If she’s late she will push past you to get to the opening carriage doors. If she’s on time she will walk to the end of the platform and back and then take a few more unnecessary steps, because it is good to add more steps to your day. It must be. She will wait, in her coloured running shoes, skirt and matching handbag, at the precise spot where the doors will open, in order to get in first.
A bearded man also takes extra steps. Likewise of indeterminate age, somewhere north of fifty, he resembles Harold Shipman, the English doctor found guilty of murdering fifteen people.
These are two of the regulars we see waiting for the 6.48 a.m. express to the city from Strathfield train station – a suburb my partner and I can only afford to live in because landlord neglect keeps our rent low. The house is literally falling down.
Nestled in Sydney’s Inner West, Strathfield is beautiful: with large blocks, wide nature strips and mansions from an era before the multi-car garage. Solid examples of such houses are sacrificed though, cut down and replaced with inferior temporary versions preferred by those who favour swimming pools and ensuites and cavernous kitchens. Apartment buildings also shoot up, some with gaudy splashes on their brutalist facades.
Built in 1876, the main reason for the train station’s existence was that Donald Vernon, an official with NSW Railways, owned land in the area. You could make money from selling land near a new train station. The tactic had been used for twenty years since the completion of the main western line from Sydney to Parramatta, and in retrospect it looks a bit corrupt.
Country trains stop at Strathfield so there is a motorised luggage cart that makes the reversing beep-beep noise wherever it goes. Strathfield is a bigger station than most. Apart from that it is merely ordinary, a sleepy place.
On the train, people keep to themselves. A couple look at real estate listings on a tablet. A woman shuffles through receipts, making notes. School boys in basketball gear chatter urgently. We sit on the second row of seats we find. The first is marked with dirt from the boots of the last tradie who slept on it, earlier that morning.
Apartments are built right up to the edge of the rails as we approach Burwood station, already showing signs of decrepitude despite their relative youth. A practised eye can pick out the church spires and clock towers, which were once district landmarks, but these are mostly obscured now. You can see a pub identified by the Police Integrity Commission as a meeting place used by a corrupt Burwood officer, later jailed for a range of crimes committed in the early 2000s.
You could make money from selling land near a new train station. The tactic had been used for twenty years since the completion of the main western line from Sydney to Parramatta, and in retrospect it looks a bit corrupt.
Train lines from several directions intertwine outside Redfern. You pass the Eveleigh Workshops, where maintenance on Sydney trains used to be done. Inside those large brick buildings are cafes and markets and filmmaking facilities, and most of the people within are unaware of the General Strike that began there in 1917 and lasted for over a month.
Redfern’s terrace houses are now being filled with professionals happy to live near work, but the character of the suburb has undergone recent change. Even before gentrification began to disperse the historic Indigenous Australian community, racial tensions were high between locals and the government, a problem given violent expression during the Redfern Riots of 2004.
Older Australians with a knowledge of the Sydney train system sometimes use the wonderfully crude phrase “got off at Redfern” to indicate an alternative to contraception, as Redfern is the last station before the city stations, and the destination where most people get off.
In 1906, Central Station opened on the site of the Devonshire Street Cemetery. Ten years later, shots were fired after a large number of riotous soldiers wound up in the city intent on vandalism and disorderly behaviour. One was shot dead and a bullet hole can still be seen, one of the few marks left from the Battle of Central Station. This grand building evokes colonial rail buildings from other parts of the British Empire, but somehow the architecture goes unnoticed. Instead you notice the humanity within: hurrying commuters, overwhelmed regional travellers and homeless people can all be found under the high vaulted ceiling where country trains depart.
In 1997, a simulated safety drill called Blue Rattler found that any passengers in the tunnel near Town Hall would probably all die during an emergency. A safety report from a few years later showed that emergency procedures at Town Hall Station, which is underground, were not much better. Work has since been done to address these alarming situations, we are told.
Above ground is the elaborate Town Hall itself, in Second Empire Victorian style, which also sits on a former cemetery. Clover Moore has had an office there as Lord Mayor since 2004, remaining in her job despite enemies in the City of Sydney changing the voting system, in an attempt to oust her. Businesses were given two votes each under the new system, but they failed to elect their candidate. She is not the first female Lord Mayor of Sydney. That honour goes to Lucy Turnbull, meaning that the first male Lady Mayoress was her husband Malcolm.
Up there, tramlines taken away between the 1930s and 1960s are being put back. At Wynyard Station the platform numbers start from three: platforms one and two were for trams, which travelled across the Harbour Bridge. These were later converted into extra car lanes. A wall seals off the unseen platforms, but according to word of mouth the old tram tunnel is now used as a car park – presumably by the well connected, for it is in a prime location.
A new pedestrian tunnel links Wynyard with the Barangaroo development; the pretty parkland and office buildings soon to be surmounted by a $2 billion casino backed by gaming mogul James Packer.
As you roll across the Harbour Bridge, fat beams of prosperous sunshine bathe the Eastern Suburbs, as if day comes earlier to the better-off. The bridge is grey and ugly, steel and stone, yet majestic and even lovable; a relic from an era when politicians invested in infrastructure.
And we reach Milsons Point, where passengers may alight for Sydney’s Luna Park. Built in 1935, the park now battles noise pollution complaints from neighbours who moved in two years ago. Finally, we pass on to our destination. On this route some of us have read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and are working our way slowly through Proust. Hardly any of us notice the scenery. Fewer still are aware of the route’s hidden history.
The woman who takes the extra steps gets off too. She works in North Sydney. She can be seen in the distance; a licorice allsort disappearing up the steps.
Philip Keenan is a writer from Sydney with an interest in the strangeness of familiar things. His work has appeared in Tincture Journal.
Cover image sourced from Strathfield Heritage.