A cropped panoramic view of Flinders Street Station in 1908 during construction of the current station building. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Flinders Street station, 1885. Photo: Monovisions. This photo is now in the public domain.
Flinders Street Station
24 January 2022
Flinders Street station is one of Melbourne’s best-known landmarks. The imposing Federation Free Classical building opened in 1910 with 11 through platforms. For generations of locals ‘meeting under the clock’ has made Flinders Street Station a landmark of cultural significance. The external fabric was upgraded in 1985 and the customer service facilities have been modernised in recent years. Flinders Street is the busiest railway station in Australia. The façade of the station building is the longest in Australia, stretching more than a city block from Swanston Street to Elizabeth Street.
Melbourne’s first railway terminus was first used by trains on 12 September 1854 when the railway between Melbourne and Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) was officially opened. Public services began the following day. The railway was Australia’s first steam-powered railway and was operated by the Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Company. A station in the city was built in Flinders Street, near the end of Elizabeth Street. The original name of the station was Melbourne Terminus. It had a single platform of no longer than 30 metres in length, and a simple timber building. From 13 May 1857 the station also serviced the line to St Kilda.
An additional platform, along with overhead bridges and ramps to provide access, were added to the station in 1877. More buildings and a telegraph station were opened in 1879. During the 1880s there was rapid development in the city of Melbourne and expansion of the railways to the city’s suburban areas. As railway traffic increased so did the demand for larger facilities at the terminus. Tenders were called in 1881 for a new and expanded booking office. By the end of the 1880s facilities at Flinders Street included licenced bars, a book stall, a fruit and confectionary shop, and staff accommodation.
On 8 February 1859 a new station across Swanston Street was opened by the Melbourne & Suburban Railway Company. The new station was called Prince’s Bridge. Services from Prince’s Bridge initially operated to Punt Road in Richmond, and from 1861 to Hawthorn. In 1865 the Melbourne Terminus station was connected with Prince’s Bridge station by excavating two culverts underneath Swanston Street. Following the completion of these works Prince’s Bridge station was closed and the Melbourne Terminus station serviced all trains. Prince’s Bridge station re-opened on 2 April 1879 to become the Melbourne city terminus of the Gippsland line.
The Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Company operated services from the opening of the Melbourne Terminus station. In 1865 the Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Company amalgamated with the Melbourne Railway Company to become the Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay United Railway Company. On 1 July 1878 Victorian Railways acquired the company and became responsible for Melbourne Terminus station. The name Flinders Street came into usage from about 1878 with the need to distinguish it from the other Victorian Railways city terminus in Melbourne, which was eventually officially known as Spencer Street. There were several references to Flinders Street station in newspapers in 1878, with at least one recorded in 1861. It seems likely that in its early years the station was referred to by many members of the public as Flinders Street station, well before that name came into official usage.
The station continued to grow and during the 1880s consideration was given to construction of a Melbourne central railway station, but no progress was made at the time. A viaduct connecting Flinders Street station with Spencer Street station was opened in 1891. Initially it only serviced goods trains, until passenger trains from Williamstown and Essendon began operating beyond Spencer Street and across the viaduct to Flinders Street on 17 December 1894.
New station building
During the 1890s the need for much more substantial facilities at Flinders Street was recognised. Three additional platforms were added in 1890 but further expansion did not proceed at the time. In 1899 the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways specified some features for the new station to be constructed on the site, and a competition was held for the design of the station façade and platform connections. The winning design was submitted by James Fawcett and HPC Ashworth, two employees of the Victorian Railways. Fawcett was an architect and Ashworth was a civil engineer. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways recommended that the winning design proceed, with some modifications in the materials used. The total cost estimated for the station and yard was £265,061.
Fawcett and Ashworth received £500 for their winning entry. They described the design as “French Renaissance in a free manner”. Their design featured the main entrance to the station at the corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street. The entrance was topped by a dome, and led to the booking hall and ticket checking hall through large arches. A ramp was provided from the entrance to the country platform. The inquiry office was located under the dome near the station entrance, accessible to passengers inside the station and outside. A cloak room was also accessible from inside and outside the station. Dining and refreshment rooms, toilets and three shops were provided. A series of offices ran along the length of Flinders Street from Swanston Street to Queen Street.
In 1900 the number of passengers using the Prince’s Bridge and Flinders Street stations was around 90,000 each day. The amalgamation of these stations would result in over 30,000,000 passengers per year, and this figure was expected to continue growing. It was important that a new station be built to meet the growing demand.
Preparatory work on the new station began in 1901, but in 1904 the Railway Commissioners made alterations to Fawcett and Ashworth’s design, including a basement from the western entrance to the central entrance, individual platform roofs instead of a large vaulted roof, provision for 20 shops in the basement and ground floor, and a fourth story to increase the amount of office space. The fourth floor would also provide facilities for the Victorian Railway Institute. On 23 September 1905 a contract was signed with builder Peter Rodgers to construct the building. Progress was slow and by May 1908 Victorian Railways had become dissatisfied with the slow rate of work. One of the difficulties that Rodgers faced was frequent changes to plans made by Victorian Railways. Nevertheless, on 15 August Rodgers was dismissed and the Victorian Railways Commissioners directed the completion of the project. A construction team was formed using day labourers from the Way and Works branch. Most of the station building had been completed by around the middle of 1909. Work continued and on 22 January 1910 the Railway Institute premises on the fourth floor of the new Flinders Street station building were officially opened. Some work on the station continued after this time but it appears that no other official opening of the station occurred. The opening of the new station is generally accepted as 1910.
A major test for Flinders Street station came in 1908 with the visit of the United States ‘Great White Fleet’, consisting of 16 battleships. The fleet was in Melbourne from 29 August to 4 September, resulting in extremely heavy passenger traffic on the railways, particularly Melbourne suburban lines. On 31 August 1908 a total of 507,870 passengers arrived at and departed from Flinders Street/Prince’s Bridge and Spencer Street stations. Over the course of the week of the Great White Fleet’s visit a total of 2,557,134 passengers arrived at and departed from the two main Melbourne stations. Although work on the new station was ongoing, the existing station was able to cope with the demand.
Ongoing growth and change
Flinders Street remained a busy station in the years before motor vehicles became affordable for most people. A count of the number of trains passing through Flinders Street station on one day in 1913 recorded 1377 passenger trains and 114 goods trains, as well as 176 engine movements.
Electrification of Melbourne’s railway network brought significant changes to the operation of Flinders Street station. The first section of Victorian Railways to be electrified was officially opened between Essendon and Sandringham on 28 May 1919. Electrification of other lines proceeded quickly over the following years, and the smoke and noise of steam trains was replaced by electric trains. Electric overhead wiring was installed at all platforms at Flinders Street, and there was some rearrangement of lines as part of the electrification work.
By 1922 over 1500 passenger and goods trains were passing through each Flinders Street Station weekday, and at least 200,000 passengers arrived at or departed from the station each weekday. It was reported to be the busiest railway station in the world. As Melbourne continued to grow, passenger numbers increased. In 1931 Victorian Railways reported the average weekday passenger numbers as 241,139.
Various improvements were made to the station over the years, including the Degraves Street subway, which was opened in November 1954. In May 1964 work began on lowering Prince’s Bridge station platform and connecting it with Platform No. 1 at Flinders Street. This resulted in a platform that was 2322 feet long (707.7 metres), one of the longest in the world. The project was completed on 28 March 1966. The three platforms at Prince’s Bridge were incorporated into Flinders Street station in 1980, becoming platforms 14, 15 and 16.
Meeting ‘under the clocks’ has been a Melbourne custom for generations. People wanting to arrange a convenient meeting point in the city centre would typically meet under the clocks at the main entrance to Flinders Street station, on the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets. The clocks were a series of analogue clocks indicating the time that the next train on the various lines would depart. A number of clocks were reportedly purchased in the 1860s and installed at Flinders Street, Spencer Street, Richmond and South Yarra stations. Spare clocks were kept at Spotswood depot in case they were required for replacements or repairs. The clocks at Flinders Street were put in storage when the old station buildings were being demolished in 1904. When the station was completed in 1910, 28 clocks were returned to Flinders Street and installed in the new station building.
The clocks at Flinders Street were changed manually until 1983. A station attendant used a long pole to turn the hands to show the time the next train departed for each line, and would also change station stopping signs if required. During peak hours it was a very busy job, and over an eight-hour shift the clocks would be changed on average 900 times. People meeting ‘under the clocks’ referred to the clocks at the main entrance of Flinders Street station, but there were also clocks at the entrances at the southern archway, Elizabeth Street and Degraves Street. The only clocks remaining are those at the main entrance.
A $7 million refurbishment from 1983 included providing an open concourse on the Swanston Street side, installing escalators to replace ramps, as well as new shops and offices. As part of the refurbishment it was proposed that the clocks be replaced with digital displays. The analogue clocks were removed, but following significant public opposition it was decided that the clocks would be returned. However, upon return they were controlled by a computer and no longer require manual changing. Digital displays were installed at the other entrances to the station.
Construction of an underground rail loop in Melbourne had been recommended since 1929. The idea became stronger in the 1960s with increasing congestion at Flinders Street, which served 90 per cent of all rail passengers travelling to the city. In 1971 the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Authority was created to facilitate the project. The work was a major engineering task that took longer to complete than anticipated.
Museum station (since renamed Melbourne Central) was officially opened on 24 January 1981, along with Burnley and Caulfield loops. Passenger services commenced on 26 January. Further loops were completed and the other two underground stations were opened, with Parliament opening on 22 January 1983 and Flagstaff on 27 May 1985. As a result of the City Loop completion, congestion at Flinders Street station was substantially reduced. Passengers now had three other city stations to join trains, alleviating much of the crowding at Flinders Street station.
More refurbishment work commenced in 1997 in conjunction with the Federation Square development, across Swanston Street from Flinders Street station. Platforms 15 and 16 were demolished and other platforms were reallocated, with country trains using platform 1 instead of platform 10. Federation Square was opened on 26 October 2002. Platform 11 became disused in 1987 with the conversion of the Port Melbourne railway line to a light rail line. In 2014 the former platform 11 was converted to a restaurant and bar.
Flinders Street station today has 13 platforms, numbered 1 to 10 and 12 to 14. Other upgrades to the station have continued to occur. In February 2015 the Victorian Government announced a $100 million refurbishment to upgrade public facilities and restore the building’s exterior. Work continued for several years.
Flinders Street Railway Station Complex is listed on the Victorian Heritage Database. Since the current station building opened in 1910 it has remained generally intact despite a number of refurbishments, particularly of concourse areas. The station is recognised for its historical, architectural, aesthetic and social significance.
Davies, J, Behind the façade: Flinders Street, more than just a railway station, Publishing Solutions, Mount Macedon, 2008.
Fiddian, M, Flinders Street station: Melbourne’s Taj Mahal, Galaxy, Melbourne, 2003.
‘Flinders Street railway station’, Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flinders_Street_railway_station>.
Heritage Council Victoria, Flinders Street railway station complex, Melbourne, 2015.
‘Melbourne and Suburban Railway Company’, The Herald, 1 March 1861, p. 6.
‘Melbourne rail terminals’, Railways of Australia Network, vol. 2, no. 18, November 1965, p. 3.
Report from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways on the proposed Central railway station at Flinders-Street; together with the
appendices and minutes of evidence, Legislative Assembly, Melbourne, 1900.
‘Suicide at the Flinders Street railway station’, Australasian, 18 May 1878, p. 5.
Victorian Railways, Report of the Board of Land and Works for the year ending 31st December 1881, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1881.
Victorian Railways, Report of the Victorian Railways Commissioners for the financial year ending 30th June 1909, Government Printer, Melbourne,
Winter, VA, The V.R. and VicRail 1962–1983, Vincent Adams Winter, Melbourne, 1990.
‘World’s busiest station: Flinders Street daily record', The Argus, 11 January 1922, p. 15.
Flinders Street station at the intersection of Swanston Street. Flinders Street runs from the bottom left to the top right of the photo. The photo was taken at the end of a workday at 12.20 pm on a Saturday in 1927. Photo: State Transport Authority, Wikimedia Commons. This image is now in the public domain because copyright has expired.
W8 Class tram 957, outside Flinders Street station, Melbourne, 14 January 2017.