Parts of the tunnels are flooded.
Parts of the tunnels are flooded. Beau Giles/CC BY 2.0

A century ago, city planners in Sydney, Australia, were working to create an underground rail system for the growing city. From the city’s center, the tunnels would extend out to the east, west, and south, connecting to the suburbs. Under the St. James Station, located in the central business district, there was meant to be a major hub.

But the plan was never completed. When the Depression swept through in the 1930s, part of the underground station had been built, but a couple of the planned tunnels were still at their stubby beginnings. Work stopped, and for decades the tunnels remained incomplete.

Now, though, the New South Wales government has a new plan for the St. James Tunnels. A year from now, the government is hoping to have a concrete proposal to transform them into a subterranean space for shopping, bars, and restaurants.

A visit to the tunnels in 2016.
A visit to the tunnels in 2016. Beau Giles/CC BY 2.0

The tunnels were never entirely abandoned. In the ‘30s, after it was clear they wouldn’t be running trains there any time soon, the government leased the space to a mushroom farmer for a short-lived experiment in underground farming. During World War II, the tunnels were converted into an air raid shelter and an operations base for the Royal Australian Air Force. (The air quality down there was so bad, though, that workers would only spend six hours at a time beneath the surface.) In later years, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation installed a bell in the tunnels that it used to produce unusual sounds, including a facsimile of Big Ben’s chime. The tunnels have also been a set for movies and television shows.

The tunnels never actually went anywhere.
The tunnels never actually went anywhere. Beau Giles/CC BY 2.0

For many years, the tunnels were also a destination for city explorers. The walls are covered with graffiti dating from World War II up to the present. One tunnel flooded long ago and was reportedly a decent place to swim.

A particularly elaborate graffiti spot.
A particularly elaborate graffiti spot. Beau Giles/CC BY 2.0

The local government, though, has realized the potential of a space like this one. “Around the world, hidden spaces are being converted into unique experiences and we want St James Station to be part of that,” NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance told the Australian Broadcast Corporation. Let’s just hope the air quality in the converted spaced is better than it was in World War II.