The Lore of the Domain Expressway

Sydney sprawls quickly, with new environments blossoming in each nook and cranny. As a result, disused sections are forgotten just as quickly; they fall into states of disrepair and decay to the chagrin of onlookers old enough to remember their glory days. But whilst once-flourishing environments rust and slow, sources containing their lore vanish. Without the keen few lovers of Sydney local histories desperate enough to conserve them, their stories fade off the Sydney page, covered by the ink of flashy installations. 

The Domain Walkway, once touted as one of Sydney’s best attractions for families and workers alike, is losing its story to the raiding force of time. A significant source outlining the walkway’s construction was a photo album serendipitously stumbled upon by a Northern Sydney cyclist in 2018. Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney blog also acts as a permanent treasure-chest, whilst many of the videos and links she consulted fall into ‘broken’ and ‘error’ categories.

Below is an affectionate, but incomplete history of one of Sydney’s best underground secrets.

Hidden underneath The Domain are 207 metres of nightsky-rubber glory. The pavement once shifted at 0.69 metres a second, transporting clientele from The Domain Carpark to Hyde Park faster than any sluggish lightrail to UNSW. At the time of its construction, the moving footway was the longest of its kind in the world, only to be overtaken by a Disneyland Paris walkway in the far future. Today, the walkway is at a standstill, a vestige of yesteryear’s futuristic dreams and mechanical projects. 

In the 1950s, cars were bumper to bumper on a network of quickly sprawling roads. It was the decade of pedestrian discontent, and car haemorrhages in the city. Town planners thought outside the roadblock and constructed a car park below ground, with the walkway as an appendage allowing commuters to leave their car-related worries underground and explore the city, no strings attached. The initial blueprint imagined two moving walkways that could be reversed in direction to accommodate peak hour flows and a static corridor sandwiched between them to cater for counter-flow traffic. 

The construction process was no conveyor ride under the park. Workmen used heavy and bulky equipment, but the confines of the tunnel entrance itself were capillary-narrow. Levers were hoisted and metal doors were smashed down all in the name of making space for larger-than-life forklifts and drive units which guzzled through the tunnel. Melding various sections of the moving belt together necessitated control of atmospheric conditions: if temperature or humidity fluctuated too much, the black rubber would contort into rollercoaster-track loops, taking travellers on a ride much wilder than they bargained for. Thinking creatively, workmen erected a tent inside the walkway over the lengths of material being joined, thus creating a snowglobe of ideal weather conditions. 

An additional difficulty was the implementation of safety measures: emergency stop units to be accessible to passengers were fitted into balustrading walls and automatic speed switches to trigger the motor if the speed rose ten percent above its normal rate. A few days before the moving footway’s grand opening, Department of Labour and Industry officials undertook extensive safety tests, including sardine-packing 150 men onto the belts — talk about a traffic jam!

1961 saw the grand opening of the well-awaited walkway. Lord Mayor Alderman Jensen and his 13 month old son Mark were the first official riders, ceremoniously cutting ribbon tape before boarding — Jensen Junior seemed less gleeful than his father in the photos. 200 special guests followed suit, riding the footway like a MetGala red carpet. The grand opening was well-attended by the press, given the media’s significant interest in what was to be the ‘longest walkway in the world’ and potentially a sign of exciting New World Futurism — TV cameramen, radio commentators and press representatives alike flocked to the scene for a morsel of newsbite. The opening ceremony even drew politicians from abroad, such as the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Bernard Waley-Cohen, a testament to the perceived significance of the footway at the time.

But the Lord (Mayor) was not to know that keen Expressway riders would soon be skating on thin ice: the rubber tongue of the footway became a danger zone. The Expressway’s 3/64ths of an inch gap started claiming victims: a child’s finger, a man’s trousers and a puppy’s hind legs among the casualties, and soon the travelator filled with the blood of the innocent and unsuspecting — a hellish sacrifice to a heaving industrial city. Upon report of each incident, the City Council faced liability for damages, opening its pockets to grumblers with maimed hands and ripped garments. “No more!”, The City Council cried, and “Our tax money!”, the middle class lamented, so its risks were rectified with the didactic warning sign, “STEP OFF FOOTWAY — DO NOT SLIDE”. 

Whilst the Expressway was initially demonised as a place of injury, its novelty proved it could also be a place of first love. In 2010, it was temporarily rebranded as a ‘Traveldator’ (with the slogan: “Meet, Move, Mingle”), where a person would speed-date another on the journey there, and swap to a new face for the journey back, and so on. The event was run by ‘Patchworks’, a team of self-described “young entrepreneurs” who wished to test a theory about reviving ‘dead’ architecture with social interactions. 22 people seeking ambulatory amour participated in this event, with 77% of the riders allegedly reporting they felt comfortable speed-dating in the travelator environment.

Just as the passengers of the ‘Traveldator’ were looking for love, the Expressway almost courted a romantic partner of its own. While eccentric Sydneysiders often mourn the demolition of the Darling Harbour monorail, many are unaware that the monorail was almost a travelator. A serious contender to Sir Peter Abeles’ TNT monorail, the proposed 3.6km long travelator had the support of the National Trust and other action groups. To be called the Lazertube-Skywalk, this elevated travelator would have absolutely blown the Domain Expressway’s 207 metres out of the water and future-proofed Sydney’s travelator length crown against destabilising upstarts like Disneyland Paris. Alas, the proposal was rejected and the monorail was opened to the public in July of 1988. 

In the 1990s, the black rubber came to a halt. The mechanisms below the conveyor were eroded by the waves of time. At first, it looked like the worn-out metal was a full stop, punctuating the Domain Expressway’s end. The original manufacturer of the materials, Morison and Bearby Pty. Ltd., was no longer in operation. The walkway had a unique steel-cored belt design hailing from the Sandvik Steel Company in Sweden, causing Sydney designers to scratch their heads in confusion and augur the broken belt’s doom.  Fortunately, whilst the future of the footway hung in the balance, metalworkers in Holland came to our rescue, exporting the needed materials and allowing the cogs to turn for a few more decades.

To coincide with this mechanical refurbishment, the tunnel was given new life by a series of murals masterminded by Tim Guider, in collaboration with Indigenous artists and local Woolloomooloo schoolchildren. Guider was an artist who previously served time in Long Bay for offences relating to a bank robbery. More than 200 metres of painted panorama depict contemporary Sydney sights, the invasion and colonisation of Australia, and miscellaneous flora, fauna, and urbane ephemera. Flanked by 3D and illuminated installations at the Hyde Park end, Guider’s ‘Tunnel Vision’, as it’s called, is sorely needed cultural stimulation for users of the footway. It acts as a sort of magazine in a doctor’s waiting room or safety manual on a plane. Yet, like the footway itself, these murals have been under heavy siege. In 2008, it was reported that 130 metres of the tunnel mural would be painted white and used for advertising as part of a proposal from Challenger Diversified Property. 

“Commercial vandalism.” Mural artist Tim Guider called it. 

While that didn’t go ahead, fears were reignited in 2020 by Guider in a Daily Mail Australia article, where he expressed concern that the mural might be demolished because of its state of disrepair and the unwillingness of stakeholders to take responsibility for its upkeep (the footway is owned by the Royal Botanic Gardens, with the carpark under the thumb of the Wilson Group, and the City of Sydney smack bang in the middle of it all). Who’s to say when the next scare will strike? But for now, Sydneysiders should enjoy the murals while they still can.

It’s not just the murals that are sliding into a state of disrepair. Like before, the expressway is marching towards dilapidation and disuse. In February 2023, the Daily Mail published an article reporting that “frustrated commuters [are] unable to recall the last time the walkway was in working order.” To preserve this mechanised marvel of Sydney’s urban landscape and urban history for future generations, someone has to take ownership of its many flaws and its many needs — be it the Royal Botanic Gardens, the City of Sydney, or even the NSW Government. You can only kick the can down the travelator so many times, eventually, something worse than Disneyland Paris will come back around.