Looking at Central station from above it appears orderly compared to the cluttered streets of Surry Hills and Chippendale around it. It’s hard to imagine the busy network of platforms, tunnels, entrances and exits that connects the station together.
In this photograph from 1947, Central station looks much as it does today, although other buildings are long gone: there’s no longer a Victorian-era exhibition building in Prince Alfred Park for example, nor a brewery on Elizabeth Street across from the train lines.
Prior to the construction of Central station there was some debate about where it should be built. One plan suggested building it in Hyde Park, as shown in this artist’s impression of the proposed building from 1898.
Rather than replacing Hyde Park with a train station it was decided that the terminal be built further to the south, on the site of the Devonshire Street cemetery and the Benevolent Asylum, a home for people with disabilities. The foundation stone was laid in 1902 and construction soon commenced.
One of the foundation stones of Central Station – this one was laid in 1903 at the base of the clock tower.
While Central station has undergone plenty of changes since it opened in 1906, the experiences to be had there are much the same now as they would have been a hundred years ago. Rushing for a train against a tide of people surging in the opposite direction, waiting on a platform and watching passers-by, the exasperation of just missing a train or triumph of catching one at the last minute. Central is the setting for an ever-repeating succession of train station moments and dramas.
While the majority of services from Central station are regular, timetabled trains, sometimes there is a special service, such as the Elvis Express, which conveys a train full of Elvises and Priscillas to the Parkes Elvis festival in January every year. And on some Sunday mornings, you can come across the unlikely sight of a steam train puffing its way out of Central Station as it chugs its way to Clyde and back.
Other special services are one offs, such as the 1945 “Brides’ Train”, which conveyed the Australian brides of US servicemen to Brisbane, from where they were to sail to the USA. The Argus newspaper reported the women clutching flowers and woolly koalas, and one girl with a large teapot in her luggage, “to teach relatives in New Hampshire how Australians drink tea”.
Central is divided into two realms: the “upstairs” area with the grand concourse; and the “downstairs” suburban network with its tiled tunnels and stairwells. The platforms adjacent to the grand concourse were originally for steam trains, while the ‘downstairs’ section of the station, opened in 1926, was for the electric trains that began services in that year.
Although the days of steam trains are long over (apart from the occasional surprise Sunday sighting), the grand concourse retains a kind of past-time grandeur, at least in its architecture. In the middle of the concourse is a clock suspended in the centre of the hall, telling travellers to either to relax or rush by the position of its ornate hands. The clock has calmly ticked the seconds away as millions of passengers have passed underneath it, from the days of having a drink at the soda fountain before boarding a steam train, to now.
There was much more advertising in the concourse in 1958 than there is today. The advertisements complement each other, although I don’t know if this was intentional: wine, analgesics (Vincent’s APC), and Stamina “self supporting” Trousers.
The concourse in 1981 had a kind of 1970s sitting-room aesthetic, with indoor plants and bright orange moulded seats.
The concourse today.
People consulting their fate on today’s indicator boards.
While the ‘downstairs’ suburban platforms may not have a lofty concourse, they do have one of Sydney’s favourite secret places: the ghost platforms, numbers 26 and 27. They were constructed at the same time as the platforms beneath them, which service the Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra line. A glimpse of them can be seen as you travel on the escalators between the concourse and platforms 24 and 25. Look up at the striped green panels above the escalator shaft and you will briefly catch sight of the lights of the ghost platforms.
The ghost platforms are identical to the Eastern Suburbs line platforms beneath them, although in a raw concrete state and no tracks have been laid below them. At either end there are stubs of tunnels, for whatever future project might require them. For now the ghost platforms have a quiet existence, mostly undisturbed apart from visits by the occasional tour group.
If the ghost platforms are the most peaceful part of Central, one of the busiest is the Devonshire Street Tunnel, the pedestrian underpass that travels under the railways lines between Devonshire Street and Railway Square.
The Devonshire Street Tunnel
The pedestrian tunnel has been a part of the station since it opened in 1906, although it is hard to imagine it before the days of murals and buskers, its two main features besides the endless stream of pedestrians. The walls have been decorated by murals since the 1980s, when the Public Art Squad produced a series of painted murals along the length of the tunnel. Now the paintings of the shirtless man wearing flares and juggling globes of the world and the boy swimming among the water lilies have been replaced by digital prints of scenes from NSW Railway history.
One of the Public Art Squad murals, photo from http://devonshirestreettunnel.blogspot.com.au/
One of the current murals in the tunnel.
There are plenty more Central Station secrets to discover, and if you do find yourself missing a train and with a long wait until the next one, there’s a self-guided tour of the station that reveals the story of the station. But for now we will say farewell, as our train is about to depart.
All archival photographs in this post derive from State Records NSW.