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St James Station's Ghostly Train Tunnels Given New Life


Photo courtesy of Broadsheet Sydney

Abandoned train tunnels and underground platforms at Sydney’s St James Station will be revived into restaurants and retail under a New South Wales Government bid to increase tourism. It is seeking expressions of interest from national and international developers to turn the abandoned, and somewhat creepy, space into a world-class destination.

On October 1, the NSW Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, Andrew Constance announced plans to ‘activate’ 6,000 square metres of Sydney city’s St James railway station beneath Hyde Park. Sydney Trains has retained the services of international realtors CBRE for $286,000 to handle expressions of interest, in a contract spanning from July to June 2019.

Opportunities for the space could include entertainment, retail, or dining options, said the minister at a press conference. “We want the best proposal. We want ideas that could transform the platforms and tunnels into a world-renowned attraction,” said Mr Constance.

“Spaces like St James’s Tunnel are rare. Around the world, hidden spaces are being converted into unique experiences, and we want St James Station to be a part of that."

“Spaces like St James’s Tunnel are rare. Around the world, hidden spaces are being converted into unique experiences, and we want St James Station to be a part of that. That’s why we are casting the net right across the world. We want the world’s best to come up with the best ideas,” he said. “Better to take that history, protect it, clean it up, scrub graffiti off the walls and turn it into something everyone can enjoy. What a wonderful gem this could be.”

Sydney Trains CEO Howard Collins is excited by the prospect of development of the tunnels. He cited other successful transformations abroad, saying many cities had transformed unused tunnels into bars and other tourism attractions.

“Why should it be just railway employees and a few special guests who see these sites?” he said at the press conference. “We are not the specialists in this area, so we are asking the global market to express their interest and say what we can do with this space, so that it really can become an attraction for people to sit, drink, dine and explore. It is a blank canvas.” 

While never used as the railway line they were designed to be, the disused tunnels at St James Station boast a fascinating history as well as some interesting showbiz claims to fame, most notably in the 1999 blockbuster movie The Matrix.

The railway line sits beneath Hyde Park, which was set aside for the people way back in 1810 by Governor Macquarie. In 1857, plans were prepared for a railway line that we now know as the City Circle. Sydney Harbour Bridge engineer John Bradfield designed the underground rail line, but funding issues delayed development. After much government debate and two Royal Commissions, St James Station was completed with four platforms. Two, however, have never been used. It was actually one of the first two underground stations to operate in Australia.

In World War II, the redundant tunnels were used by the RAAF as protected bunkers and headquarters. The tunnels at the southern end of the station were modified for use as public air raid shelters capable of fitting 20,000 people. Some of the features of the shelters are still visible, such as hand-poured concrete slabs, which were poured over iron rods and built into the space in order to withstand possible explosions.

Many cities had transformed unused tunnels into bars and other tourism attractions.

In the northern tunnels, some flooding has created an underground artificial lake, now thought to be home to numerous eels. 

The area has also been rumoured to be the location of occult meetings.

In more recent times, there was a discussion about using the tunnels for water reclamation and storage facilities, for instance, using it to store rainwater harvested from nearby State Parliament, the State Library and Sydney Hospital.

Expressions of Interest for the vast and versatile space below St James Station close on 6 November.

Around the world there are some notable examples of converted disused underground tunnels:

Dupont Underground Washington – The subterranean streetcar station in Dupont Circle has transformed into a new public infrastructure to support creative exchange, contemporary art practice, and an ongoing conversation about the city.

Growing Underground – In the now redundant bomb shelter tunnels beneath Clapham in London, one enterprising company is growing micro-herbs and greens, free from any airborne disease. 

WC Wine and Charcuterie – Another Clapham gem is the trendy wine and charcuterie bar fashioned from the disused WCs (toilets) in the old Clapham underground station. 

The Vaults – Below the ground at Waterloo Tube station in London lies The Vaults, a space that has hosted everything from supper clubs to pop-up cinemas.

Le Boudoir - NYC – Accessed via a fake bookshelf, this New York bar sits within the fabled Atlantic Avenue tunnel, said to be the world’s oldest subway tunnel. This tunnel carried commuters on the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad (now Long Island Railroad). One evening after some drinks, the owners took a sledgehammer to the wall and uncovered two well-preserved spaces from the long-closed-off tunnel. 


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