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Unanswered infrastructure prayers

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 8 April 2011

Every day, I pray for a life without repeats. Unfortunately it doesn’t help, at least not for infrastructure planning.

This week produced more news about big infrastructure projects for Sydney. A government inquiry warned that without a second airport, Sydney could face severe flight disruptions within a decade. According to the transport minister, Anthony Albanese, Kingsford Smith Airport is already operating at capacity.

Responding to these forecasts, new NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell restated his opposition to a new airport. Instead, he proposed looking into high speed rail along the eastern coast, initially from Sydney to Canberra and eventually extending to Brisbane and Melbourne.

Neither Albanese nor O’Farrell display ‘fresh thinking’ in these matters. Talk of a high speed rail idea dates back to a CSIRO study in 1984. The first plans for Sydney’s second airport go back to the 1940s, predating the introduction of commercial jet aircraft.

Talking transport is so tedious because everybody knows the basic facts. Sydney Airport handles roughly 33 million passengers a year, which is close to what its existing runways and terminals allow. About half its passengers (17 million) travel to destinations along the route of a potential Melbourne to Brisbane rail link.

However tempting it may first sound, fast trains are notoriously expensive to build and operate. Consider the British government’s plan for a high speed network from London via Birmingham to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. The initial budget for the 540 kilometres track is $47 billion, but it would not be the first mega project to become more expensive once underway.

Given such figures, it is certain that the 1,800 kilometres from Melbourne via Sydney to Brisbane would be so costly to make even the National Broadband Network look like a bargain. Even if all 17 million air passengers switched to rail, it is doubtful high speed rail would ever be profitable. Last year, the federal government commissioned a new feasibility study into high speed rail in Australia. Save for a miracle, it will come to just this conclusion.

With high speed rail then ruled out, the debate about a second airport would re-open – yet again.

As I said, every day I pray for a life without repeats.

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