Circular Quay Station

Circular Quay Railway Station. Image by Transport for NSW

Celebrating 60 years of Circular Quay Station, 1956-2016

The opening of Circular Quay Station on 20 January 1956 marked the completion of the essential City Circle loop, which now conveys thousands of commuters, shoppers and tourists around the CBD every day. Before that time trains started their journeys from either Wynyard or St James.

Dreams of a city railway station

This diagrammatic map of the NSW Railway system in 1939 is based on the railway maps produced for the London Underground in the early 1930s. The new city underground stations opened in the 1920s-30s are included, but Circular Quay is indicated as a dotted line yet to be constructed. Source: State Records NSW.
Take a closer look at the railway map from the early 1930s

The dream of a railway station at Circular Quay 'the quay' is almost as old as the opening of the railways in NSW in 1855.

Whereas rail freight had the benefit of direct interface with ships from 1855, passengers had to find their own way between the rail terminus at Central and the city proper. John Whitton, the father of the NSW railways, always fought for a rail terminus at the quay to enable an easy transfer between train and ship, especially for those including himself who lived on the North Shore.

  • Whitton never saw his dreamed rail station at the Circular Quay.
  • In the 20th century, debate changed from the concept of a terminal station to a city loop.
  • The report of the City of Sydney Royal Commission in 1909 was the first time the idea of a loop was raised.

Bradfield, the engineer with a vision

The design for the city underground railway network was produced by the famed Dr John J.C. Bradfield in 1915, an engineer working in the NSW Public Works Department. In his report to the NSW government in 1915, 'Report on the Proposed Electric Railways for the City of Sydney', (PDF) Bradfield advocated the idea of an elevated railway station at Circular Quay, which would be an important addition to the existing transport and commuter network in the city, linking to the tram and ferry services already in existence. The Railway Commissioner preferred a site near Harrington Street and the debate was finally settled by the NSW Parliament in Bradfield's favour.

The eastern route of Bradfield's underground network was designed largely under Hyde Park, Macquarie Street, and the Botanical Gardens. The western route was more difficult passing under some private buildings, but as much as possible under public roads. None of the tunnels were to be very deep into the ground so as to minimise the incline to street level, and to allow both tunnels to emerge into daylight along the proposed railway viaduct at Circular Quay.

  • Work on the city underground began in 1916, but soon lapsed because of the demands of World War 1.
  • Work resumed in 1922 and proceeded uninterrupted until the first train ran to St James just before Christmas in 1926.
  • Trains began operating to Wynyard three weeks before the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932.

A changing design for Circular Quay Station

Proposed southern elevation of Circular Quay Station as drawn by Albert Cecil Fewtrell, Chief Civil Engineer of NSW Railways in 1948. Whilst Bradfield’s original vision for an elevated station remains, the style of the building was changed to reflect the ‘modern’ time. Source: ARHSnsw.
Take a closer look at the changing designs of Circular Quay Station

The location and design of Circular Quay Station has always been controversial, with differing opinions to whether it would be an eyesore or the symbol of a modern developing international city.

Notable Sydney architects Budden and Mackey were commissioned to do an initial design for the station. The design of the station was subject to review by a Circular Quay Planning Committee in 1936, where three important parameters were adopted which would be carried through to the final design. These included: the provision of a colonnade along the edge of the water, the use of natural materials for external surfaces, and an unimpeded view at the ground level between the water and the streetscape.

With the outbreak of World War II all work ceased on the design and construction of Circular Quay Station. Following public and cross-Government concerns of the new station, a new Supervisory Committee was established in 1948 to oversee the design with an aim to reduce the effects of the overall height of the structure, to accommodate a new overhead roadway, to reduce a solid-wall effect for the station building as originally proposed, and allow better views through to the harbor beneath the station.

The final design selected, a simplified version of the original schemes proposed in the 1930s, led itself to adopting elements of the more simple functionalist architectural styles prevalent in Europe and America of the 1950s.

Building Circular Quay Station

View of Circular Quay from the western end in May 1946, showing the new station being constructed and old ferry wharfs demolished. Source: Australian Railway historical Society NSW Division (ARHSnsw).
Take a closer look at Circular Quay Station being built

Work on the station began after the end of World War II. The dominant use of strong horizontal and vertical lines paid regard to the legacy from earlier inter-war functionalist architecture. During World War II the lengths of unused tunnels that lead to the yet-to-be built station were used as public air raid shelters and secure control centres for the armed services.

Circular Quay Station is the only station on the NSW rail system that features polished granite on external surfaces which was quarried from Canowindra in western NSW. The 2005 repairs to the station used granite from the same quarry.

The station was the last major project undertaken by the NSW Department of Railways in which the Department performed virtually every aspect of the work. One exception was the ornamental bronze grilles near the stairways which feature sea-horses and fish. The station was also the last major structure to use riveted construction and contrasts with the Cahill Expressway above it in which welding was used. It was one of a very small number of stations where the name of the station is attached to the external walls and is also one of an elite group of stations to feature flagpoles.

Circular Quay opened 20 January 1956

Opening of Circular Quay Station 20 January 1956. The train used was the new prototype single deck, power operated door train, F39, which entered service two days later with the introduction of the new Suburban Timetable. These distinctive cars with power operated doors controlled by the guard, were in lieu of traditional manual doors which could be opened by a passenger. Source: Australian Railway historical Society NSW Division (ARHSnsw).
Take a closer look at the opening of Circular Quay Station

Friday 20th January 1956 marked the official opening of the new Circular Quay Station by the NSW Premier, Joe J Cahill, who at one time, was employed by the NSW railways at the Eveleigh workshops. The Railway Commissioner took the opportunity at the opening ceremony to introduce into service the first suburban train with automatic closing doors.

The train used for the opening ceremony was the new prototype single deck, power operated door train, F39, which entered service two days later with the introduction of the new Suburban Timetable. These distinctive cars with power operated doors controlled by the guard, were in lieu of traditional manual doors which could be opened by a passenger.

  • The first regular train service began two days later on 22 January 1956.
  • With the opening of the 'City Circle' train operations became much more efficient.
  • Trains entering the city on one side ran quickly through Circular Quay, without the need for shunting and reversing.

The architecture of Circular Quay Station

Interiors of Circular Quay Station being finished in early January 1956 just before the official opening with new signage installed. Source: Australian Railway historical Society NSW Division (ARHSnsw).
Take a closer look at the architecture of Circular Quay Station

The Circular Quay Station building has aesthetic significance as a late example of the inter-war 'functionalist' style represented in the horizontal bands of windows and fenestrations giving a streamlined effect. The exterior façade features polished granite on external surfaces quarried from Canowindra in western NSW.

The original station signage when it opened in 1956 reflected the adopted ‘City Underground’ roundel style still visible in other historic railway stations in Sydney such as at St James and Museum.

Reflecting the period of its original conception, Circular Quay Station features some elements of the more decorative Art Deco style from the 1930s, namely the ornamental grilles and bronze aquatic animal motifs sculpted above stairways and doorways. Depicting sea horses and fish, these large bronze grilles were cast and welded by Austral Bronze, and provide a connection between the building fabric and the ambience of the building’s surroundings at the front of Sydney Harbour.

Changes at Circular Quay

View of Circular Quay in c.1948 showing the new station under construction, but with a low-scale city back drop behind, soon to be changed by a series of high-rise developments. Source: Sydney Trains.
Take a closer look at the changes at Circular Quay

Since opening in 1956, Circular Quay Station has undergone a number of changes to upgrade facilities and services to meet modern demands. In 2006/7, two new lifts were installed and are set back from the main façade so as to reduce their visual impact and retain the original design aesthetic. New booking and ticketing facilities on the lower level were also added and new awnings on the platforms.

2013 restoration works by Sydney Trains included floor tiling replacement, repairs to the original wall tiles, and removal of modern cladding around the columns at the base of the stairs returning them to their original state. The station was further upgraded in 2015 with installation of two new lifts to platform level.

  • Circular Quay Station is now protected by a heritage listing on the NSW State Heritage Register.

Where can I find out more?

Posters on display at Circular Quay Station celebrating 60 years.

Posters on display

Poster Booklet.View a selection of Celebrating 60 years of Circular Quay Station, 1956-2016 posters in this commemorative 60 year booklet (PDF, 3.46MB) on display at Circular Quay Station.


Sydney Trains would like to thank the Australian Railway Historical Society NSW Division (ARHSnsw) for assistance with historical research and provision of historical images for this website.