A long stretch of rubber flooring lines the entrance to Mount Druitt train station, encased on both sides by graffitied glass. Hordes of early risers dash across in a mad bid to make the 7am train. I know it well because I am in the throng, having calculated the exact amount of time required to make it from my bus stop to the platform. The claustrophobic hallway always feels too long and too narrow, as if it were specifically designed to shuttle us all into a race where the victor is awarded first access to one of four opal card readers. A momentary but palpable transition takes place once I have passed through the automatic gates. As if willed by the chorus of tapped-on Opal cards, I am transported into the role of commuter, beholden to the moral and temporal boundaries that constitute the station. It is not a space that invites idling but rather a vestibule for getting from Point A to Point B.
Down to the platform.
I keep to the left while descending the staircase to reach the landing, eyes drawn by the concrete architecture on the underside of the upper platform that keeps it moored. It splays in all directions in the form of ramps and staircases, mimicking the limbs of an ancient behemoth. I discern age spots where the smooth grey surface has met moisture, the only evidence that this relic has been standing for nearly fifty years. A mechanic bellow emits from afar and a crowd of eyes remain fixated on their devices. Once on the train, I am swept into a stream of passengers who make the same daily commute that will take us to the centre of Sydney. The Western Line is one of the busiest transport arteries in the city and trains work like blood vessels supplying labour from the heart of the West to the Central Business District, blurring the distinction between a transport system and living organism.
A commuter’s journey along the Western Line is not dissimilar to that of the tunnel-boring machines designed to work beneath the surface on the North-West Sydney Metro Line. The tunnelling machines’ inauguration of Australia’s tunnelling boom was celebrated by Transport Minister Andrew Constance in his description of them as ‘underground factories, mechanical worms designed to dig’. The reference to mechanisation is telling. The project they have been designed to undertake is an entirely automated metro line linking Western Sydney to the CBD. With 15 kilometres of the planned 65 kilometres of new metro rail already completed, the tunnel system constitutes a new lifeline for commuters from the North West suburbs.
An instantaneous modern metropolis dominates human imaginations of the underground railway, where train lines constitute visual allegories of forward progress. By 2024, the NSW Government will have extended the current development to include the Sydney Metro West, an entirely underground project linking Parramatta and the Sydney CBD.
But the less familiar images prove more interesting: those reimagining the underground as a valuable and inherently occupied space. In this way, alternative narratives about the urban subterranean space can be uncovered. The mythology of the underground is traditionally safeguarded by Saint Barbara, who offers patronage to underground workers. In light of this, the four tunnelling machines used to dig the North-West Sydney Metro Line were given female names: Elizabeth, Florence, Maria and Isabelle.
For the daily commuter, rituals such as staring aimlessly out the window at soccer fields and storm-laden clouds will no longer define the way travel is experienced once trains go underground. I will miss glancing at the contours of passing suburbs to gauge the time remaining before my next stop. Many times, they have triggered a mental note about what to cook for dinner that night based on a restaurant I happen to notice at Blacktown station. I will no longer be able to note the additions of bright pot plants to newly renovated apartments, or the development of large tracts of empty vegetation into housing lots. The metro tunnels will not invite the same level of contemplation. Instead, sterile grey piping and industrial architecture will replace the window view, bringing the concrete behemoth underground.
My attention is caught by the cut and paste of Hills Hoist clotheslines in backyards bordering Seven Hills station. Ribbons of laundry flurry over grass that is unmown and will probably remain so until the weekend, temporarily spilling unfettered into adjacent parks. Commuting past Seven Hills always reminds me of the traumatic time I was late for school because I had missed the last bus to Girraween High School. I spent the morning wandering the station instead, memorising the train and bus times between crying fits.
It is a bitter truth that by the time the train has arrived at Parramatta station, there will no longer be any seats and people will cram the corridors with satchels and laptop bags. A smattering of people wear expensive-looking headphones to ensure a quieter space than the implicit social contract can guarantee. Those of us who have journeyed from Mount Druitt breathe easy, momentarily disrupting the advantage a shorter commute grants inner-suburban residents. We ogle the glass skyscrapers which have seemingly sprung up overnight. The buildings signal a sharp curtailment of the familiar sights of suburbia littered along the Western Line.
One seat ahead of me, someone takes a too-loud phone call leaned up against our shared window. To distract myself from the sudden interruption, I open my laptop to the pages of historical research I have bookmarked on Sydney’s transportation system.
The train has always been a powerful symbol of mobility and convenience for commuters throughout Western Sydney. In 1855, Sydney’s first railway line was officially opened, linking Parramatta and Sydney city and foregrounding the successful commercial relationship they were intended to share. Already I can feel my eyes sliding away from the page. While urban policy essayists like Meanjin’s Liam Hogan can find the documents compelling, I cannot make them capture my attention in the same way. Glancing out of the window, I notice a triangular strip of land containing the last single-storey homes this close to Parramatta station. I know these will soon be disappeared to make room for further development, alongside residents’ homes that stand in the way of the proposed Metro stations in Westmead, Burwood and Five Dock.
Synchronously and inevitably, the homes of grey-headed flying foxes who forage within mangrove forests here will be displaced. Bats now dominate the inner city – they have migrated to urban trees which are watered and fertilised more frequently. With many more animals projected to join them in coming years, the question of sharing urban spaces has become a much more pertinent one.
I am reminded of one of the strangest stories of transportation I came across as I researched biodiversity for this essay, in Homebush Bay. After the closure of the Bay’s brickworks quarry in 1992, the bottom of the pit was filled with water and a small army of green and golden bell-frogs moved in. Two years later when the Olympic Coordination Authority conducted a survey for the new Sydney Olympics site, they found a thriving community of bell-frogs, despite their status as an endangered species under the NSW Threatened Species Act. In an effort to save their homes and ensure their long-term survival, proposed Olympic tennis courts were moved and nineteen new frog ponds were installed nearby. The frogs ironically became a de-facto Olympics mascot as a result of their green and gold appearance, despite their near extinction. After another community was found in an industrial zone in St Marys in 2006, research revealed that bell-frogs appear in large numbers where earth has been removed, and often in areas surrounded by urban development. Stories like this remind me that the predominant accounts of development championed by engineers can often be undercut by the most unlikely of creatures. If I peeled back the curtain shrouding urban development in moral necessity, there would likely be a whole host of animals eluding notice, ready to capture the spotlight.
I amble into the gleaming halls of Central Station, returning from the only university class I had scheduled for this week. It is the first time I have needed to commute in six months, with Sydney university campuses closed in response to the pandemic. I covertly turn to see if anyone else is feeling the same muted excitement at climbing the stairs to Platform 18, part of a routine I have followed for the better part of two years.
In my backpack is a book I borrowed from the university library for the commute. A friend has been badgering me to read it for the last two years, and writing this essay seemed like the perfect excuse to begin. Two pages in and I am sucked into the undulating prose. David Abram’s Becoming Animal advocates for readers to be present in their immediate surroundings, observing the depth of the terrain. While inserting frogs back into urban narratives is essential to accommodating and even cohabiting with them, I cannot help but notice we have relegated that responsibility to locations such as the Western Sydney Parklands and national parks. These sites symbolically constitute the vestiges of pure, unadulterated nature, when the reality is that many native species thrive wherever humans build cities – seagulls, ravens red-back spiders and bulrushes.
Sydney Metro West will displace many species and alter the landscape of their habitats. Living in Western Sydney is accepting that the underground is a space we are not required to know much about, despite its significance to one of the largest transportation projects we have ever attempted.
In his investigation of the suburban reptiles that call Western Sydney home, herpetologist Glenn Shea describes the blind snake as an unusual-looking member of its species that spends the majority of its time burrowed underground. They are the most commonly donated snakes to Australian museums, because concerned homeowners find them half-eaten by cats or in ground-level swimming pools and are unfamiliar with their appearance. The species cannot thrive without a large population of ants to feed on. They find a very suitable home in suburban gardens, however, where compost heaps have an abundance of deep soil. Similarly, larger populations of skinks have been discovered as a result of urban development, because walls and fences put them out of reach of predators. In turn, these animals alter the environments that we inhabit, by loosening and aerating soil or supporting entire food chains in urban areas. As Abrams writes, ‘It is they, after all, who ride those shifting flows, they whose muscles daily navigate the unseen hints and whirling notions that ceaselessly arise, interact and dissipate in the subtle awareness of the planet.’
Just as development alters the lives of animals, so too will it alter the lives of Western Sydneysiders. The commutes we have complained about for years soon will be reduced, accelerating into a new decade. The 2018 Climate Council Report found that transport is Australia’s largest source of greenhouse gas pollution after electricity, with cars making up over 60 per cent of pollution levels. As congestion on Sydney roads worsens, investing in rail infrastructure on such a grand scale is sensible – but it is not simple.
For railways to be the most cost-effective and sustainable, the authors of the Climate Report argue they need to be built under existing car traffic and alongside apartment complexes, thus encouraging commuters to make the switch to public transport. Already, large swaths of apartment buildings have materialised in Penrith, St Marys, Rooty Hill and beyond. Much like the blind snake discovering new underground spaces, humans are finding homes located much more conveniently near public transport.
After a collective three and a half hours of intermittent data reception and moments of tedium pierced by mask-muffled voices, I have finally ended the roundtrip home. Collecting my things, I am the only one to exit the train at Mount Druitt station and make the journey up the stairs. From where I am standing, there is no visible evidence that in just years, a metro line will run through here. No hint of the tunnels to be constructed. I will travel from Parramatta to the Sydney CBD in under twenty-five minutes. Humans and animals will lose their homes. Now, I amble back down the long rubber hallway to meet my bus and travel home.
This essay was commissioned for Symbiosis, the 2020 Bankstown Biennale. The Sydney Review of Books is delighted to be partnering with the Bankstown Arts Centre to showcase the work of three emerging Western Sydney writers: Nadia Hirst, Christine Lai and Martyn Reyes. Find out more about the Biennale here and read all the Symbiosis essays here.