Reading about Flinders Street Station can give you the impression this grand old building is past its useful life. Not so. This is a hardworking station – Melbourne’s public transport hub. Over 100,000 commuters pass through the station every day, well up from the daily total of around 30,000 in the 1930s. In my childhood the concourse was smaller with iron pillars and a galvanized iron roof. I remember it being full of wooden shops, brown panelling and a floor that used to contain bottle top lids, pen caps, paper clips, broken chains and other intriguing items fossilized into the black asphalt.
The current concourse was built in 1982 replacing the wood with white tile and the shops on the platform side with windows. The whole space was widened. Despite the fact that the modern utilitarian 1980s concourse is very tall and open, I always feel as if I'm sandwiched between two slices of white bread.
But on a weekday morning between seven and eight, it comes into its own. Streams of commuters plunge across the big white space between platform escalators and the gates. Clots of uniformed secondary school kids eddy around the pillars; chatting, wrestling, snuggling. A group of children from the deaf school silently discuss skateboards using sign language. The coffee sellers are flat out at their machines providing morning heart-starters to the commuters pooling round their counters, while the tables between the coffee concessions are continuously full of people finishing off work, reading newspapers or having a pre-work confab.
I ask one of the baristas what it’s like working here. “It’s a bit mad,” he says “You see some wild things. It’s not like other coffee shops where you get a set demographic. Here you get all sorts.” Surprisingly the main smell of the morning concourse is of toasted cheese sandwiches not coffee. It makes me ravenous and a lot of people seem to buy breakfast here.
There are railway staff everywhere; watching the barriers, checking the crowd, giving information, carrying mops and buckets or ladders and tools or simply buying coffee. From my own experience you can’t walk through the station in blue uniform or an orange vest without being asked for platform information.
Around 9am the concourse is full of train drivers taking a post rush lunch break. Many of them have been driving since 4.30am. Between shifts train drivers often met up at “The Perch,” an area by the window next to Platforms 2-3. Here they lean on the steel rail, talk train-driver talk and check out the passing parade. Only the non-smokers though. The smokers are out on St Kilda Road perched on milk crates beyond the food concessions.
But peak hour isn’t the busiest time at the station.
“On Friday and Saturday nights it’s a real circus,” one of the barrier staff told me on a winter's evening. “You’re flat out here, first with footy traffic and then with people going for an evening out. It’s nice to see the girls and boys in their party gear going out clubbing, but later in the night there are a lot of drunks. The Police and the Authorised Officers try to scoop them up as they get off the train".
The shops and platforms close up after the last train, but the since the station is staffed 24/7 the concourse itself remains open all night. “On Saturday and Sunday mornings when you get in here for your first shift, there are often diehard party-goers who’ve been out all night hanging round waiting for the first train,” says one of the train drivers. “Sometimes you get in, and they’re all sleeping along the wall under The Perch. It’s warmer here and safe too because there are plenty of cops.”
I miss the old Flinders Street concourse with its old wooden paneling. But it still retains some history. Just before the barriers through into the domed foyer you can see a plaque commemorating the stations 100th anniversary. Just beside it are two other little plaques that tell a curious story. The first reads :
This plaque was placed here by The Honorable. John Cain, Premier of the the State of Victoria on 24th May 1985 to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Founding of the State of Victoria and as a token to the people who have used Victoria Station for the past 125 years.
"But wait", I hear you think - "I thought this station was called Flinders Street Station?" Read on.
The second plaque explains:
The above replica represents a plaque unveiled by the Premier of Victoria, The Hon. John Cain. M.P. at Victoria Station London to commemorate the 150 Anniversary of the State of Victoria which coincided with the 125th Anniversary of Victoria Station. The plaque may be seen inside the main entrance of Victoria Station which is the busiest central London Terminus, serving the southern suburbs of London, and the southern centres of Sussex and Surrey. The original Flinders Street Station preceded Victoria Station by six years"
So! This is a plaque, commemorating a plaque, commemorating a station on the other side of the world - that isn't as old as this station!
Flinders Street in Art
In 2005 Back to Back Theatre, a company driven by an ensemble of actors considered to have intellectual disabilities, performed Small Metal Objects on the concourse. You can link to a video about the performance here.
The plays concerns Gary and Steve "...the kind of men who normally escape notice. But here they play an inadvertent but pivotal role in the night of two ambitious executives they’ve arranged to meet for a transaction. As the intimacy of their situation develops, Small Metal Objects becomes a sly and luminous depiction of everyday issues most take for granted. .... the notion that everything has its price couldn’t be called into starker relief."
To perform this "ingenious theatrical gem" the actors wore cordless microphones and the audience listened to them with headphones but otherwise it was an ordinary evening on the Flinders Street concourse, with the uninvolved, and possibly unaware, passing passengers and railway staff providing an ad-lib backdrop.
The performance exemplifies the thousands of other small dramas that take place everyday against just the same backdrop.
We'd love to hear your stories about Flinders Street Station. We are looking stories of love, lost or found, or journeys that might have changed your life, or in fact any anecdotes that involve the station.
Do you have a story to tell?
If so, submit it (up to 500 words), along with any pictures to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org and become part of the larger story of our station and our city. These will be published in a very special "best of" Flinders Street Station Blog post.