One of the spectacles mesmerising Australia’s airlines and media watchers alike is how what some see as the “attack-dog-right-wing tabloid” Daily Telegraph has turned on NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell over his inability to deliver transport solutions including a second Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek.

Today’s installment of this campaign by the newspaper is in fact rational and factually accurate regardless of where one might sit in the political spectrum.

The Daily Telegraph is pointing out that without adequate airport capacity in the Sydney basin, Sydney will lose economic activity at an accelerating rate, and the NSW economy will suffer, badly.

O’Farrell is opposed to another airport in Sydney and has a simplistic belief  that a high-speed rail link as far as Canberra for between around $11-25 billion will provide the answer through an expanded Canberra Airport.

This overlooks the much more likely outcome of the national capital’s airport expansion, which will be to expand and diversify the economic wealth of the national capital, at the expense of the NSW economy, while a few more billions are spent studying high speed rail options without result. This is what O’Farrell says in today’s Tele:

“You … know the attitude of the state government to a second Sydney airport — that is it shouldn’t be built in Sydney and if we’re sensible, we want to be modern; let’s build that fast rail link to the federal capital and let’s use Canberra Airport for whatever additional capacity for flights.”

The breakdown in logic in the O’Farrell position concerns linking high speed rail to a regionally close airport, which like most of Canberra is around three hours 15 minutes street legal drive time from the edges of Sydney’s inner traffic gridlock.

By and large high-speed rail is being used in Europe, Japan and China to travel between cities, not from a city to a remote airport. This is what will make high speed rail so important in Australia too, the inter-city links, at least over distances of up to 1000 kilometres or so.

O’Farrell leads a state which claims Sydney will be the number one destination for the China leisure and business travel boom, a demand which is estimated to see between 500-1000 additional non-stop flights from China’s cities direct to Sydney a week  between 2020-2025, a level of demand which will never be realized as you can’t physically park the numbers of additional large jets that will carry those passengers within the plausible design limits of terminals and taxiways at pocket sized Sydney airport.

That activity will go instead to other Australian gateways, where businesses that might have been located in the Sydney basin will have relocated. Some of those China visitors, to chose from the emerging economies to our north, may fight their way to Sydney via Melbourne or BrisVegas, but none of them will travel from China to Australia by rail, and the novelty of an internal high speed rail transfer to Sydney, should one ever be built before 2030, won’t be a novelty to anyone in China, which within a few years will have the world’s largest and fastest and one hopes, safest, high-speed rail network.

O’Farrell can have a second Sydney Airport at Badgery’s Creek for free. The cost of building it will be carried by whomever purchases the site from the federal government, which owns it.  It could yield at least a few billion dollars which could be invested by the federal government in the beginnings of a high speed rail network, if commonsense prevails.

It is possible that O’Farrell doesn’t understand how business travel works. When business travellers needs to fly, they have a low tolerance for having to board a train, no matter how brilliantly designed, to add several hours to their trip time, especially if it is at the start or finish of a flight that will last between 13.5 and 21.5 hours to get between Australia and Los Angeles or Frankfurt.

When people finish such trips they want to burn their clothes, not dash off to a railway station other than a city metro or regional connection at best. Imagine the Melbourne campaign of 2020: “Melbourne, 4 hours closer to America than Sydney!”

Business doesn’t locate in Sydney for the harbour views or the beaches. They locate in Sydney for its economic relevance, and if they are run by leaner, meaner managements, as those that survive generally are, they also fly far more of their staff more frequently than their competitors, and more often on low fares, not premium fares, so let’s not fall for the nonsense about how low cost carriers can be banished to back of Bourke.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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