Bars hidden behind bookshelves, burger joints in unmarked 100-year-old churches and a theatrical French bistro deep underground in the CBD. Sydney restaurants and bars often compete to be the most discreet. Now, plans to convert St James train station’s “ghost” tunnels into a dining precinct could trump them all.

Sydney Trains has announced a proposal to convert 6000 square metres of disused tunnels beneath the CBD railway station into a hub of bars, restaurants and retail operators. If it goes ahead, the space will also function as an underground pedestrian passage linking the station and Martin Place.

The tunnel network – which lays 30 metres below street level and stretches from Hyde Park to the corner of Macquarie and Bridge Streets, and which has been dormant for decades – was built in the 1920s; the intention was that it would connect the northern beaches and the eastern suburbs train lines. That plan was abandoned during the depression, and during World War II they were designated as air-raid shelters.

In recent times, Sydneysiders have had a few rare opportunities to see the tunnels, either in real life or on screen. Scenes from Police Rescue and The Matrix Revolution were filmed there. And Sydney Trains has in the past conducted once-a-year tours of the “ghost” railway network.

At a press conference announcing the proposal, CBRE's retail leasing director Leif Olsen made reference to re-purposed railway areas from around the world, including the food hall at Grand Central Terminal in New York; and Dupont Underground, the arts and cultural precinct beneath Washington DC's Dupont Circle train station.

Sydney Trains is now accepting expressions of interest from businesses to realise the plans. The process is being managed by it and real estate services organisation CBRE.

“Spaces like the St James tunnel are rare,” said transport minister Andrew Constance in an official statement. “Around the world, hidden spaces are being converted into unique experiences and we want St James Station to be part of that. That’s why we’re casting the net right across the world. We want the world’s best to come up with the best ideas.”

The expressions of interest period closes November 6.