The arteries of Docklands
By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria
Before the construction of the Southern Cross Station’s wavy roof, Marvel Stadium or even the blocky 1960s building that dominated the west end of Spencer St, this 1950s photograph shows the heart and arteries of Docklands.
The aerial photo shows the layout of the west end of the CBD. The whole area that would later become the Collins St extension and Marvel Stadium are dominated here by row upon row of railway tracks and sheds of the Spencer Street Railway Yards.
Several notable buildings can be seen in the image. Closer to the Yarra, are the viaduct and the Flinders Street Fish Market, which would be demolished before the decade ended. On the far top-right corner of the railway yards is the gasometer of the Melbourne Gas Station, which had been providing energy to Melburnians for almost 100 years. The longest shed in the yard is likely the No. 2 Goods Shed, one of the few structures from the yards that survives today.
Spencer Street Station was opened on January 13, 1859 with the first train from Melbourne to Williamstown. By the 1950s it was a major hub for both passengers and freight. According to the 1953 yearly report for the Victorian Railways (Victoria’s rail authority until 1983) more than nine million tonnes of goods and livestock were hauled into the railway yards during the year ending June 30, 1953. Passenger traffic for country journeys totalled more than 7.8 million and traffic for suburban journeys was just shy of 155 million. They would have included nine-to-five workers rushing to their office jobs, tourists visiting the city, families seeing relatives in the country, football fans eager to spend a Saturday arvo at Corio Oval, Victoria Park or Windy Hill, or punters going to the races at Flemington. Generally, many of the suburban and country trains stopped at the platforms closer to Spencer St. The other railway lines on the right of photograph were used for freight and cargo, either to deliver items to the docks, or to send imports across the state.
Unseen in the photograph is the subway tunnel that helped passengers get from Platforms 11 to 14 to the exit. The railways had been electrified in the 1920s and the majority of the state’s rail was the wide 5 foot 3 inch gauge, while other states varied. Passengers for Sydney would take a four-hour trip to Albury aboard the steam (later diesel) locomotive, Spirit of Progress, before switching to the New South Wales train that ran along the standard four foot eight-and-a-half-inch gauge for the rest of the journey. Even then, Spencer Street Station was always in the shadow of its older, more glamourous sister at Flinders St.
A constant complaint about Spencer St at the time was that it was seen as an aging eyesore in an ever-modernising city, especially as there hadn’t been a major overhaul to the main building in decades. The Herald in 1946 (September 20), described the place as “a terminal point of ugliness”. By 1953 the same newspaper (October 2) poked fun, saying it provided “a great deal of antiquarian interest for those who wish to study the austerities of travel known to our grandparents”, and that its “repairs and patchwork additions have added to the stark untidiness of Spencer St”. Sometimes the harsh cold weather would get to passengers waiting for a train, with Polish migrant Marion Kurzepa being put on trial in 1956 after he was caught warming himself in the boiler room at 3.30am while waiting for his train to Sydney.
Geoffrey Tebbut of The Herald was an especially vocal critic of the station’s state. On October 1, 1953, he reported how despite the patient and kind workers, the station still resembled a scene from the Depression where arrivals and departures were recorded on a chalkboard and the No.1 Platform under its red corrugated iron roof was narrow, crowded and with “draughty and exposed benches”. The Minister of Transport, Mr Coleman, agreed with the sentiments, but (in a still familiar excuse) claimed that no one knew where the necessary funding would come from.
Modernisation came in the early 1960s, just as Victoria also finally relented and adopted the standard gauge for interstate lines. The station got its much-needed upgrade, a rectangular brick building replacing the old-fashioned timber and iron structure (though whether it was an aesthetic improvement is another question), and No.1 Platform was extended to 413 metres. It was still under construction when the Southern Aurora left Spencer St’s original platform on April 13, 1962, to become the first passenger train to ride from Melbourne to Sydney along the modified standard gauge track.
Since then the Spencer St yards have undergone many renovations, with the City Loop followed by the mid-2000s revamp that totally replaced the old building and seduced us with its famous waved roof. The revamp included all the mandatory modern bells and whistles – the shops and eateries – we need to ease our travel today. While that wavy roof makes aerial views like this one impossible, the next best things is a quick escalator ride from Collins St to the platforms to see the vista of the vast bustling railway •