As the 75th anniversary of John Bradfield’s death on 23 September 1943 approaches, I’m writing a series of posts exploring some of the ideas outlined in his 1924 engineering doctorate thesis and their relevance for Sydney a century later. Please see part 1 for the background to this series, and catch up with part 2 here.
The first name for the Sydney Metro when it was announced in 2012 was Sydney Rapid Transit, with much being made of the “new rapid transit system” and its ability to carry thousands of people per hour. The name has since changed but the fundamental premise, that a new breed of single-deck trains operating at high frequencies represents a step change for users of the Sydney rail network, remains the same.
This would have surprised John Bradfield because the concept of rapid transit was at the core of his plans to modernise and expand Sydney’s rail system a century ago. Why then is rapid transit being reinvented for the Sydney Metro, and what has changed in the past 100 years?
The use of “rapid transit” to refer to urban rail systems is older than you might think. In England, Picturesque and Descriptive. A Reminiscence of Foreign Travel published in 1882, Joel Cook, an American visiting the UK, admired the Metropolitan Railway, London and the world’s first underground railway which had opened in 1863:
The original idea seems to have been to connect the various stations of the railways leading out of town, and to do this, and at the same time furnish means of rapid transit from the heart of the city to the suburbs… In this way London has solved its rapid-transit problem, though it could be done only at enormous cost.
By the time Bradfield travelled to Europe and North America in 1914 to study the latest metro and subway systems the term rapid transit was in common use; the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company was formed in 1896 and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened in 1904 as New York’s first subway line. Bradfield made detailed observations of these systems, carefully documenting the speed, frequency and dwell times of trains for his 1916 Report on the proposed electric railways for the City of Sydney. This report also outlined his rationale for a rapid transit system in Sydney and how it would work.