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Load-testing of Sydney Harbour Bridge when fifty steam locos were run on the western side, February 1932. Photo: Ted Hood, State Library of NSW Collection, DG ON4/2956.

John Bradfield riding locomotive 1905 on the first train across the bridge, 19 January 1932. Photo: State Records NSW Flickr collection.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

David Matheson

25 July 2020

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of Australia’s icons, and is recognised round the world. It extends a total of 1149 metres from the central business district on the southern side of Sydney Harbour, to Milsons Point and North Sydney on the northern side. Its arch has a span of 503 metres and its top is 134 metres above mean sea level, making it the tallest steel arch span bridge in the world. Construction of the bridge commenced in 1923 and it was officially opened on 19 March 1932.


Australian engineer Dr John Bradfield (1867–1943) was responsible for the overall design of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, although others were involved in the detailed design work. Bradfield began working for the New South Wales Department of Public Works in 1891. In addition to his involvement with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Bradfield also prepared plans for the construction of underground railways through the city and the electrification of Sydney’s suburban railway network.


Before the bridge

Prior to the opening of the bridge numerous ferries carried passengers across the harbour between Circular Quay and Milsons Point. It is still possible to catch a ferry between these two locations, but the number of passengers is small compared to those using the bridge. The railway from Hornsby reached Milsons Point in 1893, where the station was located adjacent to the harbour and easy connections with ferries could be made. In 1924 the station was relocated further north to enable construction work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge to use the site. The current Milsons Point station is on the approach to the bridge and was opened with the bridge in 1932.


Construction of the bridge was an enormous undertaking, which involved 1400 workers, and a large part of the work was completed during the years of the Great Depression. It cost over 10 million pounds, used 52,800 tonnes of steel, 6,000,000 rivets and 272,000 litres of paint. The first train to cross the bridge ran on 19 January 1932. Steam locomotive 1905 hauled two vans across the bridge from north to south, and then returned. The train was crewed by driver Dan Currie, fireman Harry Blackwell, and guard Roy Howe. On board were various engineers and officials who had been involved with the design and construction of the bridge, including Dr John Bradfield and his wife. The train was also used to test the expansion joints on the track. Locomotive 1905 entered service in 1877 as 93 Class locomotive No.  97. It was renumbered as Z19 Class engine number 1905 in 1924. Today it is preserved at the NSW Rail Museum in Thirlmere, New South Wales.


Testing the bridge

During February 1932, prior to the opening of the bridge, load testing was carried out using old steam locomotives. Most of the locomotives were out of service and had been in storage as a consequence of a downturn in traffic during the Great Depression. Many of the stored engines no longer had tenders attached. The engines were towed by working engines from storage at Enfield to Hornsby, and then to No. 1 Construction Siding, which was on the approach to the bridge. They were moved from 13 to 25 January. Testing commenced on 4 February when four locomotives were placed on each of the four tracks that had been built on the bridge. The testing was conducted over a number of weeks with various measurements taken. One test involved locomotives being left on the western tracks for eight days. Different sources give varying figures for the number of locomotives used in the testing, with some reporting 92 and others saying 96. Keenan says that the largest test was undertaken using 96 locomotives and 48 tenders, with a combined weight of 8280 tons (8413 tonnes). Locomotives were spragged and a section of rail had been removed to prevent runaways. During testing the maximum load was well over the bridge’s design loading, but the deflection of the bridge was only 3¾ inches (9.5 cm). The numbers of 92 of the locomotives used during testing have been recorded:

Z24 Class: 2404, 2405, 2416, 2422, 2424 (5)

Z25 Class: 2503, 2506, 2513, 2516, 2519, 2522, 2523, 2524, 2527, 2529, 2536, 2539, 2542, 2546, 2549, 2555, 2559, 2562, 2563 (19)

D50 Class: 5001, 5014, 5105, 5017, 5019, 5022, 5023, 5025, 5030, 5066, 5067, 5069, 5071, 5074, 5075, 5076, 5080, 5083, 5087, 5090, 5093, 5096, 5097, 5099 5106, 5107, 5109, 5111, 5113, 5114, 5123, 5124, 5128, 5132, 5136, 5137, 5140, 5143, 5145, 5160, 5164, 5165, 5166, 5168, 5173, 5174, 5175, 5182, 5184, 5188, 5189, 5190, 5196, 5197, 5200, 5201, 5202, 5205 (58)

D53 Class: 5302, 5306, 5310, 5314, 5317, 5328, 5334, 5335, 5358, 5360 (10)


In addition to load testing, a number of work trains operated to install the overhead electric wiring and carry out other tasks to ensure the railway and tramway lines were ready for operation. Following the completion of load testing, the tracks on the eastern side were disconnected from the railway network and connected to the tramway network. For the next 26 years trams used the eastern tracks across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.


The first tram on the bridge operated on 9 March when O Class cars 1106 and 1212 were driven across by EA Wills. Numerous officials, including Dr Bradfield, were on board. On 11 March the first electric train crossed the bridge from Wynyard to North Sydney and return. The Minister from Works, Mr Mark Anthony Davidson, and various officials associated with the bridge travelled on the train. On 15 March an electric train ran from Wynyard to North Sydney to test the signals. Driver training occurred from 16 to 18 March, with 31 trains crossing the bridge twice on 16 March, and 64 trains crossing twice on 17 and 18 March.



The Sydney Harbour Bridge was officially opened on 19 March 1932 by the Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang. Prior to the opening, Captain Francis de Groot, a member of an organisation called the New Guard, which was opposed to Lang, rode up on a horse and slashed the ribbon with his sword, saying, “On behalf of decent citizens of New South Wales I now declare this bridge open.” De Groot was taken away by police and later fined for offensive behaviour. The ribbon was re-tied and then officially cut by Lang.


On the day of the opening an official train crossed the bridge led by power car C3426. The train had been decorated with flowers and bunting. It crossed the bridge slowly after the procession had passed out of sight, and then after a short pause on the north side, it returned more quickly. Car C3426 is preserved as part of Set F1, an historic electric train set which is operates special tours on occasions. Regular train services across the bridge commenced the following day.



Two railway tracks are laid across the bridge on the western side. Trains crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge negotiate steep gradients as they climb and then descend to the other side. From Wynyard the gradient through the tunnel towards the bridge is 1 in 30 (3.3%), and then 1 in 40 (2.5%) on the approach spans and to the crest of the grade on the bridge. It descends on a 1 in 40 (2.5%) gradient to Milsons Point, with a short section of 1 in 38 (2.6%) on the approach spans. Trains operate at an average frequency of one train every three minutes in each direction during peak hours, and one train every six minutes in each direction during off peak hours and on weekends.



In addition to the railway tracks on the western side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, from its opening there were also two tracks on the eastern side, which were used by trams. It had been planned that the lines on the eastern side would be used by a railway to Sydney’s northern beaches, but this never eventuated.


Sydney once had an extensive tramway network servicing numerous suburbs. Tramways on the north side of Sydney Harbour operated as a separate network that was isolated from the network on the southern side. Lines extended to McMahons Point, Milsons Point, Lane Cove, Chatswood, The Spit, Northbridge, Balmoral, Taronga Zoo, Neutral Bay, Cremorne and Athol. Manly also had a network of lines that were isolated from the lines on the southern side of the harbour and the North Sydney lines.


After the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, trams from North Sydney operated across the bridge to Wynyard in the central business district. A tram stop was located at Milsons Point on the northern approach to the bridge, opposite Milsons Point railway station. After crossing the bridge, trams travelling from North Sydney entered a tunnel, and then continued to an underground terminus at Wynyard station. There was no connection between the tramways on the northern side of the harbour and the network on the southern side, despite the tramway lines crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Trams operated across the bridge for 26 years from 1932 to 1958.


Coupled O Class trams 1347 and 1212 made the last trip from Wynyard terminus across the bridge. Coupled O Class trams 1212 and 1106 had been the first trams across the bridge when it opened, and it was specially arranged that 1212 would also be the last tram to cross the bridge. The trams departed Wynyard at 1.27 am in the early morning of 29 June 1958. Tram tracks across the bridge were subsequently removed and the space was converted to an additional two lanes of road called the Cahill Expressway. The tramway platforms at Wynyard had been numbered 1 and 2, while the railway platforms were numbered from 3 to 6. Following the closure of the tram terminus at Wynyard, the area previously used by trams became a car park and platforms 1 and 2 no longer existed. Today, more than 60 years after the Wynyard tramway terminus closed, the railway platforms at Wynyard retain the numbers 3 to 6 and there are no platforms numbered 1 and 2.


Visiting the Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Sydney Harbour Bridge can be experienced in different ways. Regular trains cross the bridge and provide excellent views of the bridge itself and the harbour below. For many visitors, however, the train journey is too fast. Other options are available to provide a better look at the bridge. A pedestrian pathway is located on the eastern side of the bridge and crosses at the same level as the railway and roadway. Access from the city end of the bridge is by the Bridge Stairs or a lift in Cumberland Street, The Rocks, and from the northern side access is by stairs or a lift near Milsons Point railway station. For cyclists there is a cycleway on the western side of the bridge. Access from the city is via Upper Fort Street, The Rocks, which is near Observatory Hill. Access on the northern side is from Burton Street, Milsons Point. Stairs must be negotiated at the Milsons Point end.


BridgeClimb operates guided tours, enabling participants to climb the bridge to the top of the arch. It is an adventure that has become very popular. Different prices apply for weekdays and weekends, and at different times of the day.


The Pylon Lookout is located within the south-east pylon of the bridge. Visitors climb 200 steps to the lookout, which provides views of the harbour, the bridge and the city. Also within the pylon is the Pylon Lookout Museum, featuring exhibits regarding the bridge’s construction and history. The Pylon Lookout can be accessed from the pedestrian pathway on the eastern side of the bridge.



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A train and a tram approach Milsons Point Station with the Sydney Harbour Bridge behind, 1 January 1935. Photo: Royal Australian Historical Society, Flickr collection.

Set A12 with a Hornsby service approaching Milsons Point station after crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 15 April 2019.

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