Railway shops at Nicholson Street, Footscray

Once upon a time on Nicholson Street in Footscray there where two rows of ordinary looking shops.

Front of 184-200 Nicholson Street

But if you took a look at the rear, it was soon apparent that the shops were not built on solid ground, but on a bridge spanning a railway line.

Eastern side of the shops over the railway tracks at Nicholson Street

Down below were four railway tracks, carrying both passenger and freight trains.

Passing under the Nicholson Street bridge, N454 leads the down Swan Hill train out of Footscray

Built in the late 1920s as part of a project to separate the passenger and freight trains that passed through Footscray, the Nicholson Street bridge replaced an existing level crossing, with the shops either side being completed a few years later.

The Victorian Railways annual report for the year ending June 1930 has this to say about the shops:

Shops at Nicholson Street, Footscray

When the new goods line was constructed between West Footscray and South Kensington, the level crossing at Nicholson Street, Footscray, was replaced by a bridge over the tracks, of sufficient width to permit of the erection thereon of shops or other revenue-producing buildings when opportunity offered.

During the year the matter was submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways, which approved of the provision of shops on the western side, leaving consideration of the erection of others on the eastern side until such time as the first instalment had justified itself.

Nine single-storey lock-up shops, with provision for an additional storey if required, and equipped with modern plate-glass fronts, cantilever verandahs and other conveniences, have been built and are let at satisfactory rentals.

So far I’ve been unable to find further reference to the shops on the eastern side, but they eventually got built – albeit having been retrofitted with a much blander facade by the time I photographed them in 2011.

Front of 165-169 Nicholson Street

However nothing can last forever, and in the case of the Nicholson Street shops, the forces that made their creation possible were the same forces that led to their demise.

Excavator hanging it's bucket over the edge of the bridge to catch debris

Again, the reason for change was the expansion of the railway through Footscray. Unfortunately for the Nicholson Street bridge, the piers that supported it were too narrow to allow the two new Regional Rail Link tracks to pass beneath, so it was necessary to demolish the entire structure to make space for them.

The shops on the eastern side were first to go in March 2012, followed by the shops on the western side in January 2013, and finally the road bridge itself being removed in October 2013.

Looking south across the reopened road bridge

The replacement Nicholson Street bridge opened in April 2014, consisting of a single span across the six tracks, but with no shops on either side.

Justifying the original shops

The 1929 report to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways goes into much more detail about the shops across the tracks at Nicholson Street, and the reasoning behind their construction.

In the Railway Loan Application Act passed in December last, provision is made for the expenditure of £5,000 during the current year towards the erection of shops for revenue producing purposes over the regraded lines at Nicholson Street, Footscray. This is a busy shopping area, and an electric tram service passes the site of the proposed shops, with a compulsory stop for all trams immediately opposite. It is intended that eight shops shall be erected adjoining the Post Office on the eastern side of the street, and nine immediately opposite, for a total of seventeen. The frontages of the shops range from 13 to 16 feet, the total frontage to Nicholson Street being 273 feet, of which 146 feet is on the west side, and 126 feet on the east side, while the depth is 40 feet. The shops will be constructed with walls of brick, corrugated iron roofs, fibro-plaster ceilings, metalled shop fronts, show cases, tiled fronts, and cantilever verandahs.

They described the expected demand for new shops in Footscray.

Respecting the demand that may be expected to occur for the leasing of the shops, it may be stated that the population of Footscray has increased from 29,266 in 1918 to 51,655 in 1929, a gradual and regular increase being shown each year. The property valuations have increased during the same period from £216,918 to £615,870, while the number of dwellings has increased from 7,033 in 1917 to 10,712 in the present year, or approximately 50 per cent. For the year ended 30th September, 1928, no less than 23 new factories were erected in Footscray bringing the total number to 208, employing an estimated number of 15,000 hands. The Railways Commissioners are of opinion that Footscray will increase in popularity as a shopping centre and regard it as a reasonable expectation that property values will show a substantial enhancement within the next few years.

The condition of the existing shops in the area:

A number of existing old premises in Nicholson Street, comprising small shops, are to be demolished, and their areas combined to provide sufficient space for the erection of new premises for large business firms, with the result that a number of small shopkeepers now occupying these premises will thus be compelled to seek other accommodation. It is anticipated that the shops proposed to be built by the Department will be eagerly sought after, and, as a matter of fact, a number of applications have already been received from prospective lessees.

That the money had already been spent to build a deck for the shops to be built upon:

When the Railways Commissioners were constructing the bridge over the railway lines which pass under Nicholson Street at this point, it was decided to extend the floor of the bridge over the cutting in order to make provision for these shops, and £8,925 has been already expended in extending the bridge in such a manner as to make it suitable for this purpose. The remaining expenditure for the actual construction of the shops, viz., £14,626 brings the sum up to the total amount shown, £23,550.

How solid the foundations are:

The method of constructing the shops will permit of an additional story being built with a minimum of expense if the department desires to do so. The structure upon which it is proposed to erect the shops is built upon a rock foundation and is of solid construction, and in these circumstances it is not considered that any vibration will be felt from trains passing underneath.

And finally, the financial aspect:

Taking into account the money already expended on the extension and strengthening of the bridge flooring (£8,925), so that it will carry the shops, the addition of £14,625 for shop construction makes a total of £23.550.

It is estimated by the Commissioners that the seventeen shops can be let at an average rate of £3 5s. weekly, the tenants being liable in addition for the payment of rates and taxes. This would represent a revenue during the twelve months of £169 per shop, or £2,873 per annum on the whole investment of £23,550; or a gross return of approximately 12.5 per cent.

The estimated net profit after the foregoing provision for interest, maintenance, etc, would be about 5.64 per cent.

In the years since, the construction of buildings over Melbourne’s railway tracks for profit is rare – I’m intentionally leaving Federation Square out of this discussion because that was a civic project, with no exception of a financial return.

The only commercial example that comes to mind is at South Yarra, where a handful of shops were built either side of the Chapel Street bridge a decade or two ago.

Further reading

In this Powerpoint presentation you can read about how the Regional Rail Link project team designed and constructed the replacement bridges at Albert Street and Nicholson Street.

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21 Responses to “Railway shops at Nicholson Street, Footscray”

  1. Graham says:

    The verandahs along the older side were restored some years ago, I was working with Victorian Cast Iron Restoration in Kensington at the time and I recall that we have to be very careful when making the footings for the verandah posts lest we inadvertently broke through the bridge.
    You can see our work in your first picture, all now gone unfortunately.
    The same company also did the Royal Arcade in Bourke Street and the North Melbourne Municipal Buildings in Errol Street, to name but a couple of other restoration jobs.

  2. Andrew S says:

    I remember passing under this bridge and the old Darrell Lea chocolate sign behind the shops which you also have captured here …

    At Chapel Street the shops on the western side were added first around the late 90’s replacing the old steel barrier that extended around the corner to Arthur Street. Those on the eastern side were added in the early 2000’s some time.

  3. Tom the first and best says:

    Shops over the railway probably require a shopping strip on either side of the railway to make them viable. That reduces the number of locations this is possible.

    Toorak Rd South Yarra is probably a location that this is possible at but they could probably only go over the Caulfield lines` tracks because of the old post office that is now an architects office next to the Sandringham line.

    Another location that shops over the tracks might be viable is Burke Rd, Camberwell. This is however likely to be controversial. The shops may also not be able to go all that far back because the railway rises out of the cutting from that bridge.

  4. TheLoadedDog says:

    This is much more common in Sydney, where our relatively hilly geography often finds the railway running in a cutting under the main street. These hills also meant that the railway often had to run to a different route to the older, main road nearby, and our suburban shopping “high streets” tended to connect the two, so you are given that nice, neat ninety degree angle to work with. In a lot of places, like Newtown or Campsie, you’d barely notice the railway is there at all, the only giveaway being the station entrance, which is almost just like another shopfront.

    Here’s a pic from Google Earth Streetview of some shops at Campsie. You’d be forgiven for not realising there’s a busy, four-track railway right under this spot.

    Our equivalent to things like Fed Square would be structures like the Goulburn St Carpark over the underground portals, or the shops over the line at Hurstville, in that they were artificially higher structures, but I’m more interested here in the ones that just seem like a continuation of the local topography.

  5. beren says:

    i think it is always a bad idea to enchroach on rail infrastructure, this is a good example. because you never know what future upgrades will be needed. fed square is a good spot, but whether you know it or not, the structure means that the tracks below are stuck in their current configuration, which means flinders st cannot ever be adjusted or changed. its a bad idea. how about this for a bad idea, sydney had two tracks on the east side of the harbour bridge, they were used for trams, now they are gone, and any new rail infrastructure plans require a new crossing of the water, terrible idea.

    damn i sound so autistic 😉

    • Andrew S says:

      Kind of like these new grade separations in Melbourne based on lowering the rail tracks which will make future additional tracks more expensive in the future – particularly on the Dandenong corridor where it is an issue. At Spingvale for example they only recently built the overpass for two lines. Although technically the room is there for expansion, new civil works such as car parking, drop off and bus zones will be destroyed to build it.

  6. Andrew S says:

    One major project in Perth was the Subiaco tunnel in 1999 where a new station was built and 900 metres of the Fremantle line lowered to provide space for retail and offices on the western side and residential on the eastern side. The road system around the rail line was also reconstructed with Railway Road cut off and Roberts Road built to the west and north over the tunnel to create an internal bypass of the centre of Subiaco.

    Currently the former yards in the centre of Perth inside Horseshoe Bridge (now essentially the Fremantle through lines only) are being covered in for the new mixed use commercial and residential project called ‘Perth City Link'(no, nothing to do with toll roads …)

  7. mich says:

    Does that new bridge there only have a sidewalk on one side of the road ? Unnacceptable !

  8. Simon Russell says:

    I think it’s a real pity these were demolished — they really helped connect the shops on both sides.

    I also think that there is a really big opportunity being missed in Melbourne for commercial development on rail land. Not every railway station is in an appropriate spot for commercial development; but for obvious reasons many are. And there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of it going on.

  9. […] the cutting that heads west from Footscray – the shops along the Nicholson Street bridge were built as part of the same project, As for the concrete crib walls in example number three, they were built as part of the 1970s […]

  10. […] I found an old Darrell Lea sign hand painted on the shops over the railway line at Nicholson […]

  11. […] The shops along the Nicholson Street bridge. […]

  12. […] Footscray demolition of shops along the Nicholson Street bridge was […]

  13. […] first section of the new Nicholson Street bridge in […]

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