The Rocks (Argyle Street) Railway Sub-station and Switchhouse | NSW Environment & Heritage

Culture and heritage


The Rocks (Argyle Street) Railway Sub-station and Switchhouse

Item details

Name of item: The Rocks (Argyle Street) Railway Sub-station and Switchhouse
Other name/s: Sydney Harbour Bridge Substation
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Transport - Rail
Category: Other - Transport - Rail
Location: Lat: -33.8599796622907 Long: 151.205157366206
Primary address: Trinity Avenue, Dawes Point, NSW 2000
Local govt. area: Sydney


North: Cumberland Street entry.South: Argyle Street.East: Sydney Harbour Bridge approaches.West: Property boundary fence fronting Trinity Avenue and rear yards of adjacent dwellings.Note that the Argyle Street underbridge is also within the curtilage boundary as defined for the Sydney Harbour Bridge SHR listing.
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
Trinity AvenueDawes PointSydney  Primary Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
RailCorpState Government 
RailCorpState Government 
RailCorpState Government 

Statement of significance:

The Argyle Street substation is of state significance as a unique and original feature of the Sydney Harbour Bridge construction. It was constructed as part of the electrification of the Sydney suburban railway network, one of 15 built between 1926 and 1932, and it continues to convert electrical power for use on the network. The building is a good example of the Inter-War Stripped Classical style and stands as a landmark industrial building in the Millers Point area. Its unpainted, cement render façade is in keeping with the approach ways of the Sydney Harbour Bridge which it abuts. The substation retains a rare example of original switchgear (non-operational) in the switch house.
Date significance updated: 14 May 09
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: J Bradfield and R Freeman
Builder/Maker: Dorman Long & Co
Physical description: SUBSTATION (1932)
External: The Argyle Street substation, which includes the substation building, the switchhouse, transformers and surrounding electrical equipment - are all located in an area enclosed by steel mesh fencing on an escarpment above Trinity Avenue. The substation is a rendered brick, four-storey building constructed in the Inter-War Stripped Classical style and featuring steel windows with moulded and rendered sills and banded pilasters extending from ground level to a deep moulded cornice and parapet. It is accessible from the Harbour Bridge cycleway via a pair of timber doors with rendered architrave and pediment. The substation also features a double-tiered hipped roof. The roof tiles have been replaced with new terracotta tiles to match previous in form and finish.

Internal: The roof is supported by exposed steel trusses and a gantry supported by a steel frame. The two lower levels contain functioning electrical equipment while the control, office and amenities area is located on the two mezzanines. The ground floor is accessed via steel roller shutter doors on the north and south sides of the building, wide enough to allow equipment to be moved in and out. Internal steel stairs connect the mezzanine and ground floor levels.

External: The switchhouse, located south of the substation, is a single-storey rendered structure with steel-framed windows and a gabled hip tiled roof.

Internal: The roof is supported by exposed steel trusses. The floor is of painted concrete with painted exposed brick walls. The switchhouse includes a single example of a Reyrolle Oil Bath Motorised Switch (no longer functioning) and a row of modern switchboards.

Transformers are located outside between the main substation building and the switchhouse.

Items of moveable heritage include the Reyrolle Motorised Switch in the switchhouse. In the substation a timber phone box, a switchboard, a framed plan of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and a large overhead gantry crane remain.

Recent finds onsite indicate the area has high archaeological potential.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Good condition: Functionally sound structure.
The exterior of the Substation building is in good condition, structurally sound with no defects. Water run-off and the addition of service pipes have caused staining on the cement render, particularly rust stains from the steel-framed windows and steel mesh. Internally the buildings are in good condition with minor water damage to walls and ceiling lining. The southern wall of the substation building has a minor crack at the upper level.
Date condition updated:14 May 09
Modifications and dates: Post-1962 (date unknown): upgrade of transformers.
1999-2000: upgrade of 1962 transformers.
2013: New terracotta roof tiles and fascias, creation of a new battery room for upgraded electrical equipment
2013: New 2 room compressor house and electrical room constructed (remote from substation); replacement of 2 new outdoor transformers (non-significant).
Current use: Railway electricity supply substation
Former use: Nil


Historical notes: The Argyle substation and switchhouse were built as integral parts of the southern approaches to the Harbour Bridge and part of the overall provision and workings towards the electrification of the Sydney railway system. The substation is constructed in a Stripped Classical style which relates to the style used on the approaches to the bridge and carries through the unpainted cement render finish. It was completed in 1932. The substation was one of 15 built during the period 1926-1932 as part of the electrification of the suburban network. Each was built to a standard design and layout, although the Argyle Street substation was externally rendered to match the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Of the 15, eight remain in operational use (2009).

As the suburban railway lines were converted from steam to electric traction, substations, located approximately 8 kilometres apart were required for efficiency in direct current (DC). A 1500 volts DC system to power the overhead conductors was adopted for the NSW Railways.

The building houses transformers originally used to convert the alternating current supplied from Ultimo and White Bay power stations to a direct current that was used for the train and tram tunnels and lighting the bridge. The original bridge lighting was installed by NSW Government Railways and was supplied to designs by the Department of Public Works. The buildings remain relatively intact externally and internally and continue to serve the Harbour Bridge and electric train tunnels.

The original Reyrolle Bath Oil Motorised Switches were replaced prior to World War II. Some time during the 1960s larger transformers from the Prince Alfred substation were transferred to Argyle Street. In 1999-2000, these transformers were in turn replaced with larger transformers to cope with increased loads. A single (non-functioning) example of the Reyrolle Switch is retained in the Argyle Street switchhouse.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was designed and constructed as the essential link in a transport scheme envisaged by JJC Bradfield and designed to enhance and promote the development of the metropolis, effectively opening up the north shore to the city and making the city more accessible. In 1924 preparations for the construction of the bridge began and as a result Dawes Point and the Rocks area was subject to a continuous stream of building work and whole streets were levelled and altered. The approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge were designed and built by the Department of Public Works and the Metropolitan Railway Construction branch of NSW Government Railways between 1924 and 1932.

Works to the site in 2013/14 uncovered below ground remains and artifacts relating to prior occupation. The archaeological investigation to the north of the Argyle Substation found a small area of in situ remains, dating from the late 19th century, preserved in the northwestern corner of the site. The remains of a sandstone retaining wall and associated fills were also preserved in the southeast part of the site and recorded during excavations.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements Building the railway network-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Utilities-Activities associated with the provision of services, especially on a communal basis Making gas/generating electricity-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The Argyle Street substation is significant as an integral part of the southern approaches of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and as a vital working component of the electrification of Sydney's suburban train system. It was constructed as part of the wider Sydney Harbour Bridge and suburban electrification project. The building is significant for its part in supplying electricity for the new rail network across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and is therefore associated with the social changes and effects which the bridge had in opening up Sydney's north shore.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The Substation building has significance as a relatively intact and fine example of an Inter-War Stripped Classical industrial building that forms a prominent feature on the approach to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Rocks and Millers Point areas. The building is significant for its rendered facades matching the Sydney Harbour Bridge approach ways. The Substation's prominent location emphasises its role in the service of the bridge and the railway, and acts as a landmark in the Millers Point urban landscape.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The place has the potential to contribute to the local community's sense of place and can provide a connection to the local community's history.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
Recent archaeological finds indicate the site is significant for its research potential and has high archaeological potential.
SHR Criteria f)
The Argyle Street substation is a unique feature of the Sydney Harbour Bridge construction and infrastructure. Of the fifteen substations constructed between 1926 and 1932 it is the only one of its type in terms of design style and rendered finish to match the Sydney Harbour Bridge which it was built to service.

The Reyrolle Oil Bath Motorised Switches are a rare surviving example of a once standard switch type.
SHR Criteria g)
The Argyle Street substation is representative of the Inter-War Stripped Classical style used in an industrial building and of the standard design layout of the NSW Railways substations built between 1926 and 1932.
Integrity/Intactness: Intact.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

Manage in accordance with Conservation Management Plan prepared by GML for RTA, 2007. (Endorsed by Heritage Council until 16 March 2012 ). Manage in accordance with site specific exemptions attached to the State Heritage Register listing for the place (Item - 00781). 1. Conservation principles: Conserve cultural heritage significance and minimise impacts on heritage values and fabric in accordance with the ‘Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance’. 2. Specialist advice: Seek advice from a qualified heritage specialist during all phases of a proposed project from feasibility, concept and option planning stage; detailed design; heritage approval and assessment; through to construction and finalisation. 3. Documentation: Prepare a Statement of Heritage Impact (SOHI) to assess, minimise and prevent heritage impacts as part of the assessment and approval phase of a project. Prepare a Conservation Management Plan (CMP) prior to proposing major works (such as new additions, change of use or proposed demolition) at all places of State significance and all complex sites of Local significance. 4. Maintenance and repair: Undertake annual inspections and proactive routine maintenance works to conserve heritage fabric in accordance with the ‘Minimum Standards of Maintenance & Repair’. 5. Movable heritage: Retain in situ and care for historic contents, fixtures, fittings, equipment and objects which contribute to cultural heritage significance. Return or reinstate missing features or relocated items where opportunities arise. 6. Aboriginal, archaeology and natural heritage: Consider all aspects of potential heritage significance as part of assessing and minimising potential impacts, including Aboriginal, archaeology and natural heritage. 7. Unidentified heritage items: Heritage inventory sheets do not describe or capture all contributory heritage items within an identified curtilage (such as minor buildings, structures, archaeology, landscape elements, movable heritage and significant interiors and finishes). Ensure heritage advice is sought on all proposed changes within a curtilage to conserve heritage significance. 8. Recording and register update: Record changes at heritage places through adequate project records and archival photography. Notify all changes to the Section 170 Heritage & Conservation Register administrator upon project completion.


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - s.170 NSW State agency heritage registerSRA s.170 Register    

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
State Rail Authority Heritage Register Study1999 State Rail Authority  No
S170 Heritage & Conservation Register Update2009 Godden Mackay Logan  Yes
Heritage Platforms Conservation Management Strategy2015 Australian Museum Consulting  Yes

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenAnita Heiss Aboriginal People and Place, Barani: Indigenous History of Sydney City
WrittenCasey & Lowe Pty Ltd2014Non-Indigenous Archaeological Monitoring and Excavation Results, Argyle Substation, Millers Point Art Gallery to Argyle Substation Cable Upgrade
WrittenCasey & Lowe Pty Ltd2013Preliminary Archaeological Advice - Argyle Substation SHR Area 01022
WrittenGodden Mackay Logan1999Argyle Substation Transformers HIS for Rail Services Australia
WrittenHeritage Group, DPW&S1998SHB CMP
WrittenJohn Gunn1989Along Parallel Lines: A History of the Railways in New South Wales 1850-1986

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: State Government
Database number: 4800006
File number: 2423656

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