An animated history of the growth of the Boston metro system from 1897 to 2012 (click to view)

The inability of successive NSW and Australian governments to construct a second Sydney airport is taking on the proportions of a national tragedy. The failure to expand Sydney’s aviation capacity isn’t because of technical, environmental or financial difficulties – it’s solely due to political selfishness and opportunism.

The new study by the Federal and NSW governments, Joint study on aviation capacity for the Sydney region, estimates the economic losses from failure to act at $60 billion p.a. in foregone expenditure and $34 billion p.a. in foregone GDP by 2060. Nationally, 79,000 jobs would be foregone.

Airlines and travellers will experience even worse delays and higher costs, with the effects rippling across the country, unless decisive action is taken. The noise from Kingsford-Smith will get worse – the noise-sharing arrangements designed to spread noise impacts equitably will no longer work for most of the day. Huge increases in road and rail capacity will be required to cope with the ever increasing numbers wanting to get to and from Kingsford-Smith.

The site at Badgerys Creek is the obvious best location for a new airport and is recommended by the Federal-NSW joint study team. The Federal Government acquired 1700 Ha of land for the airport at Badgerys Creek 26 years ago.

The land has been protected from encroaching development and is close to existing transport infrastructure and growing passenger markets in western Sydney. An airport would provide a major source of employment in a region that could do with an economic shot in the arm.

Yet the Premier of NSW, Barry O’Farrell, says there shouldn’t be a second airport anywhere within earshot of Sydney. He proposes instead that Canberra Airport should be upgraded and linked to Sydney via a High Speed Rail (HSR) line.

Presumably Mr O’Farrell imagines he can sell his Canberra Option as visionary, economy-building and environmentally sustainable. But if so he would be completely and utterly wrong. It’s effectively a non-option – just more do-nothing. There are at least eight good reasons to question Mr O’Farrell’s wisdom on this issue.

First, a Canberra-Sydney HSR service would cater for 250 km of what is essentially unnecessary travel.  It would not replace an existing inefficient or environmentally damaging mode. It wouldn’t even satisfy some existing unmet demand. (Note that Sydney-Canberra passengers currently only account for 3.1% of all passengers through Kingsford-Smith).

Second, according to the HSR Phase 1 study prepared for the Federal Government last year, an HSR line between Sydney and Canberra would cost in the order of $30 billion to construct. That would be in addition to upgrading Canberra Airport. That’s serious money – if applied to Sydney’s public transport system the city could have a network to rival the best in Europe.

Third, the operating costs of the Canberra-Sydney leg would be high. One way economy airfares between Canberra and Sydney currently range from around $397 for a fully flexible ticket to $150 for a steeply discounted fare.

Economies of scale might lower the HSR fare, but then again loss of competition if airlines are forced out of the market could exert upward pressure. Alternatively, of course, all this unnecessary and ongoing travel could be funded by taxpayers at mind-boggling (recurring) expense.

Fourth, providing adequate frequencies and span of hours would be extraordinarily costly outside the peak when passenger loadings are low. As a benchmark, consider that Melbourne Airport’s SkyBus currently operates for most of the day and night at 10 minute frequencies. Kingsford-Smith’s Airport Link train offers 7 minute frequencies in the peak.

Fifth, the trip from Canberra to Sydney would add considerably to total journey time. In terms of flying distance, the two cities are 250 km apart. A train with a maximum speed of 300 km/h will still take around an hour to make the journey. Of course there’s also waiting time, which depends on frequencies – if trains only operate every half hour like Brisbane’s AirTrain, then journey times could be considerably longer.

Sixth, there will be extra travelling time for passengers connecting to flights at Kingsford-Smith (or vice versa). Connecting passengers make up 20% of all traffic though the existing airport. They include country NSW, interstate and international passengers travelling beyond the Sydney basin.

Connecting passengers would need to change to the existing Airport Link train service at Central. Alternatively, the HSR line could be routed to the CBD via Kingsford-Smith, but that would add to costs and extend the train trip time a little (the Phase 1 HSR study does not propose HSR should service existing airports).

Seventh, construction of 250 km of dual track carriageway with stations at Canberra, Parramatta and Sydney Central (and possibly Kingsford-Smith) would release enormous quantities of greenhouse gas during construction. A British study by Booz Allen estimates that a fast rail line from London to Manchester would emit more GHGs in construction than it could recover from lower air travel over the 60 year time horizon adopted for the analysis.

Operating trains with under-capacity passenger loadings in off-peak periods would also be costly in environmental terms, as trains consume a lot of energy – they only score well if they carry large numbers of passengers. And in this case, of course, the travel is essentially unnecessary.

Finally, the joint Federal-State study team unconditionally, unambiguously and emphatically ruled out the Canberra Option. The team included the Directors General of the NSW departments of transport and planning.

So, Mr O’Farrell’s Canberra Option is dubious to say the least. The main point of course is all that infrastructure and all that operating cost (both financial and environmental) would be for the purpose of meeting a need that doesn’t exist! It would be almost solely for Mr O’Farrell’s political convenience.

Some will argue that a second airport at Canberra makes sense in the context of a full HSR network along Australia’s East Coast, from Brisbane to Melbourne. That possibility is only logical if the full network makes sense and, as I’ve pointed out before, that’s highly improbable.

Another argument is that the Canberra Option would avoid the cost of upgrading transport infrastructure to Badgerys Creek. Since this site is already close to road and rail links, the additional expense is likely to be pretty small compared to the cost of 250 km of HSR and ongoing operating losses.

In fact depositing all those HSR passengers in the CBD or Parramatta would present its own challenges. Public transport and taxi capacity in these locations would need to be expanded to cope with the extra load as only a small proportion of passengers would be going to destinations within walking distance of stations. Public transport’s share of (Canberra) airport travel would doubtless increase at the expense of taxis and cars, but it would be bought at ludicrous expense.

Unfortunately, Simon Crean and Kevin Rudd both ruled out Badgery’s Creek. Anthony Albanese is now promoting an alternative site at Wilton. It’s not as good as Badgerys Creek – not even close – but it’s a lot better than O’Farrell’s Canberra Option, which is effectively another jelly back non-decision.

It might also be argued that Sydney’s failure to expand its aviation capacity doesn’t matter – it’s Brisbane and Melbourne’s gain. These cities would very likely pick up a lot of air traffic and economic activity repelled by Sydney, but the Emerald City is awfully important for Australia. I think it’s very likely Melbourne and Brisbane, on balance, will be worse off if Sydney’s aviation impasse isn’t resolved soon. All of Australia needs a second airport in Sydney.