Never used for train services, the secret tunnels at St James station in Sydney have led a fascinating, shadowy existence.
They have served as a bomb shelter, the location for blockbuster Hollywood movies, and now attract urban explorers looking for adventure.
John Bradfield was a Queensland born engineer, who became a legend in the Public Works department in Sydney.
In his youth he had been a decorated scholar: he was dux of his high school, and won the ‘University Medal’ in his final year at the University of Sydney.
Bradfield started with the Public Works department in 1891, as a draftsperson. His first major projects were overseeing the design of two major dams, Cataract and Burunjuck on the Murrumbidgee River.
In the 1900s he switched his focus to railways, and in 1913 was appointed Chief Engineer in charge of metropolitan railway construction.
Sydney’s railways at the time were a hodgepodge of routes and stations, with little coordination. Services were erratic, many parts of the city had no rail access.
After a fact-finding trip to New York in 1915, where he studied that city’s subway system, Bradfield presented a sweeping proposal to overhaul the network.
The ‘Bradfield Scheme’ imagined not only new lines and stations, but an underground loop to connect them below the Sydney CBD. Parts of the city that had little or no public transport – Bondi and the Northern Beaches among them – would get new train lines.
At the centre of the plan was the biggest idea of all: a major new bridge over Sydney Harbour, designed for road, rail and foot traffic, connecting Circular Quay with the North Shore.
The ambition of Bradfield’s plan was admired, and many of its suggestions had broad support.
But it was on a gigantic scale, and would be expensive to implement. Most parts of it would be delayed; initially by the First World War, later by the Great Depression. Some aspects never advanced beyond the planning stage.
The ‘Sydney Harbour Bridge’ was especially controversial. While a bridge had been mooted for 70 years, critics questioned the wisdom of such a large project, during tough economic times.
Nevertheless, Bradfield’s plan, slowly, began to advance. Both the City Circle subway and the Sydney Harbour Bridge commenced construction in 1923.
The first underground city circle stations built were Museum and St James, along the southern edge of Hyde Park.
The station’s design was copied from the London Underground, down to the white ceramic tiles and circular station signage (still in place to this day, the only stations in Sydney to feature this style).
This was initially a stub line: a two stop dead end that connected to Town Hall. This was the first stage of construction; other lines and stations were planned, to create the city loop, and to connect this to the wider network.
Wynyard Station was completed in 1932, but then the project stalled. Circular Quay, the final link in the loop, was not finished for more than 25 years; it finally opened in 1956.
Other parts of Bradfield’s plan stalled as well.
The original proposal featured a new train line to Bondi Beach in the eastern suburbs. This was initially intended to run from St James Station, and from there alongside Oxford Street.
When St James was built, two additional platforms for this line were constructed, and the beginnings of two tunnels. When the remainder of the station went into service, these platforms and tunnel openings were sealed off from the public, to be preserved for the future eastern suburbs line.
But the line to Bondi was delayed even longer than other parts of Bradfield’s plan. The high-density areas it needed to pass through made this line’s construction particularly expensive and difficult, it was postponed repeatedly.
Construction did not start until the 1970s, and then the line would follow a different, shorter, route. It would now run from Town Hall via a new stop at Martin Place, and would terminate at Bondi Junction, rather than continuing to the beach.
This version of the Eastern Suburbs line opened in 1979. Which left two unused platforms and some tunnel fragments at St James station.
While World War II delayed the eastern suburbs train line, it also provided a temporary use for the disused tunnels.
In the early part of the war, the Australian government was fearful of Japanese attacks on Australia’s major cities. These fears were not unfounded: the Japanese army had swept through southeast Asia across 1941-42, causing panic in allied ranks.
Britain’s great fortress in Singapore had been routed in a few weeks, America’s forces in the region had been forced into a humiliating abandonment of the Philippines in March 1942.
As Japan advanced south, Australia felt the war on its doorstep. Darwin was bombed in February 1942, a Japanese midget submarine was captured in Sydney harbour in June.
American forces would regroup in Australia, and defensive measures against attack were taken.
The St James tunnels were reinforced with additional concrete, and set up to be used as a bomb shelter. The tunnels, stretching for about a kilometre, with 6 000 feet of floor space, were large enough that an estimated 20 000 people could have taken refuge inside them.
Once the shelter had been set up, it was manned by soldiers around the clock:
‘Armed soldiers guarded the site throughout WWII, ready to maintain law and order if the masses suddenly sought cover and protection.
Many of the soldiers thought they’d die in the tunnels because of poor conditions and limited oxygen. Their messages and inscriptions for loves ones can still be seen on the walls.
“I love you. My dearest darling wife Robyn Foreman,” one message reads.’
– Megan Palin, ‘Subterranean Sydney’ (news.com)
The surviving soldiers’ graffiti is now heritage listed.
After the war ended, some attempt was made to destroy the tunnels.
Holes 10cm thick were drilled into the concrete, and explosive charges placed. But the structure was so solidly built that only minimal damage was done.
With the departure of the armed forces, the tunnels went back into their twilight existence, officially disused.
But they had become better known during the war, and the tunnels now became an increasingly attractive destination.
A popular rumour is that a witches coven met in secret in the tunnels, during the 1970s, performing seances and other rituals. This is likely just an urban legend, although one repeated several times by Tony Eid, a long-standing executive at Sydney Trains, who points to some suggestive graffiti as proof.
Urban explorers were also drawn to the tunnels.
Founded in 1986, the Melbourne based ‘Cave Clan’ are a group that explore drains, tunnels, and other subterranean structures that are not easily accessible. The St James tunnels were an obvious target for the Clan, and they have visited on multiple occasions, tagging the walls as a calling card.
Other urban explorers have done the same, which has led to an ongoing conflict between these adventurers and Sydney Trains. Officials want to keep the public out of the tunnels, citing safety concerns.
‘Over the last couple of years we’ve alarmed the place so there are invisible sensors within here that will trigger off alarms to our control centre.
And we’ve upgraded security systems so there’s a big steel cage at the only entrance into these tunnels.
We still get it but not a lot. And every time we do get a penetration, it triggers an alarm, and we send our people there to get them out.’
– Tony Eid, Sydney Trains
The lure of something hidden, that is not available to the general public, will likely keep these explorers coming back.
In 1999, Warner Brothers released ‘The Matrix’, a dystopian action film that became a cultural phenomenon.
The brainchild of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, The Matrix mixed well known sci-fi tropes with martial arts, anime, fetish clothing and pumping electronic music to dazzling effect. The film grossed more than $400 million, and became widely influential and much imitated.
It was also filmed in Sydney, largely at Moore Park’s Fox Studios. Several identifiable Sydney locations can be seen in the movie, including the public areas of St James station, where Neo (Keanu Reeves) has his final showdown with Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).
The success of the film led to two sequels.
In a subplot of the final movie, ‘Revolutions’, Neo becomes trapped in a virtual subway station, that serves as an oubliette. When his rescuers arrive, they are confronted by the evil ‘Trainman’ (played by Australian acting legend Bruce Spence), leading to a chase and gunfight.
This sequence was filmed on the disused platforms and tunnels at St James, tricked up for the movie.
Other projects to shoot in the tunnels include Hollywood film ‘Dark City’, local horror film ‘The Tunnel’, and long running ABC TV show ‘Police Rescue.’
In recent years, the tunnels have once again retreated into the background. Journalists will sometimes visit, and write evocative pieces about this strange, abandoned space, below one of the world’s best-known cities.
Access is via a nondescript black door, set into the wall of St James station proper.
The tunnel space is quiet, musty, pitch black without torchlight. The roots of fig trees, growing in Hyde Park above, have made their way through the ceiling, and hang like living cobwebs.
One section of the tunnels has slowly filled with water, and now forms an unusual, artificial lake, approximately 1 kilometre long, and up to 5 metres deep. This has generated another urban legend: that of an albino eel, metres long in some accounts, that lives there.
The lake also provides another challenge for underground exploration; one article noted an inflatable dingy and paddle that had been abandoned on the shoreline, after a lake expedition.
The St James tunnels are only open the public at most once per year, during ‘Sydney Open’, an annual event that provides access to off limit buildings and areas.
In 2018, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced a competitive bid process, for proposals to use the space. Constance suggested bars, restaurants, shops or live music events would be suitable, the hope was to make the disused area into a tourist drawcard.
As of 2021, no further progress had been made. Questioned by the media in 2020, a Sydney Trains spokesperson said the expression of interest process was ‘not complete.’