The new airport at Badgerys Creek will test national competition and state transport infrastructure policies and may reveal the latter to be gravely flawed. The usual Commonwealth-state funding fight spectacle should be treated as a trivial pantomime and not distract from the serious policy issues that must be addressed and their permanent consequences for many Australians. In any event, rich spoils extracted from the public purse await the airport’s owners and infrastructure industry players.
Western Sydney residents are told to be grateful about plans for a new airport, at Badgerys Creek some 60 km south west of the CBD.
According to the Commission for Sydney, the new airport will be the focal point for the ‘Western City’ part of Sydney, providing jobs, growth etc.
Now the ‘public interest’ has been addressed, it’s time for the real game to begin: dividing up the public assets among the major private players. It will be a testing time and expose significant policy problems. The most obvious concern is monopoly.
The spoils to be obtained from the Badgerys Creek include the right to charge anything and everybody who uses the airport during the next 100 years, including aircraft, cars and travellers. That is a period of time only slightly shorter than the period between when Orville and Wilber Wright claimed to make the first powered flight and today.
Sweetening that pot, Commonwealth and NSW governments will tip billions of your public funds into ‘much needed’ supporting road works.
Railways and (yes) even more roads are on the to-do list, notwithstanding that the road upgrades don’t look like working and the NSW government has an odd habit of picking the wrong types of railways like metros for commuting or trams for mass transit.
The infrastructure club is happy and some ‘experts’ talk of synergies if the present owners of Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport were to run the new airport.
Sydney Airport Corporation is front of the queue to own the new airport thanks to another Howard era policy coming home to roost. The corporation has first right of refusal, a part of the Kingsford Smith privatisation deal in 2002 aimed at artificially inflating the now long forgotten sale price.
To his credit, so far the Minister for Urban Infrastructure, the Hon. Paul Fletcher MP, is showing some spine. The Government hasn’t immediately handed over the Badgerys Creek site to Sydney Airport Corporation as some expected.
Yet supporting infrastructure built with public funds – your money – will enrich the owners of both the present and new airports and, despite the potential for a monopoly, there is no talk of limiting airport charges to economically or socially appropriate levels.
Credit should be given the chair of the ACCC, Mr Rod Sims, for raising the monopoly concerns and making the telling point that competition between Kingsford Smith and Badgerys Creek airports would be good; coordination does not need a single owner. He also made the sensible suggestion that the Government build the airport itself; presumably this would allow a later privatisation process to deal with monopoly issues.
Yet there is much more to the new airport than the concerns about monopolies. The airport will need to be served by a railway and that will test the state government’s rail ‘plan’.
The Sydney rail plan
My previous articles have commented on some public aspects of the NSW state government’s rail plan, Sydney’s rail future, released in 2012.
Remarkably, the plan did not recognise the possibility of a new airport at Badgerys Creek though it had long been mooted, even recommended. Around that time the state government’s Transport Minister, the Hon Gladys Berejiklian, MP had ‘reiterated’ opposition to a second airport in the Sydney basin.
More remarkably, the state’s (summary) ‘business case’ for a city and south-west metro, published well after the Commonwealth’s go-ahead announcement for Badgerys Creek, appeared ignorant of the proposed airport. It seemed to assume a major new airport would have no impact on passenger flows or the operation of Sydney’s transport network(s).
My previous articles identified some ‘unanswered questions’ about the rail plan, particularly the suitability of the under-construction $20 billion plus (so far) metro and, much more seriously, whether its design will hamstring Sydney’s commuter rail system. They questioned whether the government’s motives might be to increase private sector participation and undermine trade unions. Planning for the Badgerys Creek Airport may reveal some answers to those questions.
Despite my doubts about the plan, one of its themes – a single-deck fleet like that proposed for the new metro – would suit airport travellers much better than current double-deck commuter trains.
Hence it is surprising that, while there is talk of extending the metro 100km or more from the city to Badgerys Creek, it seems there are no plans for a 10km metro from the city to Kingsford Smith airport at Mascot, despite that being the most natural and cost effective route for a metro in Sydney.
Indeed, the metro planned by the state government strangely seems to avoid Kingsford Smith, leaving airline passengers with the inconvenience of having to travel into the CDB in less suitable double-deck commuter trains. So much for the state government’s frequent claim that the customer is at the centre of things or that the metro will provide an ‘easy door to door experience’. This, and related aspects of the plan, are very odd and demand better explanation.
The idea of having the present line through Kingsford Smith, served by packed commuter trains, originated in 1990 when the Hon. Bruce Baird AM was Transport Minister. It was supposed to be largely funded by the private sector. Of course the government paid for most of it and the private party, the Airport Link, ran into financial troubles. The slow take-up of rail travel by airport users after the line opened in 2000 is attributable to the wrong type of trains for an airport and exorbitant fares at privately owned stations. Now, ironically, there is a stubborn refusal to (re)introduce single-deck trains where they are needed!
Back to 2017: the new airport is much further from the CBD than Kingsford Smith and a long way from any existing rail line. According to reports, the government’s new metro is designed to be forever incompatible with the existing, extensive, commuter railway. That could create enormous problems.
Even without a new airport, a new commuter rail line may be needed on a north-south axis near or through the Badgerys Creek site: between Leppington (Airport/East Hills line) and St Mary’s (West line). Such a rail line would efficiently, flexibly and cost effectively perform a variety of tasks, including connecting the new airport to the City, servicing the West line and serving large population and business growth in south-west Sydney.
To realise this potential another harbour commuter rail crossing might be needed. However, there are signs the under-construction metro may effectively preclude such a crossing and thus undermine any north-south commuter rail plan, including through Badgerys Creek.
Alternatively, it might be possible to extend the new metro from Norwest through St Mary’s to the new airport. However, its circuitous route to the CBD would be far from optimal for travellers. Travellers to the airport from the south could use the commuter system, although its operation may be hampered by capacity issues through the CBD.
The result of this type of plan would be a more costly, complex, fragile and less flexible system than the commuter line approach. Also, as metro is (reportedly) incompatible with the commuter railway, it may mean much airport land is needed for two rail terminus devoted to turning both metro and commuter trains around, and allowing passengers to interchange between them!
Given the above-mentioned difficulties for a north-south (airport) railway through Badgerys Creek, an east-west metro type connection may be the best option. The state government has floated ideas of extending the south-west metro to Liverpool, and a west metro from the CBD to Parramatta. A further extension from either to Badgerys Creek (20km from Liverpool, 35km from Parramatta) could be considered, although the distances mean metro ideas need to be substantially modified for these segments.
However, here too there are obvious problems. The single line nature of the new metro renders it vulnerable to capacity, balancing and disruption issues as it grows longer; problems that may affect its full extent including north of the harbour. Mitigation would require expensive works to the east and north of the CBD including building more metro lines; greatly increasing costs.
Simple cost-effective options for transporting passengers to developments like Badgerys Creek, such as reintroducing some single-deck trains onto relevant commuter lines and directly linking the two airports, the entire global arc and Parramatta, no longer seem possible.
It can be argued that the rush to start a metro system in Sydney, its introduction in an inappropriate part of the city and its incompatibility with the existing rail network is reducing the effectiveness of Sydney’s transport systems and their ability to deal with new demands, with Badgerys Creek being the first test. Undoubtedly more tests will surface in the years ahead.
Given these doubts it is little wonder the western Sydney rail discussion paper, issued late last year, was disgracefully vague and self-contradictory. It looked like the harbinger of a ‘global’ scale mess disadvantaging the people and future of Sydney and giving an unpleasant edge to Commissioner Turnbull’s vision of ‘3 cities in Sydney’.
Yet, interminable public spending on planning and building over-engineered and (what should be) unnecessary infrastructure, may provide rich spoils for the private sector.
Who knows? The government touts ‘transparency’ for matters of no public interest like internal contractual disputes with rail construction companies, but there is deafening silence and opacity about the real rail issues in Sydney.
Perhaps the only way to get attention is to note another ‘problem’ arising from the rail plan: Ms Turnbull’s 3 cities will forever require two major airports; a large fly in the ointment of the almost inevitable proposal to redevelop Kingsford Smith with apartments.
City deal anyone?
Unfortunately, it is likely that the Commonwealth Government and its bureaucracy will limit its interest in Badgerys Creek to money issues. The main issue will be how to maximise ‘sale proceeds’ that accrue to the Commonwealth. That will encourage sale advisers and smart merchant bankers to tell the Commonwealth to restrict competition via ‘commercial’ clauses. Hopefully the appalling practice of state governments sometimes hiding such clauses from the public, their parliaments, or even worse pretending the clauses do not exist, will not take root at the Commonwealth level.
Some advisers might also tell the Commonwealth to pump more money into supporting infrastructure that will enhance airport profits; like more roads to assist airport users access car parks at the site. Worse, this might come at the cost of deferring or cutting more responsible spending on services like bus rapid transit or rail routes.
However, the consequences of such advice pale into insignificance when compared with what might happen if the Federal Government does not involve itself in the railway network issues.
Unfortunately, like previous Federal Governments, the present Government and its advisers are likely to view their task as only deciding how much or which parts of the NSW government’s rail plan the Commonwealth will fund. For example it may decide its role is limited to helping airport users travel to a certain destination (e.g. Parramatta) and limit Commonwealth outlays to infrastructure that facilitates that. Adopting that attitude would be a mistake with far reaching and permanent adverse consequences.
Commonwealth responsibility is not so limited. In a matter as important as the Sydney rail plan, the usual formulaic Commonwealth-State funding argument would be a trivial pantomime.
When the Commonwealth Government provides funding for rail in Sydney, it assumes at least an ethical responsibility for the entire rail plan. If it does not intend to accept that responsibility it should make a public disclaimer that it disowns responsibility for the railway it funds.
The Commonwealth and its advisers should step in and do what the state government has not done. It should obtain expert and proper assessment of the state government’s plans and actions, challenge the dubious claims of the state government and answer the many questions I have already raised. The public must be confident the Commonwealth has the matter in hand.
The issues need to be sharply contested by the Commonwealth, not ignored because of fearfulness, a ‘spirit of cooperation’ or ‘deal’ among governments, or prospects of a bronze plaque.
A public inquiry into the rail plan etc. is probably inevitable at some time in the future.
A Commonwealth Parliamentary inquiry is urgently needed. Happy New Year.
John Austen is a happily retired, Sydney western suburbs dweller. He was Director of Economic Policy for Infrastructure Australia from its inception in 2008 until his retirement in 2014. Further background is at thejadebeagle.com