One of the tunnels at St James Station, Sydney. Picture: Amanda Hoh

Exploring the tunnels under Australia’s largest city

By Amanda Hoh

Some 13,000 commuters use Sydney’s St James Station every day, but few would pay attention to the simple green door that stands alone against a white arched wall between platforms one and two.

Walk through that door and just like Alice, enter a wonderland — an underground labyrinth of tunnels awaits.

St James in the city’s CBD was one of the first underground stations in Australia, completed in 1926.

Currently two platforms are operational and serve the City Circle line.

Commuters wait at St James Station. Picture: Amanda Hoh

Another two that start from the northern and southern ends of the concourse are hidden from the public and have never been used.

They link tunnels and air raid shelters that stretch kilometres beneath Hyde Park and past the Cahill Expressway entrance off Macquarie Street.

“It’s an extraordinary place,” Tony Eid, executive director of Sydney Trains, said during a rare tour of the tunnels.

“When you get to the end and you feel no air, you see the ground reaching the ceiling … you see the effort gone into building these bomb air raid shelters.

“You have to think: back then, how the hell did they get this done?”

Sydney Trains executive director Tony Eid inside a WWII air raid shelter. Picture: Amanda Hoh

The disused platforms and tunnels were built in the 1920s for proposed extensions and rail lines to the western and eastern suburbs.

They were modified into air raid shelters capable of holding 20,000 people and used by the RAAF as protected bunkers and headquarters.

However, following World War II plans to bury the shelters were abandoned.

“One day they just downed their tools and left,” Mr Eid said as he pointed to dangerously exposed pipes of corrugated iron poking out of walls.

“I can see why, because we had a look at some pretty extraordinary steel and concrete meshed together to make up these shelters.

“We saw remnants of concrete being exploded and you can see quite clearly that this was not going to be easy to dismantle and I can appreciate why they would want to give up.”

Sights and sounds inside the tunnels

The walls of the south platform are adorned with the original cream and green tiles that give the station its unique 1930s ambience.

They are slowly being used up for repairs on the functioning platforms.

As you walk towards the end of the south platform, you enter the first chamber which this week was flooded from water seepage and rainwater redirected from the functioning platforms.

The sculpture in the centre of the tunnel emulates the bell gong of London’s Big Ben. Picture: Amanda Hoh

Past this point and the bustle of the outside world feels a light year away.

The tunnels are pitch black and eerily silent.

Dry prickly vines hang from the ceiling and thick tree roots, which have pushed through metres of concrete from where they stand in Hyde Park, have broken through crevices and twirl along the ground like a trip hazard.

“Somehow Mother Nature has found its way through this very tight, very exclusive part of the CBD and these tree roots are making their way down here,” Mr Eid said.

“There is absolute life in these tunnels.”

The dim spotlight from a torch reveals walls scribbled with graffiti.

Some of the graffiti dates back to 1926. Picture: Amanda Hoh

In one tunnel the words “truckie scum” decorate the concrete slab, while in another the concrete doorway is framed with a kitsch screaming skull and a flaming heart likely left behind by curious vandals.

Others are snapshots of WWII history, like the names and registration numbers of workers who built the air raid shelters.

There is the inscription of R Joe Paul with the date July 13, 1942 beneath it.

Worker QX23242 was from Wilmot, Bundaberg in Queensland, while a love note reads: “I love you my dearest darling Robyn Foreman.”

The end of the tunnel is covered with inscriptions by construction workers between 1922 and 1926. Picture: Amanda Hoh

Emblazoned in pink paint in one tunnel are the words: “Sydney Bomb Shelter.”

“If there was an explosion, nothing would penetrate these tunnels,” Mr Eid said.

“I would suggest this is one of the safest places in Sydney.”

Preserving a piece of Sydney

The rattle of passing trains breaks the silence as the tour group makes its way back to the empty platform.

There is a sense of awe among the group having walked through this little known and rarely seen subterranean maze of history.

“You cannot go anywhere else in Sydney and experience something like this,” Mr Eid said.

“It’s something that is quite unique to Sydney and we need to preserve it for many generations to come.”

The tunnels remain in their original state from when workers abandoned construction after the war. Picture: Amanda Hoh

702 ABC Sydney listeners have the opportunity to win tickets to visit the St James bunker tunnels as part of Sydney Open on November 5 and 6.

Once a year, Sydney Open unlocks the doors of the city’s most historic and architecturally inspiring sites usually off limits to the public.

Tune in to Drive with Richard Glover on Thursday.

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