Central Railway Station: Through the Lens

Highlighting the transformation of Central Railway Station from its opening in 1855 to 1921 when the clocktower was completed

The first ‘Sydney’ station, 1855-1874

The first railway line in Sydney opened in 1855 and operated between Sydney and Parramatta. The Sydney terminal station was built in September 1855 on traditional Gadigal land of the Eora Nation. The site was also known as the ‘Cleveland Paddock’, situated between Devonshire and Cleveland streets. The station was commonly referred to as Redfern Station as it was located close to Redfern. The station has been described as a “temporary tin shed” [1], due to the fact it was a single 30m long wooden platform in a corrugated iron shed [2]. In 1856 additional railway sheds and yards were added to the site but by the early 1870s the station was unable to meet the demands of the rapidly growing Sydney railway network.

The second ‘Sydney’ station, 1874-1906

The second terminal station was designed by the Railways Chief Engineer John Whitton (who designed the Zig Zag railway in the Blue Mountains). It opened in 1874 on the same site as the first station and continued to be known as Redfern. Whitton described the station as a through station to allow for the future expansion of the railways[3]. While the brick and stone building was impressive when first built, by the 1880s platforms (up to 13 in total) had spread to the forecourt area[4]. In 1899 there were 25 million passenger visits to the terminal station and the site was simply too restrictive and congested for any more development[5].

The third ‘Sydney’ station – Central Railway Station

The plan to shift the Sydney terminal station to the north side of Devonshire Street was proposed by the Minister for Public Works, E.W. O’Sullivan. Government Architect W.L. Vernon designed a 15 platform steel-framed and concrete station [6]. Parliament approved the Act for its construction on 11 December 1900 at an estimated cost of £561, 000[7]. The design for the station included a large arched roof to cover the main concourse area, with covered platforms and pedestrian access through subways between George St West and Strawberry Hills. Railway Square became a major tram interchange point. The sandstone used in the construction came from the Pyrmont Quarry, the decorative marble from Borenore, near Orange[8] and the ticket office was made of Tasmanian blackwood. The clocktower (construction began on this in 1915) stands 85.6m above mean sea level and includes four clock faces that are 4.77m in diameter[9].

Before construction could begin the site had to be cleared of the rail sheds and yards. Property resumption included the Benevolent Asylum, Devonshire Street Cemetery, Christ Church Parsonage, Police Barracks, Sydney Female Refuge, Convent of the Good Samaritan and the South Sydney Morgue[10]. At the Devonshire Street Cemetery site, £27, 890 was spent on relocating the remains and headstones to a new cemetery site at Botany and around Sydney[11].

Sydney/Central Station Milestones

1855 (Sep) First Sydney Station opened south of Devonshire St

1871 Construction on second Sydney station begins

1874 Second Sydney station opened

1890 Royal Commission appointed to inquire into proposed extension of the railway into the City

1896-97 Royal Commission on City Railway Extension

1900 (11 Dec) City Railway Extension (Devonshire-street) Act, 1900

1902 (30 April) Foundation stone for Central Station laid by Minister O’Sullivan in heavy rain

1903 (26 Sep) Second foundation stone laid at base of clock tower by Premier John See

1906 (4 Aug) Premier Carruthers turned gold key in booking office and officially opened Central Station; first official train left from platform 12 on a special run to Parramatta

1906 (5 Aug) First train service, the Western Mail train, ran through Central at 5.50am

1909 Royal Commissioners for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs recommended construction of electric rail

1914 Platforms 16-19 added

1915 Work begins on two additional floors to house offices and clock tower; not completed until 1921 due to World War I restrictions

1921 (3 Mar) Clocktower came into use at 10.22am


[1] Lee, p.27

[2] http://www.cityrail.info/about/history/central_station_in-depth

[3] http://www.cityrail.info/about/history/central_station_in-depth

[4] Lee, p.98

[5] http://www.cityrail.info/about/history/central_station_in-depth

[6] http://www.cityrail.info/about/history/central_station_in-depth

[7] Gunn, p.238

[8] http://www.cityrail.info/about/history/central_station_in-depth

[9] Preston, p.59

[10] Ibid.

[11] Idib.

* URL citations correct at date of publication.


Collection Activity 154 Railway and Tramway construction

NRS 17514/1/2 [47] The Railways of New South Wales 1855-1955

Central Station – in-depth history (February 2013) at http://www.cityrail.info/about/history/central_station_in-depth

John Gunn, Along Parallel Lines: a history of the railways of New South Wales 1850-1986, Melbourne University Press, 1989

Robert Lee, The Greatest Public Work: The New South Wales Railways – 1848 to 1889, Hale & Iremonger, 1988

R.G. Preston, 125 Years of the Sydney to Parramatta Railway, NSW Rail Transport Museum, 1980

Related images

There are many more images of Central Railway Station in our Collection and on our Flickr photostream.

Research by

Suzanne Upton, Former Archivist Public Access