Proposed HSR station at Canberra Airport

In the same week the privately-owned operator of Canberra Airport released a report supporting its bid to be Sydney’s second airport, the Prime Minister poured cold water on the idea of linking the two cities by High Speed Rail (HSR).

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the PM said a very fast rail link between Sydney and Canberra is “some time away”. She added:

We’ve had Minister [Anthony] Albanese scope all of this out, through a feasibility study and the truth is it’s a lot of money for a fast train that will do not only the interconnection from Sydney to Canberra, but also the interconnection to Melbourne….. I think it’s some time away, before you would see population density at a point where it would make it viable.

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Establishing a second Sydney airport 250 km away in Canberra still has the dogged support of NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, who unreservedly rejects the idea of another major airport within the metropolitan area. But precious few others agree, even those close to Mr O’Farrell.

Both the  State Infrastructure Strategy released last week by Infrastructure NSW and the Federal/State Joint study on aviation capacity in the Sydney region have dismissed his idea.

Moreover, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce upped the ante this week, calling on the Premier to reject the Canberra option and get on with constructing a second airport in Sydney.

Mr O’Farrell is wrong on this and we all know he is wrong on this….We need a second Sydney airport – we don’t need another airport in NSW. There’s no point building fast-train links to places like Canberra and assuming that is going to fix the problem…. I don’t think even Michael O’Leary from Ryanair would have had the gall to claim Canberra was the second Sydney airport – he makes outrageous calls on airports around the world.

The report prepared by the owners of Canberra Airport, Capital Airport Group Pty Ltd, to support its bid for second airport status, makes some outrageous calls too. As would be expected, the report is self-serving and spun like fairy floss.

One of its more outrageous claims is that it would only cost $11 billion dollars to build an HSR link from “Canberra Airport to Sydney CBD”. That, it says, is “about the same (cost) as building a new airport at Wilton”.

The figure comes from the Commonwealth Phase 1 HSR study released a year ago. But the report says there’s only a 10% chance that estimate wouldn’t be exceeded. No one uses that figure – the preferred estimate is $19 billion because at least there’s a 90% chance it won’t be exceeded.

An additional 15% has to be added for procurement costs. There’s initial purchase of rolling stock too. Then, because a Canberra Airport would be used mostly for international flights, the HSR line has to be routed via Sydney Airport to facilitate connecting flights. That requires another station, suggesting a figure approaching $30 billion would be more plausible.

Of course, Capital Airport Group isn’t proposing to put up any of this money. It presumably would fund a station at Canberra Airport but everything else would be at public expense.

Its report also makes the outrageous claim that it would be faster to travel to Sydney CBD from Canberra by HSR than from Sydney Airport. The company estimates the HSR time as 57 minutes, although it doesn’t account for time lost in stopping at the airport station and (presumably) at an outer suburban station.

But what makes the claim ridiculous is Sydney’s AirportLink train currently only takes 11 minutes to travel from the domestic terminal to Central Station! It appears the report is restricting the comparison to peak hour road travel between Sydney Airport and the CBD.

There’s a whole raft of issues with the idea of locating a second Sydney Airport in Canberra. Relative to a Sydney location, they include the additional fares for HSR (Sydney-Canberra airfares are $130-$397), low off-peak frequencies, the high environmental costs of construction and operation, loss of competition on the route, and additional journey time.

I discussed these and more back in April 2012, so those interested can read Would HSR solve Sydney’s airport woes?

No one should be beguiled into thinking this is a ‘progressive’ idea just because it involves trains. This isn’t substituting trains for air travel or road travel (it might even increase kilometres of air travel – Canberra is 250 km south east of Sydney).

What it really boils down to is two things. First, it would mean the rest of us pay a lot of unnecessary money so Barry O’Farrell can have an easy out from a political problem. And second, it would enable Capital Airport Group Pty Ltd to make a killing it hardly anticipated when it bought Canberra Airport back in 1998.

More generally, the comments made by the Prime Minister this week suggest the prospects for a wider east coast HSR service connecting Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne aren’t promising. The signs are the Commonwealth’s Phase 2 report will lay the whole idea to rest. If so, may it rest in peace.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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