The curious case of the new airport’s metro

Mar 30, 2021

Infrastructure Australia recently announced its refusal to include the proposed Western Sydney Airport Metro in its lists.  That apparently reasonable result is surrounded by a range of murky matters.

Each year Infrastructure Australia publishes a broad list of priorities – infrastructure proposals Governments should consider.  Within this is a short list of ‘projects’ – proposals recommended to proceed.

This year’s lists were announced on 26 February as ‘a record 44 new proposals’ – most are not recommended ‘projects’.  The lists, largely comprising a grab bag of State Government wishes, continue to reflect an absence of understanding of the Commonwealth’s proper role and Infrastructure Australia’s position in that.

Two Sydney Metro proposals were mentioned.  One, the under-construction City and Southwest etc, remained a ‘project’.  Its original classification as a project warrants investigation.  Since then, Infrastructure Australia’s hasn’t updated its assessment despite public revelations of a $4.5bn – $5.5bn cost blowout and a Parliamentary Inquiry recommending a major part of the project be abandoned.

The other mentioned Sydney Metro proposal is CBD-Parramatta.  This is likely to be less problematic than the City etc. one.  It has been on Infrastructure Australia’s broader list for five years, but a business case is yet to be evaluated.  Not even an order of magnitude cost is available.  Present speculation is it might cost in the order of $25bn.

Strange as these are, more curious is Infrastructure Australia’s later – 12 March – announcement of its refusal to put the Western Sydney Airport Metro on any list.

Especially as Infrastructure Australia had obliquely referred to – not identified – the proposal in the February list, acknowledged Commonwealth and State funding ($5.2billion each – a total about twice the cost of the airport) and said it would:

support growth in Western Sydney, including the new airport, by providing a transport link that can shape growth while providing fast and efficient transport accessibility’.  

And especially as the refusal attracted far more media attention than the lists.

The Airport Metro emulates the bizarre City etc. Sydney Metro: the wrong rail line

in the wrong place, going in the wrong direction at an exorbitant cost, permanently precluding any connection with – and damaging – Sydney’s rail network(s).

The proposal is based on an almost fraudulent 2018 report by Commonwealth and State Departments – rigged to give the answer ‘Sydney Metro’ to any question asked, or even not asked.  With a modification – the report’s study assumed any airport metro would extend to Schofields i.e. connect with the existing North-West Sydney Metro.  The proposal has the Airport Metro stopping at St Marys, 15km short of Schofields i.e. not connecting, and configured to prevent future connection – an option not appearing in the report and conflicting with the transport ‘strategy’.

The Airport Metro proposal was a hot topic in the NSW Legislative Council’s Budget Estimates, two days earlier – 10 March.   The land implications identified there – e.g. resumptions from existing land owners, notably 26 ha (36 football fields) at one station site – led to suggestions of it being more property play than transport idea.  Among other evidence: omission of a station at a university campus; Luddenham station sited 10km from the existing village; the Minister buck-passing key questions.

While a local Federal member told the House of Representatives the Airport Metro proposal is just pork barrel politics, the mere mention of a land grab should have sent alarm bells ringing from Sydney to Canberra.  Not least because activities of the Commonwealth Department, the Premier’s former secret boyfriend Mr Maguire etc. re land around the airport site are attracting the attention of law enforcement agencies.

Hence, it is eminently sensible for Infrastructure Australia to not give the proposal a tick of approval – to not recommend it as a ‘project’.  Yet Infrastructure Australia went further, issuing a media release announcing it wasn’t going on to the broader list.  Such announcements are rare – since 2014, there have been only seven – compared with 155 proposals on the 2020 list and 68 on the present list.

Why not just keep ‘reviewing’ the proposal?   While Infrastructure Australia received the business case in early February 2020 it did not mention the proposal in that year’s lists.  It did list the idea of some railway to the airport under the heading ‘‘corridor preservation for Western Sydney Airport rail connections’ – in which an unusually careful and well-informed reader might detect an opaque reference to a Sydney Metro proposal, albeit not consistent with ‘shortlisted options’.

Infrastructure Australia’s explanation of the rejection – a negative evaluation of the business case – introduced curios beyond its apparent exclusion prior to evaluation.  For a start, the oxymoronic  ‘detailed summary’ of the evaluation failed to identify any of the real problems besetting the proposal.

The evaluation did not provide a capital cost, excused by a comment the project is ‘in procurement’.  It didn’t comment on the fraud of the Departments’ study report – indeed it virtually repeats it: single deck trains for the airport cannot share tracks with Sydney Train’s double-deck fleet, ‘meaning’ the airport rail line must be physically separated from the existing network.  It falsely inferred reasonable options were considered.  Its (adverse) reference to seats is surprising – the outstanding feature of Sydney Metro proposals, the reason for promoting them – is their lack of seats.  Moreover, seating was excluded from criteria in the Departments’ study, and is not mentioned in the City etc. Sydney Metro evaluation.

The summary seems to want the reader to believe Infrastructure Australia discarded the proposal only on the basis of proponent claims of costs exceeding benefits.  True, even the proponent thinks the project lacks economic merit – a benefit:cost ratio of just 0.75 expected to destroy $1.8bn.  Given the apparently low-ball cost estimates, and reliance on property development for benefits, it is safe to assume much greater losses.

However, Infrastructure Australia explanation is superficial.  It does not mention anyone in Sydney not living in St Marys will ‘need’ to change trains up to four times to get to the new airport.  Nor that the Airport Metro has double the length of line and cost for none of the ridership the longstanding plan – extending the existing rail line from Leppington – would have delivered.  Nor did it state the obvious: running more single deck trains on Sydney Trains lines would destroy any supposed justification for this absurd proposal. In that it replicated the fundamental omission in Infrastructure NSW’s evaluation, dated November 2020 – which already had concluded the proposal would destroy at least $1.8 bn in value.

The reason to not recommend the Airport Sydney Metro applies equally to other Sydney Metro proposals:  it conflicts with transport basics.  It puts those basics back-to-front by designing infrastructure to preclude most vehicles and by putting short distance few-seat transit trains to many-seats-needed commuting tasks.  The unnecessarily small tunnels etc. jeopardise the existing commuter railway and forever prevent its augmentation.  In short, it is almost universally known there are vastly superior options to every Sydney Metro proposal, not just the one for the new airport.

But even, as seems likely, Infrastructure Australia does not understand the basics, there remains a conundrum.  While the Airport and City etc. Metros suffer the same core idiocies and inflict irredeemable transport problems and multi-billion-dollar economic losses on Sydney, Infrastructure Australia virtually advertises rejection of the former and endorsement of the latter.

After tucking the Airport Metro proposal – unnamed – away in fine print under a misleading heading, why publicise an adverse evaluation of it now?  Some months after Infrastructure NSW came to a similar conclusion?

Infrastructure Australia had the proposal for a year – but didn’t advertise that.  Nor did the 26 February media release on its lists mention the (18 February) decision to reject the proposal.  Indeed, while it claimed the ‘corridor preservation’ section – which obliquely referred to the proposal – was updated in February, the update didn’t give any suggestion of an evaluation, let alone a negative outcome.

Yet two days after the Legislative Council heard a new range of concerns – centring on property development around the new airport area – Infrastructure Australia issued a media release and summary evaluation condemning a proposal that was already funded by Governments to the tune of over $10bn.  A proposal previously regarded as ‘supporting growth’.

Even given its weakness in policy and transport analysis, some may suspect all the reasons for Infrastructure Australia’s treatment of the proposal are not disclosed in the ‘detailed summary’.

Were Infrastructure Australia to conduct its evaluations in public such suspicions would not be possible.  The failure to take such an obvious course of action makes this curious case yet another problem for ‘corporate’ Infrastructure Australia.

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