With all the going ons at the moment about timetables, Metros and overcrowded trains in Sydney, it is sometimes hard to image a time when they were still a fresh new idea or an exciting advancement in Sydney.  But such a time did once exist.

Before 1855 a train whistle had never been heard in our fair city.  It was in September that year that NSW’s first railway and the first government owned steam railway in the British Empire was opened between Sydney and Parramatta (Technically it was between Redfern where the old Central Station was and Granville, where the line stopped at that point).  The day was a huge success, with people lining the track to see the iron horse go through.  60 people travelled the first train, which took 39½ minutes to get to Parramatta Junction and 47 minutes to get back home again, with stops at the new Newtown Station as well.  The train and carriages were imported from England, built by Robert Stephenson & Company of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Despite the exciting possibilities, the rail was extended relatively slowly at first.  A year to the day after the opening of the first section, it was extended to Liverpool.  By 1858 it had reached Campbelltown in the south and 1862 Penrith in the west, where the mountains briefly stopped it.  However by 1867 the first train was running to Wentworth Falls via the Zig Zag Railway, one of the colony’s first major inland tourist attractions.

As the line extended, new stations heralded the transformation of what was once isolated bushland into new suburbs.  Real Estate ads of the 1870s and 1880s all made pains to mention the proximity of the station to the land for sale.  The railway opened up the Sydney region to be suburbia. 

Middle class and upper class residents poured out of the inner city to the new railway commuter suburbs like Ashfield, Burwood and Beecroft away from the sweltering and dirty city.  On the north shore, the line crept towards the harbour from Hornsby, reaching Milsons Point in 1893.

This was all well and good, but there was no railway through the city or over the harbour.  Something needed to be done. 

In 1913 a brilliant railway engineer, John Job Bradfield was appointed as chief engineer for the proposed city railway and Harbour Bridge.  Bradfield had a vision for the rail system in Sydney including a metropolitan underground system based on the London Underground and a connecting system of rails to the Eastern Surburbs, Bondi, Randwick, Kensington and over the new bridge to Manly and the Northern Beaches.  In the west the lines would loop back to join the northern lines and Parramatta lines and western lines, creating one big integrated system.

Work began in earnest in 1915 and stopped soon after because of World War I.  Restarting in the early 1920s, tunnelling through the city and open cut excavation through Hyde Park and Wynyard Park created havoc for years, but on 20 December 1926 the first underground stations at St James and Museum were opened, followed in February 1932 by Town Hall and Wynyard which took the line over the harbour. 

The new underground transformed the way the city worked. 

Workers could be brought all the way in easily; so could shoppers.  Huge Department stores sprung up around the station sites, David Jones, Grace Brothers, Mark Foys (who even had their own tunnel entrance to Museum station), while around Wynyard the banks and trading houses expanded to form the central business district.  It wasn’t until 1956 when Circular Quay Station was built that the loop was finished, the only bit of Bradfield’s plan to be finished.

I wonder what the city might have been like if he had got his way.

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