Hey you! listen .... stop believing the bullshit about Metros

That table is from Bradfield's 1915 Report, Baird/Turnbull and the Daily telegraph distorted his memory

Ghosts are summoned up here, Baird and Turnbull, making historical misstatements as Turnbull did also with the Eastern Suburbs trams.  

The page on Bairdijiklian Big Lies carries the rest of the real data on transit capacities - showing that the Metros have failed to this point and must now be paused.  The Museum of Sydney's Shooting Through exhibition and book from April to October 2009 was also strangely defective, reflecting the societal blindspots which inhibit policy clarity - see the foot of this page for the explanation.

There was an unprecedented outburst of panegyrics in honour of John Job Crew Bradfield in recent Murdoch media. His spirit was called down on this city to justify the exact opposite of what he strove for through his lantern slide shows in CWA halls across Sydney. He had become the God of Metros in his absence. 

The true leaders of that generation, Thomas Hughes, Jack Fitzgerald and John Sulman among others, were not mentioned (indeed, unlikely to be understand by today’s Gen-Ys). 

The impression was that Bradfield’s “brand” was a way of legitimising the current Metro and urban densification programs that are proceeding apace, without fore-planning, when the ancestors’ methodology was vastly superior to those.

This page is about inspiration, logic, good organisation and community inspiration. 

How this distortion happened is an interesting story in itself. Then there was democracy, the introduction of land tax to fuel civic improvements, and genuine community engagement in choosing and pushing “visions”. 

Today’s system of non-elected apparatchiks nesting with commercial lobbies, relying on under-skilled national and state politicians being gullible and engagement absent, is so radically different to his.  

Bradfield is said (wrongly) to have designed the Harbour Bridge for future generations of swarming motorists. In capacity and community terms, that was how the Railways men thought, Bradfield included, the Bridge being birthed as a Railways project, but he was relatively late on the scene and it is that generation’s magnificent legacy of rail works that the current generation of economic rationalists are undermining through the cannibalising Metros. 

The current neo-rationalists’ legacy will be remembered as being inept or worse. They tell us that population growth requires great investment, but their thought-bubbles will produce fewer passenger seats, not more. They say that housing affordability needs cranes above metro-aligned high-rise buildings; when that axial densification raises unit prices and produces spot and axial congestion across wider housings basins.

Sydney does not remember its history and the rationalists have not understood Bradfield’s generation: in misstating it they give us the opportunity to set out a better, wiser and older, way of doing things. 

That way  is the opposite of the contemporary Sydney reality where successive Audit Commissions have found that some infrastructure projects, with Transport meriting first remedial attention, had beenpursued for their own sake with little consideration to their objectives or the outcomes they actually deliver”. To continue the earlier quote from the Planning Institute of Australia in 2009,

  • Ad hoc, project-by-project decision-making does not constitute planning, and could pre-empt the best transport solution. Decisions significantly affecting the development of Sydney, such as on the Metro projects, cannot be made without an overall long-term metropolitan plan. Sydney is too important.

Or as Infrastructure Australia put it in 2016 and previously, and as confirmed by the National Audit Office in the case of the make-it-up-as-you-go WestConnex project,

  • instances of poor project selection and weak governance continue to occur. Recent history shows governments committing to investments before completing long-term planning or rigorous economic analysis; favouring large ‘iconic’ projects over smaller, often higher value, investments; and not releasing the full business case for multi-billion dollar projects . In addition, a lack of transparency and genuine community engagement has undercut public confidence in governments’ ability to make the best investment decisions. This makes it harder to build community support for future investments and complex reforms that will be required to meet Australia’s infrastructure needs.

That is the Metro mess in a nutshell and it was never Bradfield’s style.

A somewhat related misstatement occurred when two ministers claimed that the Cumberland County Scheme validated the Government’s WestConnex program as well as containing the metro lines. What balderdash – was that a misunderstanding or a deliberate deceit? 

The memories

The Daily Telegraph sponsors annual series of Bradfield Orations, 2015’s being the first [check]. These are published in reduced form, so we are told. The 2015 series included the following thoughts, several of which are relevant to the Metros:

Prime Minister Turnbull quoting the Premier:

  • “We rightly think about Bradfield’s era as a transformative time for Sydney, but I believe right now we are entering an equally exciting era that will also mark the pages of history,” Mr Baird said last night. “Like Bradfield, we must focus on the future. We cannot be left behind.”

The Premier (Baird):

  • John Bradfield was a man ahead of his time, a visionary who built a bridge that still serves modern needs and is an enduring symbol of our city. History speaks loudly of his forethought and innovation in building the bridge that would unite our shores. We know of his modern planning when envisioning a city of the future and we know of his innovative thinking that formed the shape of the city we live in today.
  • Today Sydney is a very different place from the city Bradfield steered us towards. But we can see parallels: Bradfield faced a population boom and public transport challenges. And he also faced opposition. 
  • It is rare that anything significant comes easily, particularly when it comes to city planning. Big projects will face resistance every step of the way, but they are exactly what we need to put this city ahead of the curve. We rightly think about Bradfield’s era as a transformative time for Sydney but we are entering an equally ‐ exciting era that will also mark the pages of history.
  • The state is buzzing again and that doesn’t come by chance. We have key projects that are no longer concepts or blueprints. There are cranes in the sky and shovels in the ground and we are hitting milestones on a regular basis. You don’t get that kind of progress without disruption, or headlines, but we will march on and not apologise or back away.
  • Like Bradfield, we must focus on the future. We cannot be left behind. But great change can be watered down with time and inaction and fear. John Bradfield knew this all too well and we can learn from his experiences.
  • I truly believe in the greatness of Sydney as a global city but to stay first class we must keep focused on the future needs of our people and our economy — just as John Bradfield did.
  • But it was a bridge that very nearly didn’t happen…. Because the arches were built before the carriageway, there was community backlash and confusion about how people were going to get their horses and carts across. Controversy continued to dog the design until the end, when Francis de Groot charged through the official ceremony on his horse and slashed the ribbon with his sword before premier Jack Lang was able to officially open what today has become a Sydney icon.


The Bradfield Oration also saw the awarding of a scholarship to engineering student Caitlin Hanrahan, who took the opportunity to propose a revolutionary ‘central living district’ strategy intended to de-centralise the CBD. Her vision calls for high-density hubs spread throughout greater Sydney, linked by an underground ‘tube’ network intended to reduce travel times and car dependence. This would pass no BBQ test.

A few points can be made in response:

The PM is wise in his choice of words, leadership is needed, not policy mavericks as we have, second-raters through the engineering, planning and financial ranks.

The Premier seems to think that

  • Bradfield built the Bridge which is an historical misstatement: Dorman Long designed and built the Bridge, the main designing phase started before Bradfield appeared (in fact in 1908 through eminent engineers), and the Bridge does not meet modern needs because governments took away two tram lines which would provide the capacity the trains now need – and the Government has not had the wit to assess this or any of the many other options. The Bridge is there but governments are deficient
  • The Bridge faced challenges but these had nothing to do with the Bridge, also would the Premier be able to inform us, without going back to other historians or past documents, whether the Communication with North Sydney Royal Commission’s recommendation in 1909 for a tunnel was superior to the Bridge option? Does he know we have a Bridge because of slum clearance, same as with Wentworth Avenue. The Premier’s knowledge of history seems to need refreshment
  • Forethought and innovation are not welcomed nowadays, with the cranes on the move, with criticism being whingeing.  On the contrary, Constitutional and Treasury guidelines and all good sense dictates that debates must be held, in Parliament and the community, being well-informed with options and scenarios all documented and analysed, not taking as long as the gestation of the Bridge did but more than the conspiracy that saw the Metros emerge for a single lobby’s corner of the world
  • “World class” will come from policy slop (after the criticisms of iAust under the great Sir Rod Eddington), dilution of Performance Indicators, imposing taxes on property owners in all growth areas without regard to practicality, equity, efficiency or yield, and cannibalising the world-class “Bradfield era” rail stations, lines and other assets, including after his father as Transport Minister built the Airport Rail Link (which failed within 6 months) as the first to evade the great flyovers north of Redfern. What we have is a world-class disgrace. The metros will introduce a modern form of “dual gauges” and destroy the effectiveness of many other parts of the “Bradfield” legacy. 

NOTE Bradfield’s address to the Railway Electrification Conference in 1926 was on those flyovers which he was very proud of.


Planning Minister Rob Stokes pondered how to “Prioritise planning and avoid the mistakes of the past” in October 2015:

  • The need for an independent body to develop a unified plan for Sydney has been identified since at least the 1890s. Each time it was thwarted by opposition from local government.
  • These plans, now largely forgotten, have exerted extraordinary influence over the way our city has developed. The Cumberland scheme maps the route of our orbital motorways, and envisaged the growth of regional centres like Parramatta and Liverpool. Road projects like the NorthConnex and WestConnex, rail projects like the Sydney metro are all reflected in the Cumberland Plan. While both plans had great vision, they lacked the capacity to deliver.  The Cumberland Plan was prepared by local government politicians who had no authority to dictate the decisions of state government agencies 

The essence – that those who don’t understand history are bound to repeat its mistakes – is eternal, but the application is suspect. The search for an “independent body” did not start in the 1890s: the Greater Sydney movement did and it would have rejected that notion outright as part of the evil of statutory authorities. Its proponents wanted a metropolitan government to supplant the State one. The Cities Extension Bill of November 1906 added the co-option of “eminent persons” to the aldermanic debating ranks but it failed. 

Professor Peden included the “expert” theme in his several cycles of thinking, much later; and while Mr Stokes’ dismissal of the Sydney Region Outline Plan as being prepared by officials who were detached from communities is a tad harsh, the point is that SROP was a non-interventionist, laissez-faire model whereas the CCC was interventionist.

There is the nub of the issue. The Cumberland Country Council worked extremely closely with water and sewerage, roads and railways, and health and related “experts” in statutory bodies that had commenced in 1880, 1924 and so on. It was subject to ministerial control. There was a statutory Town and Country Planning Advisory Committee comprising an architect, an engineer and a surveyor each nominated by the relevant professional association, an officer of the Department of Local Government, an alderman nominated by the Local Government Association, and two representatives of the Minister. 

The lack of capacity to deliver was largely financial: the Commonwealth gave no relief from Just Terms compensation for transport and other reservations, so the reservations became impossible.

All sides saw the merits of the “Green Belt” that would corral speculative land development. It did and that was its downfall from 1959. The developers won.

Did the County Plan contain or point to WestConnex or a Metro? Of course not. It contained broad indications of where county roads would align but they were constrained by the Green Belt and the Just Terms clauses of the Constitution. Some commentators remember rail links that do not appear on the plan, strange that. 

The then Department of Main Roads’ contribution was a landmark publication and Sydney Water was massively committed, and assisted in its backlog program. 

There was widespread respect for the team which produced the Strategy in the three-year timeframe, by 1948. It set up a centres policy, published a unique study of the economics of urban growth and provided a framework for private sector contributions to public infrastructure. All were of lasting significance. The Strategy designated “centres” for the first time – a matter that has wobbled around in planning documents ever since (with specific centres appearing and disappearing from endorsed lists).  

Premier Cahill legislated a Transport and Highways Commission in 1950 (which stuttered on until his death in 1952) in order to implement the critical element, an integrated transport strategy. Funds were not available and the statutory bodies were not committed so this experiment failed; and only occasionally and briefly later were the transport, ports and roads streams even under one Minister. The Sydney Area Transportation Plan was the flowering of “expert” planning; but the Second URTAC Report of 1976 superimposed pragmatism over idealism.

Those same themes were repeated many times since, including by Professor Peter Wilenski, and continue still. That is a lesson that Sydney has not learnt. WestConnex is a very Roads matter and the Metro has nothing to do with congestion reduction. Both are lacking the shared vision thing.

Current realities

Almost everything good about the Bradfield era is directly opposite to what the NSW Government is doing. 

The land releases across Sydney without demand and supply analyses, the involvement of a HK operator which provided questionable data to iNSW and is seeking to vertically expand its operations into land banking as it does in China, the “black box” thinking and lack of foresight in placing routes and stations, the lack of realisation our platforms are curved, the lack of Treasury and other costings, the lack of sustainable financing, the apparent lack of full observance of the Environmental Planning & Assessment and other Acts, the lack of acceptance of Audit Commission recommendations, and the obfuscation of communities through what ResPublica calls “pointless consultation”, would horrify Sir Tom Hughes, JD Fitzgerald and John Bradfield.

Moreover, the Government is wasting some $10,000,000,000 or more of the hard-won proceeds of electricity privatisation and undermining the ability of future generations to fix this one’s mistakes. There is no chance that the Greater Sydney Commission will be able to influence land use and infrastructure planning if this disorganised approach to transport and housing supply continues. While not explained here (see The Bays section), the Premier’s and Minister for Planning’s overriding of promises made to The Bays communities just a week after they had been made in good faith presages a continuation of confused governance.

The Audit Commissions’ call, that projects are “pursued for their own sake with little consideration to their objectives or the outcomes they actually deliver”, rings so true.

"Shooting Through"

These notes are as they were circulated in October 2009.  They pre-dated the decision to bring trams back to George St and the prediction then, as previously, was confirmed by subsequent experience.

It has been said that Americans are far more aware of their national history than we Australians are of ours'. What especially annoys me is my fellow Sydneysiders' lack of understanding of our city's history.

The first example is the Shooting Through exhibition of tram history at the Museum of Sydney (MOS). What does "shooting through like a Bondi tram" mean? They posited an unlikely answer then two sets of callers-in on ABC's Radio 702 failed when the lines were open on this topic. Why did Sydney remove its tram networks? MOS gave the wrong reason - not slightly wrong, profoundly wrong. Then the head of the Metro Agency's statements that we don't have a metro. This is just a start.

When did electric trams start? MOS - 1893 as signposted on the tram outside their premises. The actual was 1890, experimental from Waverley to Randwick, moved in 1893, full-blown 1899 (Pyrmont-powered), growing to a magnificent network with great engineering challenges, Sydney is much more hilly than Melbourne with more spectacular accidents. 

There had been an insignificant experiment in the late 1880s.

Why did we get rid of trams? 

MOS said conspiracy! - petrol interests. Actual - calls for their removal from city streets came from the 1890s on the grounds of safety, congestion and low capacity, with trains being much preferred - inspired by the London Underground and Paris Metros. We built the electric railways which opened from 1926, and this was our equivalent of the Paris Metro of 1900. Bus competition started, they were "feeders" to the railways in many suburban cases. Tram patronage plummeted in the 1930s but trams were saved by oil shortages during and after the World War. Then patronage collapsed again.

What the MOS and the Sydney Lord Mayor do not know is that two official reports around 1930* recommended that trams be removed to the suburbs as "feeders" to the railways, which would have been a Zurich-like move, not abandoned (at least until the system was beyond hope). The failure to move them was the single worst decision in Sydney's transport history - until the CBD Metro reared its ugly head.

MOS said "shooting through" related generically to steam trams' speed along Oxford Street. Radio callers-in referred to the tram reservation at Moore Park and Paddington trams. 

There were three real meanings of "shooting through". In order of increasing probability, 

  • horse-drawn trams raced to compete with steam trams in the 1870s but it seems that the term did not have currency then. 
  • in 1884 the steam line from Tea Gardens (Bondi Junction) to Bondi Road (at Denham Street) opened with priority at crossings over Waverley and Woollahra trams, sometimes reaching 80 kmh. 
  • in 1902 electric services to Bondi started, passing under Bondi Road coming from Denham Street (where Johnny O'Keeffe later lived). Their downhill speed on that curve (especially after the track was lowered under the bridge because of the early inadequate clearance) is the true modern explanation according to this child of Campbell Parade in the 1950s. This has been the dominant newspaper reference since.

Tram wires hung from heritage building and multitudes of poles. Their rails were "bicycle killers". Nonetheless not moving them into the suburbs was a colossal mistake, just as reintroducing them in the Sydney CBD would be most contentious. 

As I wrote in "Fall of the Giant:  trans versus trains and buses 1900 to 1961" in G. Wotherspoon (ed.), Sydney's Transport, memories of trams were embossed and overlaid with roses.  Citizens of 1900 would be astonished at the naivety of current "decision-makers".

 * Also the 1909 Report of the Royal Commission on the Improvement of Sydney.