Cutting-edge contemporary architecture meets gritty industrial heritage on the award-winning Goods Line: an old, disused rail corridor reincarnated as an elevated park and urban walkway.
What do you do with a defunct 19th-century site right in the heart of a growing metropolis whose real estate comes at an ever-increasing premium?
A little from column A, little from column B — whatever, just get rid of it, slate the site for redevelopment, knock up some luxury apartments, acquire massive profits, pick next target, rinse and repeat?
We all know the usual, default story.
But in Ultimo one abandoned rail line, long fallen into disrepair, was spared. And not only spared but — perhaps thanks to Sydney’s little-brother-like emulation of New York — earmarked for something new and different. A second life.
And so the Goods Line came to be. Just 800-odd metres in length, this walkway/cycleway connects Central Station and the surrounding student hub to the waterside dining and retail offerings of touristy Darling Harbour, plus Chinatown in between.
Linking landmarks: a semi-secret shortcut in central Sydney
When you consider how busy these corners of Sydney are, you’d expect the Goods Line — as an elevated walkway that links them up — to be also fairly packed, right? So far, though, it’s much quieter than the traffic-clogged streets below. At least for now, it seems to remain surprisingly off the beaten track.
But it’s no secret among design and architecture buffs. Since it opened in 2015, the Goods Line has swept up several industry awards.
In the words of its project design lead, ASPECT Studios:
This unique elevated park has seen a disused Rail Corridor running from Railway Square to Darling Harbour reimagined as a leafy, energised civic spine in the heart of Sydney’s most densely populated area.
And even if you haven’t come across the Goods Line itself, you may well have heard of its star attraction. The UTS’ Dr Chauk Chak Wing Building, designed by eminent architect Frank Gehry, is said to resemble a crumpled brown paper bag. In pictures it looks kinda zany. In the flesh it seems to defy all logic of construction, of form, of… inanimate objects. To me it looks like a building in motion — specifically, mid-bellydance undulation.*
Where’s the lie?
Now, time for an expectation-managing disclaimer: by all accounts it pales in comparison to the glories of New York’s High Line, clearly its source of inspiration. Short and wide where its forerunner is narrow and long,** the Goods Line is not exactly a thrilling, mind-blowing destination in and of itself (yet?). The whole thing takes like 10 to 20 minutes tops. Less if you walk fast (my people).
But it does make for an interesting walk near the heavy-hitting attractions of Chinatown, the Powerhouse Museum, and all the delights Darling Harbour has to offer, especially as a shortcut between them.
Especially if you know its backstory.
Railway remnants: the history of the Goods Line
As the name memorialises, the Goods Line was once a freight railway line. The first such line to open in NSW, in fact — this was literally one of Sydney’s first forays into the pioneering, newfangled 1850s fad that was the railway train. It was built at the same time as the first train line for passengers linking Sydney and Parramatta, and opened in 1855. As Margaret Simpson, Powerhouse Museum curator, put it:
The impetus for the State’s first railways wasn’t to carry people. It was for transporting the valuable wool clip from the interior to waiting clippers for shipment to the English textile mills; much more cost effective than the slow and expensive overland drays and wagons.
Tonnes of wheat, coal, meat and other produce and goods were also lugged from way out west to Darling Harbour — then, in another life, Sydney’s working port — ready to be shipped and sold right around the world.
It’s hard to imagine today but this now gentrified inner-city pocket of Ultimo, Darling Harbour and surrounds was once the beating heart of industrial Sydney. A blue-collar place of shipyards, mills, wool stores, wharves, power stations, gasworks and, of course, a bustling goods yard where the incoming freight trains winding through all the commotion would unload their cargo.
And the rich, 130-year industrial heritage of this major industrial artery lives on in more than name alone. The Goods Line features the eponymous still-surviving heritage rails preserved in concrete, an arched sandstone culvert (aka drain) and a historic underbridge. Plus a scattering of old mechanical devices, some of which were used to operate the railway points and signals here in its former railway life.*** Their rusted levers and spikes, then cutting-edge machinery of 19th-century industry, today stand along the walkway, reincarnated as modern art sculptures. With just a touch of steampunk.
All alongside the firmly 21st-century touches you’d expect of a semi-elevated ‘civic spine’ linear park/thoroughfare, thanks very much. Free WiFi, for instance, plus a ping pong table, outdoor gym equipment, study pods and a little amphitheatre for public performance, should you feel the need for an impromptu interpretive dance.
All in all, between the concrete, steel and gravel surfaces, and Gehry’s postmodern-ish bellydancer overlooking it all, the space feels a bit like a gritty, post-industrial urban playground — one that just happens to link up a bunch of institutions like the ABC, UTS and the Powerhouse Museum.****
For all that, the Goods Line retains a touch of the unfinished about it: a sense that bigger things are yet to come further down the track (pun intended). And apparently upgrades and even an extension to the disused Mortuary Station, one of my personal Sydney faves, are in the works. Stay tuned.
*Hot tip: detour off the Goods Line for a sec to walk a lap around the building. Every side is different. See if you can poke around inside, too.
***That’s about as technical as I’m capable of getting with this stuff — transportation history is not my forte — but read this if you want more.
****At least for now… *sad sigh* Update, as of July 2020 the Powerhouse Museum will stay put! Phew.
Tips, Links and Resources
Visiting The Goods Line
What you should know before you go to the Goods Line:
- More about the Goods Line.
- Price: Free!
- There’s a handy map here.
- Which way to go? If you want to end up in Darling Harbour, start from Central Station and make sure you take the Devonshire Street Tunnel exit (at the South Concourse — so if you arrive on the train platform, look out for a sign saying ‘S’ above the stairs; the ‘N’ is the wrong way). Follow the tunnel and you’ll come to Railway Square, passing one of my FAVOURITE bookstores in the world, the incredibly cheap Basement Books. Continue through the second part of the tunnel and you’ll find yourself at the entrance of the Goods Line. If you’re not arriving on the train, you can also walk to Railway Square and follow from there.
- Check out the iconic green wall of Central Park Sydney, shop at Central Park Mall, and eat out at Spice Alley! It’s a new-ish urban renewal precinct set on the site of what was a 170-year-old brewery.
- I’m not much of a shopper these days, but before I discovered the joys of spending nearly all my disposable income on travel I used to adore the cheap shopping at Paddy’s Markets and Harbourtown which are nearby.
- Don’t miss the Powerhouse Museum if you have any interest in science, technology and design!
Deep dive into the history and architecture of this little corner of Sydney:
- Architecture and design nerds will enjoy this micro-site about The Goods Line’s strategy, vision and design narrative by the project design lead, ASPECT.
- This Powerhouse Museum post about the history of the Goods Line is a must-read for my fellow history nerds visiting the area.
- A detailed look at Sydney’s various metropolitan goods lines from the ever-wonderful Dictionary of Sydney.
- More about the Dr Chau Chak Wing building from Architecture AU.
- And here from Brickworks.