Sydney's Transport Revolution

From Engineering Heritage New South Wales


    The Sydney Harbour Bridge was declared open on 19 March 1932. Until that event the large population of the North Shore, so close to the city yet separated by a wide water barrier, used a large fleet of ferries to cross from the railway terminus at Milsons Point and tram services which extended to several wharves including McMahons Point. Ferries of more than twice the capacity of the modern Manly Freshwater class boats shuttled back and forth all day with passengers while vehicular ferries carried cars and horse-drawn vehicles.
    The huge structure and its road and rail approaches took at least ten years to build. Tenders for the main span and its immediate approaches were invited by the NSW government on 30 September 1921. In fact, the bridge specified at that time was not the steel arch bridge which opened ten years later but rather a cantilever steel truss bridge. Although there had been other suggestions for a harbour crossing, sometimes at different locations and sometimes by tunnel, these had always come to naught. It is not unreasonable therefore to take the 1921 date as the beginning, for the chain of events commenced in late 1921 proceeded uninterrupted until the bridge was complete.

During the cantilever erection stage absolutely crucial parts of the bridge were the link plates between the arch truss and the anchoring cables. Their work done they had apparently no value, not even as scrap, so they were discarded into the dock from which bridge components were barged from the workshop to mid-harbour for hoisting onto the structure. Note the rail bridge over the dock to allow components for the northern half of the span to be moved within reach of erection cranes. Perhaps these relics of the bridge construction still exist buried at Milsons Point? SARA NRS 12685

    In 1922 Chief Engineer, John Bradfield, visited likely tenderers in Europe and America and learned that they would be willing to tender to span the harbour with an arch as an alternative to the specified cantilever and upon his return to Sydney withdrew the 1921 plans and issued new documents including the option of an arch. Ultimately the tender which he judged to be the best was an arch design and it was the bridge that was built.

    But the bridge across the harbour was just one component of a massive overhaul of transport in Sydney which Bradfield accomplished in the decade between 1922 and 1932. The bridge was to carry four railway lines, and these had to be brought under the city from the distant Sydney Terminal (Central) station at the other end of the central business district, and connected over the bridge, with the existing North Shore railway at Waverton, after it had passed through and under North Sydney. And the bridge had to be high enough to let ocean-going ships pass beneath it.

    The plan to build the railway under the city to the bridge was just one line of four which Bradfield planned and at least partly constructed. There was to be a loop from Sydney Terminal around the city via Circular Quay, and this was mostly built by the time the bridge opened, except for the crossing at Circular Quay. There was to be a line from the eastern suburbs which would, after serving several stations in the city, extend to the western suburbs. There was to be a line from the Northern beaches and Mosman, across the bridge, and through the city on a separate route before extending out to the southern suburbs. While much work was done in the decade under consideration for these, east to west and north to south railways, virtually none of the 1920’s work was ever completed and it remains unused under the city, except for two platforms at Town Hall station which were ultimately used for an Eastern Suburbs Railway by a different route.

    Work in earnest began on the City Railway project in February 1922 and one leg of the city loop, to Museum and St James, was opened in late 1926 while the other leg, through Town Hall and Wynyard, and the line to the bridge, opened just before the bridge. On bridge opening-day the trains which had been terminating at Wynyard for three weeks, simply extended their journey across the bridge to Milsons Point and North Sydney.

    Strictly, work had begun on the underground railways in 1916. Bradfield had made a fact-finding tour of the world in 1914 and produced his master plan which was accepted by the NSW government and canonised as an Act of Parliament in 1915. Work began in 1916 but was abandoned for lack of funds by 1918. Most of the work done at this time was more of a public nuisance than progress towards anything useful. Large swathes of public parkland, including Belmore Park, Hyde Park and the Botanic Gardens near Government House and the Conservatorium of Music, were alienated with hoardings, dug up and abandoned to flood. The only section of tunnel actually ‘completed’ was a short section under Macquarie Street at the eastern end of the as yet unbuilt Circular Quay viaduct. The tunnel carried a keystone on its arched portal bearing the words ‘City Railway 1918’. Trains did not run through that opening until 1956, but by then the ornamental stone arch had been demolished!

    The lines under the city – The City Railway – were but one aspect of Bradfield’s revolution of rail public transport in Sydney in the 1920s. At that time Sydney had one of the most intensively worked steam suburban railway systems in the world, but it was at its limit. The whole network of lines to the then limits of closely settled population, was electrified. This was not just a change of motive power. Most of the cars were of new steel construction, a few were wooden bodied cars on steel underframes recently built ready for conversion in anticipation of electrification and a minority were older steel under-framed cars reworked to fit the new trains. All the cars were built to a new wider structure gauge so as to allow five-abreast seating rather than four-abreast, thus increasing seated capacity by 25%. All the new cars at least had wide double doors at the quarter points of their length to allow rapid loading and unloading.

    There was of necessity a large investment in the overhead wiring for the electric power as well as substations and main feeder routes from power stations. Signalling was also extensively replaced to maximise the capacity of the new trains. Alignments were modified through platforms to fit the wide trains while track structure and drainage were improved for better running and efficient conduct of the electric traction currents.

    It is well recognised that Bradfield was more than just the engineer who designed some, and managed all, of these tasks. He was the driver of public opinion which demanded these transport improvements from its government. He was also very thorough in documenting the work through photography. Perhaps 4,000 photos exist of the work, nearly all with contemporary captions and almost all with a date inscribed on the negative.

    The images of the signal events of the decade’s work have been published many times but the rest, sorted into date order as they easily can be, tell a wonderful story, hopefully of interest to the readers of this website. Watch the railway and the bridge being slowly built over ten years so that in 2026 we can catch a train to St James with an appreciation of how the tunnels reached that place, and in 2032 walk, bicycle or drive across the bridge, and catch a train over it, with the best understanding of how 50,000 tonnes of steel got to be where it will have been for a hundred years.

Bill Phippen is writing or editing a series of articles leading up to the Centenary of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A list of these articles is below:

Date Title
November 2021 An Overview of the Bridge and its Approaches.
December 2021 What happened before 1922?
January 2022 William Stronach Thom - the Engineer who might have built the City Railway.
February 2022 Work Starts at Museum.
March 2022 Kathleen Muriel Butler, ‘the Bridge Girl’.
April 2022 The Elizabeth Street Retaining Walls.
May 2022 John Bradfield’s Second World Trip, 1922.
June 2022 Changing Plans since 1916.
July 2022 St James Station Excavation.
August 2022 The Bucyrus Excavator.
September 2022 Practicalities of using horse haulage for construction.
October 2022 The arch becomes an option.
November 2022 The Act to Build the Bridge.
December 2022 Logistics of concrete placement in 1923
January 2023 The People who Built the Bridge.
February 2023 St James Station.
March 2023 Trucks and Mobile Cranes.
April 2023 When the Bridge is Built.
May 2023 Museum Station.
June 2023 Turning the First Sod.
July 2023 The City Railway: Combating Dust and Heat Problems.
August 2023 Sydney of the Future.
September 2023 The First Three Month's Work.
October 2023 A Great Scheme for a "New Sydney".
November 2023 John Bradfield's Doctoral Thesis.
December 2023 The Sydney Harbour Bridge Tenders Close in Three Weeks.
January 2024 The Tenders and the Contract.
February 2024 Silicon Steel.
March 2024 Sydney Harbour Bridge to Cost £4,217,721.
April 2024 Our Harbour Arch Bridge: The World’s Record.
May 2024 The Second Three Months Work.
June 2024 Our Harbour Bridge Its Fabrication and Erection.
July 2024 Changes to Bradfield's Design by Freeman.
August 2024 Milson’s Point: Changing Over to the New Station
September 2024 The Bridge and Big Shipping.
October 2024 The Third Three Months Work.
November 2024 Testing Models at Middlesbrough.
February 2025 Shipping Granite from Moruya.
March 2025 Laying the Foundation Stones.
April 2025 Work on the bridge in England and Australia in 1924.
May 2025 Cable-Hauled Construction Railways.
June 2025 Methods of Tunnelling by Keith Fraser.
July 2025 Concrete Arch Bridges.
August 2025 Fabricating and Transporting the Bearings
September 2025 The Milsons Point Workshops.
October 2025 1925 Public Works Department Annual Report.
November 2025 Setting Up the Bearings.
March 2026 1926 Public Works Department Annual Report.
July 2026 Bradfield's Memorial Plaque and Dawes' Observatory.
May 2027 Flat Top and Special Tunnel Construction.
September 2027 1927 Public Works Department Annual Report.
July 2028 1928 Public Works Department Annual Report.
November 2028 The Creeper Cranes.
July 2029 1929 Public Works Department Annual Report.
August 2029 The Erection Cables.
September 2029 The Erection Cable Anchorages.
July 2030 1930 Public Works Department Annual Report.
August 2030 Closing the Arch.
September 2030 Loading the Top Chord.
July 2031 1931 Public Works Department Annual Report.
July 2032 1932 Public Works Department Annual Report.
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