‘Escalation Sensation’ chronicles the history of the last operational wooden railway escalators in Australia. After 60 years of service, the much-loved wooden ‘Otis’ escalators at Town Hall and Wynyard Stations were retired and replaced in 2017.
The NSW Railways first installed escalators for the deep underground stations at Wynyard and Town Hall when they opened in 1932. They were an innovative people-moving technology adopted by Bradfield to bring an ambitious transport plan to Sydney. Escalators proved to be an integral part of the new underground railway system moving large numbers of passengers quickly in peak hours between street, concourse and platforms. Adopting the ‘modern’ escalator was a signal that Sydney was on par with the latest railway technology and design from around the world.
Despite metal alternatives being available at the time, replacements in the 1950s were again OTIS wooden tread machines. Once installed, the robust 1950s escalators were well maintained by dedicated railway staff that extended the machine’s working life considerably in two of the busiest stations on the network. Over the years they became a ‘must-see’ for Sydney visitors and a fond experience for regular users.
While in operation the escalators moved thousands of Sydney commuters and visitors each day, right up until their retirement in 2017. After rumbling reassuringly for over 60 years, at the end of their working life they were some of the rarest and much-loved escalators in the world.
Completed throughout 2017-18, ‘Escalation Sensation’ chronicles the history of the wooden escalators in Town Hall and Wynyard Stations. It also captures lasting memories and the final days of operation prior to their retirement in 2017.
This was a collaborative project between Sydney Trains and TfNSW, and produced by Art of Multimedia.
Escalation Sensation (PDF, 9.36 MB) traces the introduction and evolution of escalators, and their use into the public transport network in NSW and Australia.
It looks at the principals of how escalators work and how they have evolved over time.
It then focuses on the much loved wooden escalators installed at Wynyard and Town Hall Stations from their installation in the 1930s, their replacement in the 1950s and their replacement in 2017.
Watch the documentary. Duration: 26 mins
A series of interviews were conducted with historians, railway staff and project teams who maintained and upgraded the historic escalators.
The documentary captures their perspectives to produce an absorbing narrative, supported by motion graphics, historical images, archival and contemporary footage of the use, maintenance and final days of the wooden escalators.
Where did all the escalator components go?
You may be wondering where did the historic escalators components go to (motors, sprockets, breaks, chains, wooden treads and decking etc). Well, here is a summary:
Wynyard Station (four machines)
- One complete set of mechanical motor components, plus samples of wooden decking, trims and treads were salvaged in the Sydney Trains heritage collection.
- Two complete sets of mechanical motor components were donated to the Campbelltown Steam and Machinery Museum, who intend to get the motors up and running again for public enjoyment.
- One motor and an escalator landing arrangement have been reassembled as a static display in the former motor room in the Wynyard Station basement. It is hoped this will be available for small group tours in the future.
- 244 wooden treads and 4 ‘Otis’ comb plates were re-imagined into the Chris Fox’s creative installation at Wynyard – Interloop (see below).
Town Hall Station (two machines)
- One motor and an escalator landing arrangement was donated to the Sydney Tramway Museum who have reassembled into static display in the Sutherland Substation for public enjoyment.
- Remaining components and mechanical parts were salvaged for on-going repairs to operational machines across the network, mainly in the Eastern Suburb stations.
A new artwork was unveiled in December 2017 in Wynyard Station featuring parts of the historic York Street entrance wooden escalators, marking the official completion of the Wynyard Station Upgrade.
Wynyard Station was opened on 28 February 1932 as part of Bradfield’s transport vision, and in preparation for the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening in March 1932. New innovative station features at Wynyard included a parallel bank of ‘Otis’ escalators connecting York Street with the concourse. Originally three escalators were installed with provision for a fourth if it was needed in the future.
These escalators were based on a standard American Otis L-Type model adapted for one of the busiest underground stations in Sydney. They were presented in the ‘Streamline Moderne’ architectural style with dark wood panelling to match the sleek art deco station interiors. The prominent curves of the newels and the repeated parallel lines of the decking conveyed a sense of modernity for the subway traveller.
These original escalators were wholly replaced in 1956/7 with local Otis machines (48SA Type) - again with wooden panelling and treads. Despite aluminium treads being available from the 1950s, the Railways specified wooden (tallow wood) treads for their maintainability. Their robust construction stood the test of time resulting in them becoming almost unique in the world’s railway subway systems.
Improving the safety and accessibility as well as the increasing maintenance/operational costs brought about the decision to retire the machines sensitively. After 60 years in operation the four wooden escalators at Wynyard Station, along with two at Town Hall, were retired from January 2017. Remarkably they were the last operating wooden railway escalators in Australia. As part of the project’s Heritage Interpretation Plan, Transport for NSW’s commissioned Chris Fox to develop an artwork that re-used salvaged escalator components and expressed the history, scale and heritage significance of the machines.
Chris Fox’s artwork entitled ‘Interloop’ incorporates 244 treads and four ‘Otis’ comb plates into a five tonne three dimensional suspended sculpture. It magically plays with the idea of continuous motion and connected journeys. Well known to Sydney commuters and visitors, riding the old wooden escalators was a sensory experience; the hum of the motors, the vibration of the steps, the constant motion and the warmth of the wood. Since its opening, the artwork has captured the imagination of Sydney, and, just like old escalators, commuters and visitors will continue to step onto history and be swept away.