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Bradfield – a vision for Sydney transport

Transport for Sydney

There has been much public discussion about Sydney's transport problems in recent times and included in the debate there has been frequent mention of a 'Bradfield Scheme' together with comment that the concepts of John Job Crew Bradfield, if followed through, would have greatly alleviated the current situation.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Bradfield, as an engineer with the Department of Public Works of New South Wales, became involved with initiatives to provide Sydney with an up-to-date public transport system. Many large cities overseas had adopted electrified railways as the main component of an urban system and these were proving to be very successful.

Bradfield was therefore sent by the Department to North America and Europe to investigate and report on the various electric railway systems in use and eventually to make proposals for the arrangements that could be adopted by Sydney.

It was also clear to Bradfield and his colleagues that a functional network of electric railways must inevitably include a crossing of Sydney Harbour in the vicinity of the central business district. A second component of Bradfield's mission was therefore to investigate methods of construction of large span bridges, some enterprising designs for which had begun to appear in the decades around the turn of the century.

Bradfield arrived back in Australia at the time of the outbreak of World War I in 1914. His report to the NSW government in 1915, 'Report on the Proposed Electric Railways for the City of Sydney', went into print for public consumption the following year. This is a most interesting document which includes previous schemes together with Bradfield's proposals. Some copies are accessible in libraries or on inter-library loan. However, the National Library of Australia has now digitised this publication (PDF, 88MB).

The structure required

One of the sites that Bradfield spent some time examining was the second, successful, attempt at the construction of the Quebec Bridge over the St Lawrence River in Canada. This is a cantilever bridge with a main span of 549 metres – about the size required for Sydney.

Also of interest was the Hell Gate arch bridge in New York City which carries four railway tracks. While its span is only about two-thirds of that required to cross Sydney Harbour, developments in the design of arch bridges were taking place, aimed at producing longer spans.

Quebec Bridge over the St Lawrence River in Canada
Quebec Bridge (cantilever)
Source: Sébastien Savard, Wikimedia Commons
Hell Gate arch bridge in New York City
Hell Gate Bridge (two-hinged arch)
Source: David Frieder, Wikimedia Commons

The report includes Bradfield's own proposal for four tracks crossing the harbour in the Dawes Point/Milsons Point area, together with an associated roadway, thus providing the key to an extensive railway network covering the metropolitan area.


At North Sydney station, two of the four tracks from the Bridge would diverge to the north-east to Pittwater, with a branch in the south to Mosman. The two other tracks would continue westward to link up at Waverton with the North Shore Line which had been constructed down to Milsons Point ferry dock in 1893.

Bearing in mind that this was 1915, Bradfield was looking for a train interval with the equipment of that time of only 140 seconds which would have given the proposed bridge – and indeed the network generally – a very impressive passenger carrying capacity.

Accordingly, the specifications for the design in 1923 allowed for four railway tracks: two on each side of the main span. This resulted in two matching Milsons Point stations (shown as 'Kirribilli') and a 67-metre steel arch bridge to carry the eastern pair of tracks over the intervening highway to reach North Sydney station.

What actually happened

Electrification of the Sydney rail network had started in the south in 1926, with the North Shore Line down to Milsons Point under way the following year. There were, however, indications in the mid-twenties that Bradfield's lines to Pittwater and Mosman were not part of the game plan even before the Great Depression. Literature at that time does not include such routes at all. The design and construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge went ahead with four tracks capable of carrying what is now referred to as heavy rail, with four platforms constructed at North Sydney and six at Wynyard.

A conflict of views on transportation policy came to a head immediately after the opening of the Bridge and coincidentally with Bradfield's retirement when the eastern pair of railway tracks, which occupied what we now refer to as Lanes 7 and 8, were turned over to use by trams – as were platforms 1 and 2 at Wynyard. The trams continued to use the 67-metre bridge (demolished 1970) to reach Blue Street until services ended in 1958.

The idea of a major bridge over the northern end of Darling Harbour, with branch lines to Balmain, Leichhardt and Gladesville was also abandoned, probably because of the years of hardship that had now arrived, thus depriving future Sydney of a valuable transport facility. The recent Metro proposal may well have been inspired by similar geographical objectives.

The eastern suburbs section was started but the line now bearing this name that was opened in 1974 differs considerably from Bradfield's ideas, thus leaving Sydney with some 'ghost' tunnels which may yet be put to railway use.

A consolation is that, with the opening of the Epping – Chatswood Line, more trains are crossing the Bridge, thus using the western pair of tracks closer to their capacity.

After retirement from the NSW public service in 1932, Bradfield set up his own engineering consultancy in partnership with his son K.N.E. Bradfield. J.J.C. Bradfield was the designer of the Story Bridge, Brisbane, which is of the cantilever type. In 1924 he was the recipient of the first award of the Degree of Doctor of Science in Engineering by the University of Sydney for his thesis: 'The City of Sydney Electric Railways and the Sydney Harbour Bridge'.

The Sydney Morning Herald 2009 campaign for improvements in Sydney's transport included a discussion scheme for heavy and 'metro' type rail. The proposal included restoration of heavy rail to Lanes 7 and 8 of the Bridge with, of necessity, the reconstruction of the former 67-metre bridge, although the new span or spans would need to be greater because of the greater width of the highway since 1970.

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