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LOCKED away under the hustle and bustle of Sydney’s major train stations lies an extensive network of train platforms, tunnels and tracks that were completed in the 1920s but have never been operational.
During the construction of the City Circle and Central to North Sydney railways lines, additional tunnels and platforms were built in the CBD for proposed routes to Bondi and the Northern Beaches, to prevent disruption at a later date to existing services.
The labyrinth extends one kilometre in each of two directions from St James Station, about 30 metres below Hyde Park and past the Cahill Expressway entrance off Macquarie Street.
It was one of the first underground stations in Australia, completed in 1926, but the plan to continue works on additional lines was canned when the Great Depression hit.
The site has since led “a colourful life”, serving as a bomb shelter during WWII, a mushroom farm, film set, an Army training ground and a dark playground illegally accessed by secret societies who practice witchcraft and black magic.
An unassuming door inside St James Station leads to the historic tunnels under Sydney's CBD. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
One of several ghost platforms — that have never been in operation — underneath St James station. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
RARE LOOK INSIDE TUNNELS
Sydney trains executive director Tony Eid takes us on an a rare tour of the tunnels via an unassuming door that creaks open with the turn of a key in the station’s main terminal.
An influence based on a fusion of the London tube and New York City transit is immediately clear in the green and cream tiled walls.
The network was designed by Dr John Bradfield, perhaps best known for his work on the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.
A dusty ghost platform is lined with rows of gumboots, organised according to size, for those who dare to plunge into the wet, dark depths of the tunnels below.
“They built these platforms up ready to go and if you look around you, you can see the old heritage signs that used to be there, the archways ready to go, the posters to put stuff on, the track bed to lay the tracks and then the actual platforms,” Mr Eid says.
Armed with torches we walk down a flight of stairs, onto the track bed, and towards high security steel gates which require a passcode to open. The only way from there to the tunnels is to wade through corridors of knee-deep water which eventually opens to the first of several huge, flooded chambers. It boasts a dome-shaped roof and a bell — once used to replicate the sound of Big Ben for a film — in the centre.
Access to the labyrinth at St James station tunnels is via a passageway entry, seen on the back wall. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
The abandoned tunnels under St James Station are hauntingly silent. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
An entry on the other side of the room leads to a series of narrow passageways that zigzag from one tunnel to the next. It’s hauntingly silent.
“It gets a little bit spooky from here,” Mr Eid says.
Deeper into the tunnels, thick concrete tunnels are ravaged by thirsty tree roots that have made their way through the earth and architecture in search of the clear freshwater lakes that infiltrate the subterranean maze.
“You don’t know true darkness until you’ve turned your torches off in here,” Mr Eid tells us before signalling for us to momentarily do just that.
But under the glare of torch light is a sight to behold. Tree roots dangle from the ceiling like ancient cob webs and mounds of a snow white crystallised fungus glisten where the water laps the walls.
‘A COLOURFUL LIFE’
If the walls in this mysterious underground could talk they would tell of a spellbinding past.
“It’s had a very colourful life,” Mr Eid says.
The St James tunnels were transformed into a bomb shelter during WWII with hand-poured concrete slabs “about 300mm thick” poured over iron rods and built into the space to withstand explosions from above and within.
The shelters were to fit 20,000 people in the event of air raids. Armed soldiers guarded the site throughout WWII, ready to maintain law and order if the masses suddenly sought cover and protection.
They were positioned in 10ft “man holes” built high into the walls of the tunnels.
“It would have been quite eerie to look up and see a soldier standing up there in the man hole, staring down with a rifle,” Mr Eid says.
“(If the shelter had been used) it would have been noisy, there were made up beds for people to sit on but would have been frightening with dim light, low quality air, and all that stuff they would have had to deal with.”
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.
“NX 227672. Pte. R.J DePaul. 13-7-42,” another says.
Tree roots from Hyde Park above dangle from the tunnel walls and archways. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
Steel rods and remnants from small sections of the tunnels that were partly dismantled post-WWII. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
The tunnels stretch for about one kilometre in each direction until they are met with walls of rubble. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
The end of the tunnels are met with walls of rubble and exposed steel from when the army was instructed to destroy the shelters post war. But they didn’t get far before the operation was pulled. The bulk of the underground was subsequently preserved.
“If you look up at the destruction of the tunnels it looks like something out of a sci-fi movie,” Mr Eid says.
“You can imagine zombies coming at you or whatever in here.”
The eerie setting is one of many reasons film and TV producers and directors are drawn to the area. It’s highest claim to fame came when scenes from blockbuster movie The Matrix were filmed there in 1999.
More than a decade later, Australian film The Tunnel, was also filmed in the underground passage. The plot involves a film crew that goes underground to investigate why homeless people are going missing. A lake monster kills the crew off one by one.
In 1949, the site was home to a thriving mushroom farm, producing 4000 tonnes of the fungi.
“There have been a lot of stories about it also filling up as a water tank,” Mr Eid says.
Several urban legends have arisen from the tunnels, including that of an albino eel said to reside in the St James tunnel lake.
The temptation to explore the area and its legends has proved too hard to resist for many who have risked fines and jail by breaking into the tunnels.
A torch light is shone on a pitch black wall, revealing a graffiti pentagram — a symbol of Satan,
a skeleton cross, and a heart on fire.
“It represents hell,” Mr Eid says.
“This is where seances were apparently taking effect.”
Witches practising black magic are said to have painted these pentagrams and other satanic images inside the tunnels in the 1970s. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
Tree roots have broken into the tunnels in search of freshwater from the subterranean lakes. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
Australian group the Cave Clan regularly breaks into and meets deep down in various underworlds — including storm drains and St James station tunnels — across the country.
Started by three teenagers from Melbourne in 1986, the underground society now has chapters in each of Australia’s main cities.
One graffiti tag inside the St James Tunnels reads: “Cave Clan from Melbourne. Except for Predator from Sydney”.
The vandals cop hefty fines if caught.
Tracks were never laid on the train beds underneath St James Station. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
Security has been stepped up in the St James station tunnels to prevent vandals and other groups from breaking in. Picture: Andrew Murray.Source:news.com.au
The clandestine group is often the subject of many rumours: they’re a gothic band; a graffiti crew; perform bizarre rituals and are on the run from the law.
“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,” Mr Eid says.
“And we’ve upgraded security systems so there’s a big steel cage at the only entrance into these tunnels.
“Whereas on the other side at night time several occasions they will run on the tracks and penetrate their way through the tunnels.
“But that’s now all been sealed off.
“We still get it but not a lot. And every time we do get a penetration of vandals, it triggers an alarm, and we send our people there to get them out.”
The Cave Clan isn’t the only arm of society the station’s custodians are concerned about.
Mr Eid says the current climate of terror risks has meant security has been made tighter than ever before.
“The NSW Library and Parliament are above so we just can’t risk putting those places in danger,” he says.
Today, the tunnels are often used by the Army as a “playground” for “familiarisation training”.
There are currently no plans to develop the site or reopen the tunnels to the public.
“We’re very proud to be the custodians of this,” Mr Eid says.
“We have to preserve this. It’s part of our history, it’s played a significant role in Sydney.”
The St James Station tunnels are open to the public during the Sydney Open event in November. Only a limited number of tickets are made available each year. Sydney Trains is also currently running a competition for winners to go on an exclusive guided tour of the tunnels in August.
This article first appeared on www.news.com.au
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