Follow us on FacebookFollow us on Twitter

The Substation

Cultural Significance

The electrification of the Melbourne suburban rail network has historical importance both nationally and internationally.

On a national level, it was the first large-scale electric transport network, preceded only by a few electric street tramways. The first electric railway line in Sydney did not begin until 1926, and the only other Australian cities to have an electrified rail network are Brisbane, which did not convert its lines until 1979, and Perth, which began electric services in 1991.

On an international level, the Melbourne suburban network was, at the time of its completion, the largest electrified service converted from steam operation in the world, and its power generating capacity was unsurpassed in the Southern Hemisphere.

In January 1924, the Victorian Railways Magazine noted that the only comparable system would be the recently approved electrification of the Chikako Lake Shore lines, based on a similar 1500 DC overhead transfer. The adoption of this type of systems for the Melbourne electrification systems was a bold move, as in 1912 as no railway had installed an overhead system with a pressure of 1500 volts DC. In this respect, the Melbourne electrification scheme became the model for later installations in England, France, Holland, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand and India.

Read more: Cultural Significance



The Newport Substation is a large red brick and cement render neo-Classical building designed by the Way and Works Branch of the Victorian Railways in conjunction with the engineering firm Werz and MacLellan.

The facades are divided into three sections: a cement rendered basement with square perforated metal ventilation openings; a face brick lower floor with rectangular window openings having cement rendered voussoirs; and a 'piano noble' with tall rounded arched window openings having rendered drip moulds and keystones. A rendered moulding separates the lower floor from the main level, and another encircles the building at the arch opening line. A deep rendered cornice and a brick parapet top the building.


The two halves of the building are distinguished by the machine hall projecting forward at each end as separate pavilion, topped by a semi-circular pediment. The switch cell section has brick panels dividing the upper window openings, and has an insert balcony along the side of the building at the mid-level; wrought iron balustrading spans between the brick piers.

The whole side of one side of the building is taken up by the machine hall, which is a full height space broken up at the lower level by dividing walls, forming separate bays, which housed the rotary converters. At one end is a loading bay originally served by a siding from the adjacent track, and a bay for signaling equipment is adjacent to the bay in larger substations. At the basement level on this side of the building are separate walls designed to support the heavy equipment; these form a series of catacomb-like rooms.

On the other side of the building is the switchgear housed on three levels in separate cells with interlocked doors; each cell is continuous through all levels. Various types of switching apparatus are located on the first two levels, the second level opening to the balcony. At the top level is the bus bar chamber, which provides power to all the cells. Stairwells at each end of this section provide access to all levels; steel ladders reach the bus bar chamber.

The main operating floor is the middle level, which has a gallery and balcony overlooking the rotary bays. An office and bathroom are provided at one end of the this level, below which are battery rooms and other ancillary spaces including the building entry. Below the operating gallery is a row of DC switch cells.

There are five surviving examples of this type, located at Newmarket, Newport, Glenroy, North Fitzroy and Albion. The largest is Newmarket while the smallest is Glenroy. At Newport and North Fitzroy, the basic plan is varied by the switchgear section being one window bay shorter than the machine hall at one end of the building.

The use of the neo-Classical style for these substations are comparable with other buildings designed by the Way and Works Branch during the same period. These include Flinders Street Station, additions to the Spencer Street Administrative Offices, and the Jolimont Car Repair Sheds and several other station buildings.


Building Progress

March 2011

Much has been achieved at The Substation over the last 12 months, as we move from being an infrastrucutre project towards being a fully-fledged arts facility & organisation.

Whilst there are still some major building works to be undertaken (namely the installation of a hydronic heating system throughout the building), we hope to have finished this phase of the organisation's life by June this year.

Key achievements over the last 12 months included:

  • the refurbishment of The Substation Gallery, including cladding of the gallery walls, expanding the mezzanine exhibition spaces, and installing a professional hanging system
  • the creation of a new space - the Community Access Gallery to ensure that local artists and community groups have access to high profile, low cost exhibiting opportunties
  • The installation of theatrical rigging, lighting, sound and drapery systems in the Performance Space creating the premier performance venue in Melbourne's western suburbs
  • the installation of our Reception desk and improvements to the foyer area

This work has put the finishing touches on a spectacular new community arts facility, which is unlike any other venue in Melbourne.

The Substation acknowledges the tireless efforts of its building team, casual workers and volunteers whose efforts have made this possible.

March-April 2009

The lift was opened on 26 March by Wade Noonan MP - Member for Williamstown and Angela Altair - Deputy Mayor of Hobsons Bay City Council.

It was a wonderful morning tea with representatives and participants of many organisations that supported our successful grant in attendance. Everyone enjoyed riding in the lift and the art exhibition.

The lift was made possible by a Community Support Fund Grant through the Department of Planning and Community Development.

Other major achievements over the last month include:

  • Café doors installed
  • Multipurpose room doors glazed
  • Level 4 toilets progressing
  • Fire hydrant service being connected
  • Fire detection system being installed


















Wade Noonan MP opens the lift - March
(photo Chris Ransom)

Read more: Building Progress



Originally used to convert electricity for the railways for half a century, Newport’s substation is one of the oldest in the metropolitan system, and also one of the largest.

Once operations at the substation ceased in the late 1960s, the building was left abandoned and derelict for 27 years. In 1996 local residents embarked on the enormous task of restoring the building and converting it into a community arts facility.

After 12 years of hard work The Substation has officially opened its doors to the public in late 2008.

Interesting Facts

Construction: 1915

Architect: Victorian Railways Way and Works Branch, in association with Merz and MacLellan

Builder: Victorian Railways

A site on railway land was selected for the Newport Substation in 1913, and by June 1915 the building was two-thirds complete. It was one of the first five substations, constructed by the Railways Department because of delays in receiving tender documents from Merz. Completed in June 1916, it was designed to house three 1500kW rotary converters, which were not installed until 1919. The building was designed so those larger units could easily fitted if required. It began operation when electric services were extended to Williamstown on 27th August 1920, and it function was replaced by new buildings erected at Yarraville and Williamstown in 1967.

Owner: VicTrack

Significance: Newport is one of the oldest substations in the metropolitan systems, and also one of the largest, comparable to the North Fitzroy substation and slightly smaller than the Newmarket substation. It displays an exceptionally high level of integrity not seen in any other extant examples of this substation design, and although much of the original equipment has been removed or vandalised, the building is highly demonstrative of early twentieth century power generating practices. The building has strong visual and functional associations with the nearby Newport railway workshops, established in 1882.

The building has strong associations with the inauguration of electric services, due to its construction during the first phase of the scheme. It is also important for its associations with the engineering firm Merz and MacLellan, who designed the electrification scheme as well as the early substations in association with the VR Way and Works Branch. Its construction by the Victorian Railways sets the building apart from contemporary Railways structures built under contract.


More Articles...