Sydney Wants to Transform Abandoned Rail Tunnels Into Nightlife Hotspot

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Many Sydney residents are aware of — and have even explored — two tunnels at St. James Station built as part of a never-completed suburban rail line. They're now being eyed as a potential underground drinking and dining destination. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The space is dank, dark and altogether creepy. This hasn't stopped Australian officials, however, from trumpeting the untapped potential of twin "ghost tunnels" tucked deep beneath Sydney's central business district at St. James Station.

As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald and other Aussie media outlets, government officials are considering a form of reuse for the cavernous space — a "blank canvas" as the New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance dubs it — that they're confident will attract visitors in droves: a downtown drinking and dining district that just happens to be located nearly 100 feet underground.

Constructed during the 1920s as part of a never-realized rail extension that would have linked Sydney's eastern suburbs with its northern beaches, the forsaken St. James tunnels have, in reality, seen a fair amount of use over the decades. In other words, while they do project an air of claustrophobia-laced intrigue, they aren't really all that secret. (And to be clear, St. James Station, one of the oldest underground stations in Australia, is very much active with two additional tracks/platforms servicing three different busy commuter rail lines.)

The many lives of St. James

In the early 1930s, after it became clear the rail extension would never be completed, the sprawling — roughly 65,000 square feet in total — patch of subterranean real estate was used as an "experimental mushroom farm" per the Sydney Morning Herald. After that venture ended, one of the tunnels was reinforced with thick concrete slabs and modified into a public air raid shelter while another section was converted into an operations bunker for the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) during World War II. Its use by the WAAAF, however, was limited due to poor air quality and operations were eventually relocated.

In more recent years, the tunnels have been used as an ultra-atmospheric filming location for a number of television programs and movies including "Matrix Revolution" and a found footage horror flick dubbed, most appropriately, "The Tunnel." There are also occasional — and well-attended — guided public tours.

After being flooded out and rechristened as "St. James Lake," a section of one of the graffiti-clad tunnels was even used as a clandestine swimming hole that's rumored to be teeming with albino eels. There have been subsequent schemes to repurpose the labyrinthine space as a proper underground reservoir and water recycling facility although those plans never came to fruition. And, of course, there's been longstanding lore about the tunnels' popularity among "secret societies" as a spot to convene and conduct "meetings and séances" accord to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Writes HuffPost Australia of the tunnels' ill-boding reputation: "There have also been other unofficial uses for the disused sections of tunnel. Urban explorers and vandals regularly gain entry, leaving graffiti and litter in their wake. Most shocking, however, is one particular wall of graffiti — two pentagrams and a black devilish figure holding an 'all seeing eye' pyramid in one hand and a flaming heart in the other."

Flooded section, St. James Station, Sydney
Care for a dip? A flooded section of one of St. James Station's ominous abandoned rail tunnels. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A case of tunnel vision

Mythical albino eels and whispers of the occult aside, it wasn't until recently that officials realized that they were standing on top of — quite literally — a potential tourism goldmine that with a little imagination and whole lot of clean-up could be activated.

"Spaces like St James tunnel are rare," transport minister Constance explains to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "Around the world hidden spaces are being converted into unique experiences and we want St. James to be part of that."

Although there are no firm plans at this point as to what sort of "unique experience" will eventually transpire in the redeveloped north section of the disused St. James tunnel network, the headlines published by most antipodean media outlets have zeroed in on nightlife:

  • The State Broadcasting Service: "Sydney plans to transform abandoned tunnels into bars."
  • Television New Zealand: "Eerie tunnels beneath Sydney's city streets to become bar precinct."
  • The Daily Telegraph: "Sydney's ghost tunnels new home for the city's party crowd."
Air raid shelter sign, St. James Station, Sydney
Who wants to eat, drink and be merry in a disused rail-tunnel-turned-air raid shelter?. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Constance is open to all possibilities.

"We want the world's best to come up with the best ideas," he tells ABC. "This is an exciting opportunity for interested parties to stamp their mark on a location that is part of Sydney's heritage and the heritage of our transport system."

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Howard Collins, the former head of the London Underground who now works as chief executive of Sydney Trains, notes that he's long believed in the "global potential" of the dormant tunnels. (It's been made clear, by the way, that reviving them as functional commuter rail tunnels is not viable.)

"Many global cities use these spaces in a great way for tourism, for bars, for visitors," he explains. "I've been down here many times thinking, 'Why should it just be rail employees and a few special visitors who see this space?'"

Much like Constance, Collins believes that maintaining a heritage aspect is crucial in moving forward with any sort of adaptive reuse project at St. James Station. "It's got a historic feel to it, I don't want to lose that," he says.

Tunnel under St. James Station, Sydney
The St. James ghost tunnels have served as a horror movie backdrop and mushroom farm. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Subterranean inspiration

Collins and Constance are clearly inspired by other cities have transformed neglected subterranean spaces such as defunct subway stations and rail tunnels into lively dining and entertainment destinations.

Speaking to The News, Constance mentions London as one town that's looked underground. "In London they opened up some of their disused tunnels and there are generating something in the region of a million pounds a year for the state," he says.

Although unclear as to what tunnels Constance is referring to, there are indeed examples of ways London is making good use of unclaimed real estate located beneath the city streets. Cahoots, for example, is an upscale cocktail bar in London's West End housed within a former air raid shelter that's done-up to resemble a vintage Tube Station. Another London air raid shelter has been transformed into a bustling hydroponic farm. And although it never moved past the conceptual stage, one ambitious scheme from 2015 envisioned using London's out-of-commission Tube lines as an underground artery for cyclists.

Grafitti St. James Station, Sydney
Never mind the trolls: St. James Station's two never-used tunnels are ripe for redevelopment. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Outside of London, other subterranean space-reclaiming projects include Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Underground, an art gallery located in a revamped trolley station, and the Lowline, an innovative park hidden away in a mothballed Manhattan rail depot that was open to the public as an extended pop-up exhibition from 2015 through 2017. Similarly, a former mayoral candidate in Paris had grand plans to transform fantôme Metro stations into bars, shops, restaurants and even swimming pools. Although that scheme was never realized, some disused aboveground Parisian rail stations have been reborn as cafes, galleries and the like as part of a different initiative.

Back in Sydney, Constance hopes that a formal redevelopment proposal for the St. James Station tunnels will take shape within the next several months and that the transformation is completed within two to three years. One major undertaking would be improving public accessibility to the tunnels as, at the moment, they're only accessible through a somewhat unassuming green door located on one of the station's operational platforms.

"There's an incredible shell here, it's about fitting it out," he tells the Sydney Morning Herald.

Via [Atlas Obscura]