At the southern end of George St in Sydney's CBD lies Railway Square. It's not square and its connection with railways is tenuous as we shall see but it has thousands of people walking around, across and under it. Many of those people use the suburban railways but, because Central Station doesn't have direct access at its southwest (Railway Square) corner, they must walk hundreds of metres extra and use the southeast (Chalmers St) concourse or perhaps the Grand (northern) Concourse.
The distances to be walked are surprisingly long. From the KFC at the western corner of Railway Square, it takes at least 500 metres' walk to reach any railway platform. Many suburban homes are closer to railway stations than that, despite the much lower urban densities prevailing around the suburbs. Sydney compares very unfavourably with London where the Circle Line's loop has 27 stations; according to our map-reading, there are eighteen other London Underground stations within that loop and every point inside the loop is less than 500 metres from at least one station.
However, there is nothing suburban about the crowds milling around our Railway Square. Consider the long pedestrian tunnel between Railway Square and Chalmers St which replaced a block of Devonshire St in 1906. Until COVID, it was heavily loaded at peak hour, so much so that the new Metro platforms being constructed under Central will have no connection to the Devonshire St end for fear of overcrowding the pedestrian tunnel.
Just round the corner from Railway Square is Eddy Avenue, with the northern face of the 1906 stone Central Station building and clocktower hanging over Belmore Park. From much of the CBD the vista across the station offers a relatively uninterrupted view southwards. Country rail travel may have peaked 70 years ago but the station remains proud and relatively unsullied. A large microwave dish was bolted to the clocktower in the 1980s but thankfully is gone now.
No-one knows whether, and certainly not when, CBD use will recover to pre-COVID levels. But it would be foolhardy to ignore the possibility. Roadbuilders expect a full recovery as evidenced by tollway construction around Sydney continuing apace. Meanwhile, in July 2019 the whole railway area between Eddy Avenue and Cleveland Street was declared a State-Significant Precinct, obviously because the NSW government intends to put substantial developments on it. First cab off the rank is to be the proposed 39-storey Atlassian building, for which EIS submissions closed on 3rd February 2021. It is to be followed by other buildings; there is a proposal to re-zone land around the Atlassian site to a maximum height of 42 storeys. Needless to say, these heights are well above the stone clocktower which is such a feature of Central station. Submissions on the re-zoning proposal closed on 29 January 2021. You might like to read what the National Trust submission on the Atlassian project had to say about the inappropriateness of such heights in that location - learn more ...
These developments could be supplemented in due course by others above the platforms. How high? Look at Hurstville station or even North Sydney. The new buildings will interrupt the visual connection between Railway Square and the stone building with its clocktower. They will also add significantly to the thousands of people who need to walk around the area daily. Yet no effective measures are being taken to cater for the extra foot traffic and nothing is being done in the next few years to shorten the long walking distances between Railway Square and popular railway platforms.
Further, some future government could decide to build above the rail tracks towards Cleveland St. This would permanently stymie any alteration of track layout that might become necessary.
So, what could be done to help public transport passengers and other pedestrians? Many possibilities warrant investigation:
Any of these would cost money and some could not be commenced until Central platforms 13 and 14 are returned to service, expected to be late 2022, but governments say they are good managers of such issues.
Meanwhile, Railway Square could be renamed to remind us that worthwhile urban precincts around major railway stations are fragile things. Broadway Square, anyone?
Here is the council's vision for Railway Square. Notice the transparent buildings hovering around the Adina Hotel; the tops of the buildings are out of frame, so that you can't see how they'll dominate the area. Removing the cars might help with buses but there doesn't seem to be much room left for bus stops. And there's no indication that walking routes will be amplified to cater for the huge crowds.
We think this picture is more realistic ...
... even though it shows only one of the three towers planned for the Western Gateway site!
What might be in store for the air space above the station? Well, here's what the former Sydney GPO, now a hotel, looks like: