Railways in Sydney

Sydney, the largest city in Australia, has an extensive network of passenger and freight railways. The passenger network is a hybrid metro-suburban railway with a central underground core running at metro style frequencies, which branches out into a suburban commuter type network. The system also carries freight, and there is a separate network of freight lines, some of which are disused.

Passenger service

Passenger service is operated in Sydney by RailCorp under the Cityrail brand. Trains operate for 20 hours a day, and over 900,000 weekday passenger journeys are made on 2365 daily services over 2080km of track and through 306 stations (including interurban lines). Suburban services operates along the portions of the mainlines that travel out of Sydney to the north, west, south and southwest, and also along several dedicated suburban lines. All of these lines have been progressively electrified with overhead 1500v DC from 1926. Most suburban services operate through the central Sydney underground network via either the City Circle (a horse-shoe shaped line), the Eastern Suburbs underground line, or tracks that pass over the Harbour Bridge. There are long term plans for a new underground line passing beneath Pitt Street to a new harbour crossing (known as MetroPitt), and a longstanding concept for a new underground line that will pass down the western side of the central business district (known as MetroWest). Whether either of these will be built remains to be seen. Timetables are published for all lines, and most lines run on headways of 15 minutes in peak periods, and half hourly off-peak and weekends. Headways are closer over shared routes. Although frequencies match metro style operation in the city core, few Sydneysiders use the underground network as a metro style system, most journeys are commuter based from suburbs into the central city area. An exception to this is the Eastern Suburbs line which serves the high density inner eastern suburbs and opened in 1979.

In March 2008, the NSW State Government announced the proposed construction of a new line, the North West Metro between the CBD and the Hills District of north-west Sydney. Although called a 'metro', the proposed line will be 34 km in length with 17 stations. This line may be the first of several new metro-style passenger lines.


Today all suburban passenger trains in Sydney are operated by double deck electric multiple units. Upon electrification in the 1920s, Sydney operated single deck multiple units but these were progressively withdrawn from the 1960s until their final demise in 1993. Single deck cars may be reintroduced if the proposed 'metro' lines are constructed.


Electric cars are maintained at depots at Hornsby in Sydney's northern suburbs, Mortdale in Sydney's southern suburbs, and Flemington in the western suburbs. A depot at Punchbowl, in Sydney's southwest, closed in 1994 and has since been demolished. These four depots were all built and opened with the opening of electrified services in the 1920s. Heavy maintenance of passenger cars was carried out at the Suburban Car Workshops at Redfern, now closed. Heavy maintenance is now contracted out to Maintrain, a private company with workshops at Clyde.

Freight services

Freight services operate over most of the suburban railway lines in Sydney, however due to the high frequency of passenger services and the lack of freight only tracks, there is a curfew on freight movements during peak hours.

The major interstate freight routes are the Main Southern and Main North lines, with the Illawarra and Main Western lines serving lineside industries and as alternate interstate routes. In the inner city area the Metropolitan Goods Lines connects major freight terminals to the main passenger lines, but expansion of the network has not followed that of the suburban services. The Southern Sydney Freight Line is underway to connect the western end of the Metropolitan Goods Lines to the Main South at a point beyond the suburban services.

The main traffic is containerised freight. The main intermodal terminal are at Camellia, Leightonfield, Yennora and Minto. Interstate train to Sydney terminals are up to 1500 metres long, while from the terminals to the Port Botany seaport short-haul container trains are around 600 metres long. Coal services to Port Kembla are another major traffic. Freight operators include Pacific National, QRNational, Independent Rail, Australian Railroad Group, Southern and Silverton Rail and Patrick Port Logistics.


The first railway in Sydney was opened between Sydney and Parramatta in 1855. This railway formed the basis of the New South Wales railways and was owned by the government. Passenger and freight services were operated from the beginning. By 1880, there was half hourly service to Homebush. In 1884, the railway opened from Strathfield to Hornsby. The North Shore line opened in 1893 to a harbour side station at Milson's Point, and was originally built because parliament thought it would be a shorter route for country produce from the north to Sydney Harbour (a role it has never fulfilled). Sydney's first deliberately suburban railway was a line to Belmore which opened in 1896 and was soon extended to Bankstown. Sydney's suburban passenger service was severely hampered by the inconvenient location of its city terminus, at a site south of Devonshire Street. Most of Sydney's population was well served by trams, and the suburban railways had relatively little initial role to play. This was to change in the 1920s.

The railway system as it exists today is really the result of the vision and foresight of John Bradfield, one of Australia's most respected and famous civil engineers. He was involved in the design and construction of Sydney underground railways in the 1920s and 1930s, but he is more famous for the associated design and construction of Sydney's greatest icon, the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The electrification of the passenger network began in 1926 with the first suburban electric service running between Sydney's Central Station and the suburb of Oatley approximately 20 km south of Sydney. In the same year, the first underground railway was constructed from Central Station to St James in Sydney's CBD . Electric trains that had previously terminated at the Central Station continued north, diving underground at the Goulburn Street tunnel portal, stopping at Museum underground station and then terminating at St James.

Other lines were quickly electrified soon after. Also, in conjunction with the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge which opened in 1932, an additional underground line in downtown Sydney was constructed, connecting the North Shore line with Central Station via two downtown stations - Town Hall and Wynyard.

Electrification timeline

New electrified lines were built:


The rail network in the metropolitan area of Sydney is currently owned, maintained and operated by RailCorp, a NSW State Government owned corporation. Third party access is allowed to Railcorp's tracks by other freight operators under an open-access arrangement. Track outside the Sydney metropolitan area is operated and maintained by the Australian Rail Track Corporation. RailCorp operates passenger trains under the Cityrail brand, and long distance trains run through Sydney under the Countrylink brand. RailCorp was formed on 1 January 2004 by the merger of the former State Rail Authority (SRA) and the metropolitan functions of the Rail Infrastructure Corporation. Until 1972, the railways in NSW were operated by the New South Wales Government Railways until this department was replaced by the Public Transport Commission (PTC), which was also responsible for bus and ferry services. However in 1980, the PTC was broken up into the State Rail Authority, responsible for rail services, and the Urban Transit Authority (UTA) responsible for bus and ferry services. The UTA later became the State Transit Authority. In 2001, the State Rail Authority had its 'above track' operations separated from its track ownership and maintenance operations. The track maintenance operations and track ownership were moved to a newly created Rail Infrastructure Corporation (RIC). However this separation into a horizontally operated rail system was criticised for the passing of blame for rail delays and accidents between authorities, and hence in 2004, railways in Sydney became a vertically operated system again with the creation of Railcorp, a fusion of the State Rail Authority and the urban sections of the RIC.


All Sydney trains use standard gauge, with a distance of 1435 mm (4' 8½") between the rails.


The railways in Sydney generally use British-derived terminology.

  • Points refers to what in American English are known as railroad switches, or crossovers.
  • Up refers to the direction 'towards Sydney'
  • Down refers to the direction 'away from Sydney', or 'towards the country'.
  • Signal box refers to the signal control installation (tower in American terminology).

Rail lines


Four main 'trunk' lines radiate from Sydney to the north, south, west and southwest-

  • The Main Western Line from Central through Strathfield and west to Penrith and western NSW.
  • The Main North Line from Strathfield north to Hornsby and on to northern NSW
  • The Main South Line from Lidcombe through Regents Park and Cabramatta and southern NSW
  • The Illawarra line from Redfern south to Sutherland and on to Wollongong and the South Coast.

Other passenger lines

Other passenger lines branch from or interconnect with the four mainlines-

Goods lines

Several railway lines carry goods only-

  • The Metropolitan Goods Railway from Dulwich Hill to Rozelle Yard, and formerly to Darling Harbour
  • The Port Botany Line between Sydenham and Port Botany

Closed lines

There are several closed lines in Sydney-

Under construction

There is one railway line currently under construction-


There are three railway lines in differing stages of planning-

  • The North West Metro, a metro style line between the CBD and to the Hills District
  • The West Metro, a metro style line between the CBD and to the Parramatta CBD via Inner West & Olympic Park
  • The South West line, from Glenfield to Leppington

Underground sections

Sydney has three underground lines; a fourth is under construction.

  • The oldest is the main city loop, the City Circle, which runs between Central, Town Hall, Wynyard, Circular Quay, St. James station and Museum stations. Central and Circular Quay are above-ground stations (Circular Quay is elevated, directly underneath the Cahill Expressway), while the remainder are below ground. The line to St. James station and Museum was opened in 1926, but Circular Quay was a "missing link" until 1956. The "western limb" of the City Circle through Town Hall and Wynyard to Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932.
  • The second, the Eastern Suburbs line, opened in 1979. It runs between Redfern, Central, Town Hall, Martin Place, Kings Cross, Edgecliff, Woollahra (Unused Platforms) and Bondi Junction stations. All these are underground, but there are three above-ground sections, two on viaduct and one in cutting. Most of the platforms at Redfern and Central stations are above ground, including the platforms for the City Circle, but the Eastern Suburbs line is underground. There were plans to extend the Eastern Suburbs line from Bondi Junction to Bondi Beach, but the plans have since fallen through. Originally the line was to extend to Kingsford but was finshed at Bondi Junction for political reasons.
  • The third underground line is the Airport Line, which opened in 2000, prior to the Sydney Olympics. This serves Central, Green Square, Mascot, Domestic (underneath the Domestic terminal), International (underneath International terminal at Sydney Airport), and Wolli Creek. After Wolli Creek it joins the above-ground East Hills line at Turrella.
  • The Epping to Chatswood rail link is under construction. It will link Chatswood to Epping, with new underground platforms at Epping and new underground stations at Macquarie University, Macquarie Park and North Ryde. The line was intended to continue from Epping to Parramatta, incorporating the existing Carlingford line, but this section has been postponed indefinitely, though a stub tunnel has been constructed at the northern end of Epping station.

Disused tunnels

Sydney has several disused tunnels. The best known of these are those leading out of St. James station. There are also several disused tunnels and platforms on the Eastern Suburbs line, which like St. James station provided for the possibility of four tunnels even though only two were ever built. Most of the stations have these disused platforms adjacent (but walled off from) the platforms currently in use. There are stub tunnels at North Sydney railway station for a never constructed Manly to Mona Vale line.

From the top of the northern stair to platform 10 at Redfern Station it is possible to view the unfinished structure for the low-level "up" (toward Central) Southern Suburbs platform. The associated never-used tunnels are quite complex. Immediately to your left is the (surface level) stub tunnel for the "down" Southern Suburbs track. This short tunnel exits on the northern side of Lawson Street road bridge. As a matter of interest, there are at least nine railway tunnels under the suburb of Redfern: some in use, some never used.

The never-used platforms at Central, numbered 26 and 27, lie above the Eastern Suburbs Railway platforms and have never been used for trains. Like St. James station, these stations have stub tunnels, although they are much shorter.

There are two tunnels for the old Pyrmont goods line, not part of the passenger railway system. One runs underneath Railway Square, between the Central station railway yards and the Powerhouse Museum, the other underneath Glebe. The first tunnel is now only used to service the Powerhouse Museum, but the old railway from the Powerhouse Museum to Lilyfield, including Glebe tunnel, has been converted to form part of the Metro Light Rail line from Central station (see Metropolitan Goods Line).

Also of interest is a tunnel connecting the Eveleigh rail yards, on the southern side of the main line, to the northern side of the main line, just past Redfern.

See also


External links

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