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St James Station Tunnels Show A World Beneath Sydney

06/10/2015 1:52 PM AEDT | Updated 02/08/2016 5:20 PM AEST
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Video by Tom Compagnoni

There's a world hidden under the streets of Sydney that nobody ever sees, that very few even know about. It's a world of tunnels and war, of movies and witchcraft, of tree roots and vandals, of dark and damp and dust. It's the station under the station, the city beneath the city, the lake below the streets.

Tony Eid, director of operations for Sydney Trains, unlocks a non-descript green door at St James Station, in the heart of the Sydney CBD and on the edge of Hyde Park.

It is an inauspicious start to a journey that takes us kilometres into the pitch black of a tunnel system whose history winds through both time and space. One step through and we're in a carbon-copy of the train platforms we've just left, but with one big difference -- no trains have ever pulled into this stop.

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The never-used St James platforms (Tom Compagnoni/HuffPost Australia)

A new train line and kilometres of underground tunnels were completed in the 1920s, meant to link St James with Bondi and Randwick. World War Two and the Great Depression meant plans to connect the new tunnels to existing major lines were shelved.

The tunnels, carved from solid earth and almost totally ready for trains to pass through, were never used officially by their creators. That doesn't mean, however, they haven't been used by others.

The tunnels were converted into bomb shelters during the war, with room for many thousands of Sydneysiders in the cavernous chambers. Eid said the several feet of solid concrete would have protected people from any possible bomb blast.

The unbreakable construction of the tunnels was also literally the reason they still remain to this day; Eid said the army tasked soldiers to destroy the tunnels after the war, but even sticks of dynamite thrown into holes drilled in the walls could not loosen the foundations of the tunnels.

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One of the tunnels converted into a bomb shelter during WWII (Tom Compagnoni/HuffPost Australia)

At several points through our tour, Eid points out small piles of shrapnel and grey dust -- the only results of the failed blasting operations.

Later, scrawled graffiti -- some more than 60 years old, some only very recent -- fills parts of the tunnel. Soldiers working in the tunnels during WWII, unsure if they would see their families again, daubed heartfelt notes to lovers and kin. Others simply left a permanent mark of their illegal trespass.

Eid said scenes from The Matrix Revolutions were filmed in the disused St James tunnels, while the famous subway station fight between Keanu Reeves' Neo and Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith were filmed in the operational parts of St James station.

Popular 1990s TV show Police Rescue also filmed inside the tunnels, as have a selection of music videos, independent films and other TV shows. Eid said emergency services also use the tunnels as a training ground, practising emergency responses and evacuations.

There have also been other unofficial uses for the disused sections of tunnel. Urban explorers and vandals regularly gain entry, leaving graffiti and litter in their wake. Most shocking, however, is one particular wall of graffiti -- two pentagrams and a black devilish figure holding an "all seeing eye" pyramid in one hand and a flaming heart in the other. Eid said the artwork was daubed by trespassers, who reportedly used the site for seances and other occult activity.

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Eid claimed this area was used for seances (Tom Compagnoni/HuffPost Australia)

Our tour concludes with the most impressive feature of the entire sprawling network; the "St James Lake." One kilometre long and five metres deep in some places, water seeped into this part of the tunnel and flooded it. A punctured inflatable raft and plastic canoe paddle lie on the shore of the lake, evidence of some explorers who made the trek recently.

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The St James "lake" (Tom Compagnoni/HuffPost Australia)

It is a stunning look back into the history of the city, but unfortunately not one many people get to see -- tours are no longer offered to the public.

This story was originally published on October 6, 2015.