The North Shore railway

Political Intrigue

Few of the many thousands of commuters who use today’s busy North Shore Railway are aware of the origins and historical significance of this line. It is a story of political intrigue that was only loosely associated with the provision of reliable transport during its early years.

From the time the government took over the Sydney Railway Company in 1853, railway construction became a major political preoccupation, but the domination of the legislature by rural interests ensured that railways were built to serve country areas over city interests. Urban settlement on the North Shore dates from 1836 when the township of St Leonards (now North Sydney) was laid out. Ferry services linking residents on the northern shore date from the 1830s and a ferry company (later Sydney Harbour Ferries Limited) was founded in 1878. City dwellers living on the north side of the harbour relied on ferries to travel to Circular Quay, but as settlement extended further inland people found it difficult to get to the ferry terminal over the rough tracks then available.

The first local government on the North Shore was the Municipality of North Willoughby (now the City of Willoughby) proclaimed on 23 October 1865. Its politics was dominated by prominent landowners. They saw a railway as an opportunity to subdivide their land for residential development and by the 1870s the municipality was lobbying for construction of a line from Hornsby facilitate ‘development’. John Whitton, the Engineer for New Lines and himself a North Shore resident, opposed the proposal, claiming that a tramway would be adequate to carry the required traffic.

The matter would have ended there, but for the fact that Henry Parkes – who had served as Premier on four occasions – was again in financial difficulty and saw an opportunity to address his problems and regain his political ascendency by supporting the railway campaign of North Shore landowners. Among the campaigners were former Premier Alexander Stewart and Chatswood land developer Richard Haynes Harnett. In the 1885 election Parkes successfully stood for the seat of St Leonards against the incumbent and then Premier, George Dibbs. He subsequently formed a government and arranged for his Minister for Public Works, John Sutherland, to proclaim the new railway line from Hornsby to St Leonards. Sutherland officiated at the ceremony to mark the start of construction work on 1 July 1887.

Construction and Early Operations

Train timetable between Hornsby and St Leonards 1890
Train timetable between Hornsby and St
Leonards 1890
To serve the landholdings of prominent citizens the line transversed rugged terrain that required sharp curves and steep grades. As the economic boom of the 1880s subsided, austerity measures resulted in simple timber station buildings, in most instances comprising just a simple waiting shed.

The line, Sydney’s first true suburban railway, was formally opened on 1 January 1890, but the timetable provided for just four trains a day – two passenger and two mixed trains; and none on Sunday.

St Leonards station in January 1890.
St Leonards station in January 1890.
Town & Country Journal
As the leading owner of land along the route to the Milsons Point ferry terminal, Alexander Berry’s son David, had opposed construction of the railway, passengers continuing to the city had to rely on a horse-drawn omnibus from the terminus at St Leonards to the ferry. Parkes has appointed his business partner, Bruce Smith, as Secretary for Public Works in 1889 following the death of Sutherland. Smith gave priority to the extension of the line to Milsons Point, but two inquiries were required to finalise the route and approve the project. This section of the line opened on 1 May 1893. The timetable now provided for ten passengers trains daily, with four on Sundays.

Milsons Point railway station in the 1890s.
Milsons Point railway station in the 1890s.
RailCorp collection, State Records NSW
With the return of economic prosperity on the 20th century, the railway stimulated rapid residential development along its route. Five additional stations were opened on the line between 1895 and 1900, including Artarmon on 6 July 1898.

Responding to Traffic Demand

Schoolchildren wait for their train on Chatswood railway station in 1907.
Schoolchildren wait for their train on Chatswood railway station in 1907.
Postcard, WDHS collection
The rapid increase in traffic resulted in duplication of the North Shore Line in 1912. The stations were rebuilt at this time, most of them with the standard brick platform buildings that continue to make the line an attractive feature today.

While the North Shore Railway was primarily a passenger transport mode, it also delivered materials to and transported the products from industries and commercial enterprises along the line, with Chatswood and St Leonards having busy goods yards.1

The goods siding and receiving shed at Chatswood station in 1910.
The goods siding and receiving shed at Chatswood station in 1910.
Willoughby City Library, Local Studies collection
At Chatswood coal, wattle bark and hides was unloaded for transport to the Willoughby’s tanneries, while the municipality installed a siding for the unloading of blue metal for its roadworks in the 1920s. The goods yard at St Leonards linked with private sidings served the Northern Suburbs Brick & Tile works and the Stewart & Lloyds engineering works, while meat carcases, cement and gravel were also received for local enterprises. Goods traffic declined in the 1980s and ceased in the early 1990s.

The Bradfield Plan

The North Shore Railway was an integral part of the revolution in Sydney’s transport system that occurred from 1915 under the direction of the brilliant engineer John JC Bradfield. Parliament passed the City & Suburban Railways Bill on 8 July 1915. Known as the ‘Bradfield Plan’ it was a bold construction project to provide Sydney with a world-class transport system to meet its needs over the next 50 years.

The northern approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1957 with trams in the foreground and an electric train on the western approach.
The northern approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1957 with trams in the foreground and an electric train on the western approach.
Ian Hellstrom photo, WDHS collection
Work to construct a city underground loop and electrify the suburban railway system commenced the following year, but the demands of the war effort resulted in the project being suspended in June 1917. The Storey Government approved recommencement of the suburban railway works and the harbour Bridge in November 1920. Support for the project ebbed and flowed with successive changes of government, with the first electric trains operating to Oatley on 1 March 1926.2

Electrification works on the North Shore line commenced in June 1925. A new line was constructed through tunnel from Waverton station to a new station at North Sydney, with the first train to this station site arriving on 28 July 1928. Electric train services from Milsons Point commenced on 2 August 1927 and a full electric service operated from 27 October 1928. With the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 19 March 1932, North Shore residents finally had direct train services into the city that directly connected with the remainder of the Sydney metropolitan system.

Gordon railway station, 2012
Gordon railway station is one of the most intact of the heritage listed buildings on the North Shore Line. This photo taken on 1 January 2012 shows the station, with its early open waiting shed on platform 1.
RF McKillop photo.
Many elements of Bradfield’s grand plan were never implemented. On the North Shore, earthworks for quadruplicating the line between Chatswood and North Sydney were undertaken, but this section of track was never completed. More significantly, the planned railway to Manly and the Northern Beaches was a victim of the financial crisis of the 1930s. Instead, the railway tracks on the eastern side of the Harbour Bridge were utilised to extend the North Sydney tram system into underground platforms at Wynyard station.


1 Longworth, Jim, De-industrialisation of St Leonards. Australian Railway History, Vol 60: 858, April 2009, pp 115-125

2 McKillop, Robert F, Ellsmore, Donald and Oakes, John, A Century of Central, Sydney’s Central Railway Station 1906-2006, Sydney, ARHS/nsw 2007, pp 51-58

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