridge

Built in 1863 and designed by Engineer-in-Chief John Whitton, this was one of a number of river bridges built as part of the Southern Railway. Crossing the Nepean River and Menangle Road, it features multiple 51m spans supported by concrete-clad sandstone piers. Each span is a cellular girder with decorative ribs. Extra piers were built in 1927 to add support in floods.

1867 - Victoria Bridge, Penrith

Together with its sister bridge at Menangle, the Victoria Bridge is one of the oldest and finest built-for-railway bridges in NSW. Spanning the Hawkesbury River near Penrith, it was built between 1862 and 1865. The bridge features three spans made of wrought-iron of a cellular construction, each 57m in length and resting on two intermediate piers. The bridge was destroyed by floods in 1857. Reconstructed, it was again destroyed in 1860. Restoration of the road bridge was deferred because plans were almost completed for the extension of the railway across the river and over the mountains and it was considered that part of the railway bridge could then be used by road vehicles.

One legend has it that the Victoria Bridge was originally constructed for the Crimea and when not required, was bought by the N.S.W. Government. This is not so. It was in fact designed in Sydney by the Engineer-in-Chief, John Whitton, who sent the design to England for checking. One interesting feature of the structure is that it is about 2 metres higher than was originally intended. Before the final designs for the piers were completed, severe floods indicated that it would be desirable to raise the level, and the design was adjusted. This explains the provision of the rising 1 in 200 grade on each side of the bridge.

The bridge was shared by single lanes of road and rail traffic until 1907, when double line railway trusses were completed alongside and it became a two-lane road bridge for the Gt Western Highway. As the width of the bridge was only 7.77 metres, during its time of carrying two modes of traffic a galvanised iron fence was erected down its centre to separate them. In order to prevent the larger road vehicles from striking the fence, two channel strips were laid to form wheel guides. In addition, a warning system was introduced so that horse-drawn vehicles could clear the bridge before a train crossed. This was because certain horses became nervous due to the noise of the trains.

Ultimo Street railway bridge before restoration

1874 - Ultimo Street railway bridge

This steel railway bridge carried the line from the original Sydney Railway Station at Refern to the Darling Harbour Goods Yard. Known as the Darling Harbour goods line, it passed over Ultimo Street via this bridge. Originally a single span of 21.64 m bridge, cast iron columns were added on the kerb lines to give three spans, 3.96 m over each footpath and a centre span of 13.72 m. The 1874 bridge represents the first phase of duplication on the NSW system to accommodate increased traffic and increasing adaptation and development to cope with growing loads of larger trains in the early twentieth century as represented by the addition of cast iron columns in 1900.

Ultimo Street railway bridge and Goods Line precict before restoration

The Darling Harbour line remained busy until after World War II when freight that traditionally came through Darling Harbour began to be redirected to newly developing facilities at Port Botany. In the 1980s the section of the line between Balmain Rd Signal box and the main line at Redfern, which was no longer in regular use, was closed to allow the building of the Sydney Casino. The line's corridor lay dormant for a time, a small section through Pyrmont between the back of The Powerhouse Museum and Wentworth Park then being used by the Light Rail.

The bridge is now part of the Goods Line Precinct, a partly elevated urban walkway from Central Station in the Sydney CBD to Darling Harbour that follows the route of the Darling Harbour goods railway line along the Mary Ann culvert. The Goods Line re-opened to the public on Sunday 30 August 2015 as a walkway, linear park and open space.

1885/1996 - Camelia Railway Bridge

The Carlingford railway line is a branch railway line, opened from Clyde to Subiaco (later renamed Camellia) in January 1885. The line runs north-south between the suburb of Carlingford and the Main Suburban railway line at Clyde. Originally the line was privately owned by two companies: the line from Clyde to Rosehill was owned by John Bennett and the line from Rosehill to Carlingford was owned by the Rosehill Railway Company. The lines were taken over by their bank in 1896, with the Government purchasing the line in 1898 and recommencing services on 1 August 1900.

Photo: Mark Yashinsky

In 1996, the original iron lattice bridge over the Parramatta River was replaced. The new bridge only has one track, although it was built to allow a second track to be laid in the future. It sits on the refurbished piers of the original bridge.

1886 - Como Bridge

The Como bridge, which takes the Illawarra railway line across the Georges River between Oatley and Como, is one of a number of wrought iron lattice girder bridges designed by John Whitton, Engineer-in-Chief of the NSW Railways, and used at a number of locations around the state. The iron members of the bridge were supplied by Cochrane & Co. of Pennsylvania, USA. By the time the bridgework had arrived by sea, a tent village had been built on the Como bank of the Georges River to house the 200 men employed in cutting the path through bush and levelling the ground in preparation for the laying of the single line track. In the midst of all this activity, stonemasons were forming the piers now encased in concrete that would carry the spans.
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  • 1886 - John Whitton Bridge / Meadowbank Bridge

    The bridge which currently takes the Northern Railway Line over the Parramatta River replaced the John Whitton Bridge, located alongside it. The older structure is a lattice girder bridge built in 1886 to a design by Engineer-in-Chief of the NSW Railways, John Whitton, as part of the Sydney to the Hawkesbury railway line. Identical in design to the Como bridge which was constructed at around the same time, it carried rail traffic until 1977. Today it is used as a pedestrian bridge. Work started on the new Meadowbank Bridge in 1947 but was abandoned in 1954 due to a lack of funds. Work resumed in 1975, but to a different design which incorporated the abutments and piers erected earlier. Being less than 10 metres above water level at high tide, the newer bridge effectively stops the passage of large vessels upstream beyond this point.
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    • 1886 Long Cove Creek Railway Viaduct

      An important piece of Sydney's railway history has been preserved at the site of the Lewisham railway viaduct. The site is a showcase for different types of bridges representing most of the eras. On the down or south side are a pair of pin-jointed Whipple Trusses dating from 1880s on display. Next to them and carrying the local trains are three pairs of welded plate web girders and three pairs of Warren Trusses, completing this on-site working museum which recalls over a century of railway bridge construction technology.

      The first bridge to carry the railway across Long Cove Creek (known today as Hawthorne Canal) at the site was a tall sandstone viaduct (above), constructed as part of the original Sydney to Parramatta Railway, which opened to traffic opened in 1855. One of a series of 27 bridges and 50 culverts built by the biggest single free labour force the colony has seen comprising of 650 men, its stone came from a nearby quarry. The Long Cove Creek Railway Viaduct was by far the largest construction work on the line and was in its day a major engineering achievement. By the 1880s, the cement which bound the sandstone blocks of the viaduct together was starting to crumble and a replacement bridge had to be built to carry the line which was duplicated at that time. An additional 3-span Whipple Truss bridge came into service in 1886 when the line was quadruplicated. These were subsequently added to in 1926 with two more Warren Trusses when sextruplication occurred. A steel girder structure was constructed in the 1950s.
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      • 1889/1946 - Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge

        Sydney's suburban railway bridges are small in comparison to the railway bridge across the Hawkesbury River near Dangar Island. The river is almost a kilometre wide at the point of crossing which begs the question why this site was chosen above far easier ones upstream. The width of the passage necessitated a much larger bridge than at Como and for this reason an American Whipple style truss design was chosen.

        The bridge had seven spans each weighting 1,000 tonnes and extending to a length of 1,265m. The spans were mounted on 6 caissons topped with sandstone piers 13.7 metres above the water level. Built by the Union Bridge Co. of Pennsylvania, USA, the steel was fabricated by Arrol Bros. of Glasgow, Scotland, who were engaged in similar work on the Forth Bridge in Scotland. The base of the piers were of Bowral trachyte topped with locally quarried sandstone.

        Commenced in April 1887 and completed 2 years later, a workforce of 800 men housed in a tent village on Dangar Island was needed to complete the task. As well as steelwork, 10 million bricks, 10,000 bags of cement, 110 tonnes of blasting powder and 10 tonnes of dynamite were used to construct the bridge and its approaches. This was almost as expensive and difficult a task as building the bridge itself. It involved cutting numerous tunnels, the one under Mt Wondabyne, at 1,925 metres, was Australia's longest.
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        • Railway bridge over O'Connel Street, Parramatta

          1892 - Parramatta Railway Bridges

          The original six railway bridges over Church, Marsden, O'Connell and Pitt Streets Parramatta, further west over South Creek and the southern line crossing of Bunbury Curran Creek which were built around 1865, were all made of a local timber, a cost cutting measure after Parliament had been shocked by the price they had pay for the imported iron bridges installed by John Whitton during his early years as Engineer-In -Chief of the railways. The cost cutting proved to be an unwise move, as by the mid 1880s, all six bridges had deteriorated badly. They had all replaced by steel girder bridges during upgrading works by 1892. Those replacement bridges are still in use today.

          1893 - Lavender Bay Viaduct

          The North Shore Line opened in 1890 from Hornsby to St Leonards. Three years later the line extended to a terminus at the southern tip of Milsons Point wwhere it was met a ferry on Lavender Bay. When the Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932, the section from Waverton onwards was redesignated as the North Sydney Car Sidings, and used to store suburban trains during the off-peak period. The Lavender Bay viaduct and a tunnel are located on this section of single line track.

          1901-1932 - Central Station

          Some of Sydney's most notable 19th and 20th century architects and engineers have worked on the Central Station site, including: James Wallace and William Randle who together designed and built the first railway from Sydney to Parramatta; the last serving Colonial Architect, James Barnet (Mortuary Station); the first NSW Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon (the main Terminus building and the Parcels Post Office); and the Chief Engineer for the City Underground and Sydney Harbour Bridge, Dr John Jacob Crew Bradfield (Central Electric). It is therefore not surprising that Sydney's Central Station is home to some of Sydney's finest bridge architecture.

          Sandstone arches carry the U-shaped ramp with roadway and light rail tracks over Eddy Avenue to the porte cochere.

          Main Station Building (1901-1906): The building comprises a sandstone colonnade and porte cochere, which originally provided an undercover area for passengers transferring to and from trams and is now used for the Metro Light Rail. The terminus itself forms a U shaped block fronting Eddy Avenue, Pitt Street and the electric city rail lines to the east. The Pitt Street frontage is a long sandstone arched colonnade containing shops and offices, driveway entry into the road level loading docks of the station and an elevated vehicle entry ramp driveway to the main passenger pick up and set down entrance to the station (below).

          The Parcel Dock is physically connected with the main station complex at ground level and has four platforms. The use of rail transportation for parcel delivery has declined considerably. These platform sidings are still in use, but for temporary portable offices mounted on rail flat cars. The sidings closest to platform 1 are used for the loading of automobiles for the Indian Pacific.

          The Devonshire Street subway (1906): probably the first of its type in Australia, the 300-metre long pedestrian subway is more of a tunnel than a bridge. At its eastern end, it secends from Chalmers Street to a vestibule from which both Central station and the tunnel can be accessed. The tunnel continues west under the tracks and platforms of the station, and opens onto Henry Deane Plaza, a depressed urban square opposite Railway Square. It then connects to The Goods Line, providing an off-street connection between Central station and Darling Harbour. Devonshire Street subway follows the line og Devonshire Street which disappeared when the station was built.

          Elizabeth Street Viaduct (1926-1932): one of Australia's widest viaducts featuring elliptical arches, it carries six lines of electrified track over Eddy Avenue and Hay and Campbell Streets and into the city circle tunnels near Goulburn Street. Trains enter onto the viaduct from the northen end of the four suburban platforms, which allow eight trains to use the station, four trains in each direction.
          • About Central Station

          • 1905 - North Richmond Railway Bridge

            A Monier arch bridge over the Hawkesbury River, it was the first bridge to be built using a new material called ferro-concrete (now known as reinforced concrete). Other examples are at Marlborough Road, Flemington, and Bridge Road, Hornsby. Being new technology, Monier arches were shrouded in controversy and there were doubts about their safety when first introduced. They went as quickly as the came, the last examples of their type to be built in Sydney being the three bridges on Millers Point which carry Argyle, Munn and Windmill Streets over Hickson Road. They were constructed along with the cuttings and wharfage as part of the Walsh Bay redevelopment program instigated by the Sydney Harbour Trust in the early 20th century.

            1907 - Nepean River Railway Bridge, Penrith

            The introduction of heavier locomotives and trains indicated that a double track was needed. The viaduct was renewed in steel and a new railway bridge constructed, replacing Victoria Bridge. The foundation work was started on 1 June, 1904 and completed in April, 1906. Work on the superstructure was begun in March, 1906 and the bridge and viaduct, consisting of 53 spans of 9 metres each were brought into use on 2 June, 1907. The bridge consists of five spans, four of 58.9 metres and one of 36.8 metres. An interesting feature in the design is that although one span is shorter than the others, the height of the trusses has been kept constant for appearance sake. On the opening of the new railway bridge, the Victoria Bridge was altered to provide for a double line of road traffic; a footpath about 1.5 metres wide was provided along the southern side.

            1916 - Cooks River Viaduct, Canterbury

            The Cooks River Underbridge is the longest span brick arch rail viaduct within the NSW rail network, with clear spans of 16.16m between piers. The bridge is part of the original infrastructure for the Metropolitan Goods Line, one of the most significant and effective railway projects in New South Wales during the 20th century, which allowed freight trains to traverse the metropolitan area independent of the passenger train network. Work on the goods line began around 1910 and was eventually completed with the opening of the section from Rozelle to the northern end of Darling Harbour in 1922. Today, the network is largely as originally built and is still serving its design function, with some upgrading and modifications. The Darling Harbour Goods Yard was abandoned and the site redeveloped, and the Enfield Yard was completely rebuilt to suit modern traffic operations. Nearly all the underbridges, a mix of brick arches, steel girders and steel trusses, are still in use.

            1917 - Holsworthy Branch Line Railway Bridge

            During World War I the Commonwealth Government decided it needed a branch railway to service the army facilities at Holsworthy, which included the Artillery Range, Ordnance (mounted guns and cannon) and Ammunition Stores, the Remount Depot and the Veterinary Depot and Prisoner of War camp. In fact the line was constructed using internee labour. It branched off the Macarthur Line before Liverpool station, crossing the Georges River via a bridge, the pylons of which remain today. The bridge had eight x 30 metre approach spans, four on each side which came from the old crossing of the Wollondilly River near Carrick and Solitary Creek near Tarana; while the main span was an eight foot truss from the old single-line bridge over Argyle Street, Moss Vale. After crossing the river the line followed Greenhills Avenue through Clinches Pond Reserve, then curved to the east, following Anzac Parade on its south side past the Anzac Rifle Range. On 3rd February 1930, the Commonwealth suspended services on the line beyond the Rifle Range and from that date only carried out repairs on the section of line between Liverpool and the Range. The last train ran on the line on 25th June, 1960.

            1919 - Bellevue Street Railway Bridge, Glebe

            In 1919 the NSW Government Railway built the first reinforced concrete railway bridge on its system over the northern end of Bellevue Street, Glebe. The experimental single span was restricted to 6.5 metres in length and supported the goods line from Rozelle to Darling Harbour which was being built at the time.

            Wentworth Park viaduct

            1919 - Glebe and Wentworth Park Railway Viaducts

            The two brick and stone viaducts on the Western Goods Line, both elegant structures built on a curve with well detailed arches, were built across Wentworth Park, Ultimo and Jubilee Park. Glebe in 1919. The 21-span curved Wentworth Park viaduct is the longest section of brick arch viaduct on the NSW system and the largest viaduct structure to survive in Australia. It is a major engineering work, having been built on reclaimed land with the brickwork sitting on timber piles. The Jubilee Park viaduct has 28 spans.

            In its heyday the double track Metropolitan Goods Line which passed over it had up to forty train movements a day. The line was closed in January 1996, by which time traffic had dwindled to one weekly visit to the Edwin Davey Flour Mill (adjacent to Metro Light Rail's present terminus at Wentworth Park station). The tracks are now in use again by Sydney Light Rail which runs a service from Central Station along the Western Goods Line from Darling Harbour to Lilyfield. These steel railway bridges were built at the same time as the Glebe Railway Viaducts and take the Western Goods Line over Johnston Street, Annandale.

            1920-21 - Annandale Railway Underbridge

            The Annandale (Railway Parade) railway bridge was part of the Metropolitan Goods Line. a separate railway network built between 1910 and 1922 for freight trains to traverse the metropolitan area independent of the passenger train network. The independent freight train network was a highly effective solution to the competing demands of the freight and passenger services on an otherwise congested metropolitan system. The riveted steel half-through truss bridge is a heavy-duty structure in keeping with design policy to allow for future heavy traffic loads, locomotives and rolling stock. This type of half-through Pratt truss is comparatively rare in the NSW railway system. The 27.43 m (90 feet) span across the full width of Railway Parade is supported by brick abutments. Overhead frames carry electric wires for the double-track light rail system which crosses the bridge.

            1932 - Sydney Harbour Bridge

            One of the most remarkable feats of bridge construction in the world, at the time it was built and until recently it was the longest single span steel arch bridge in the world and is still in a general sense the largest. The bridge is a two hinged steel arch, with a steel deck hanging from the arch and five steel truss approach spans leading to the arch. The arch is hinged at the base on each side of the harbour, the hinges allowing expansion and contraction and take the full weight of the bridge through large solid sandstone skewbacks. 63% of the steelwork of the arch is needed to support the deadweight of the bridge itself, 25 percent for the live load, 5 percent for wind pressure (it can withstand winds up to 200 km/hour), 5 percent for the effect of temperature (it can stand temperature variations of 49 degrees Celsius) and 2 percent for the braking of trains.
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            • 1932 - Central Station Flying Junctions

              A flying junction is a railway junction at which one or more diverging or converging tracks in a multiple-track route cross other tracks on the route by bridge or bridges to avoid conflict with other train movements. A more technical term is 'grade-separated junction'. Sydney has a very comprehensive set of flying junctions, located at the southern end of Central Station's suburban platforms between the Cleveland Street bridge and Central Station.

              They allow trains approaching Central from Redfern to change tracks before they reach their designated platform. Sydney's rather unsightly but very effective flying junctions were designed in the early 1930s by JCC Bradfield folowing the Railway Electrification in 1926 and was also built at the same time as the Electric Suburban Platforms for Grand Sydney Central Railway Station. Bradfield was also the brains behind the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the City Underground rail network. He had other flying junctions planned for around the system, but they were not built.

              Eveleigh dive

              A burrowing junction or dive-under occurs where the diverging line passes below the main line. Bradfield incorporated two dives into the Sydney railway system. There are two dives located between Redfern and Central stations, known as the Eveleigh dives. They were incorporated to allow rail access between the two sections of Eveleigh Workshops which are located on either side of the through lines. Today they are used to take Illawarra inter-city trains from one side of the railway lines to the other. The down dive has a 286.7 metres long tunnel, the up dive tunnel is 241 metre in length. Sydney also has two more recently built dives - between Blacktown and Parramatta which allow trains to pass from one side of the 4 track line to the other.

              1987 - Voyager Point Railway Bridge

              Voyager Point Railway Bridge is a dual track bridge over the Georges River at East Hills, built in 1987 as part of the extension of the East Hills Railay Line to connect to the Main South line at Glenfield, allowing through services to and from Campbelltown. The bridge over the Georges River at East Hills is the only significant engineering structure on the line.

              From the time of it opening in 1931 until its extension in 1987, the line terminated at East Hills station. Originally the line was a single-track non-electrified extension from Kingsgrove station to East Hills. The single line between Kingsgrove and East Hills was opened for electric services on 17 December 1939. The line was duplicated between Kingsgrove and Riverwood in 1948, with points for terminating trains provided at both stations, and a passing loop at Revesby was opened in 1956. In 1985, the line was duplicated through to East Hills.

              Pre stressed concrete railway bridges

              Horsley Drive, Fairfield. Completed 1967 and built to replace a level crossing.
              Aston Street, Rosehill. Completed 1986 and built to replace level crossing.
              Western Suburbs Railway viaducts at Woolloomooloo and Rushcutters Bay. Completed 1979.

The first train across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 19 January 1932 (NSW Records)

Hawkesbury River Railway Bridge

Bepean River Railway Bridge, Penrith

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