The common ground between Canberra Airport’s ambition to become Sydney’s 2nd Airport, and wish of the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to support it, is a future high speed rail link between both cities.
But this alignment of their respective ambitions derails the future potential of Canberra to become a national centre for corporate as well as political activity because they are motivated by entirely different needs.
Canberra Airport wants the rail link to be built, and will pay for a station at its airport in a flash.
The O’Farrell government uses it as an excuse to do nothing about the politically risky issue of a 2nd Sydney Airport, as it has neither the will nor money to spend a dollar on such a project as it addresses the enormous infrastructure deficiencies of the Sydney basin.
In this situation, neither Canberra Airport nor the NSW Government recognise the power of convenient air services to attract economic activity, or in this case, to encourage new or existing activity to locate or relocate to nearer or greater Canberra, including new or existing development sites just across the border (but not as the airport has long campaigned, to be located right under its flight paths, thus sealing off its capacity to grow.)
Canberra will pull such future investments off Sydney, as it chokes on its infrastructure issues, if it wants to participate in a process that is already evident in greater Melbourne and the emerging Brisbane-Gold Coast conurbation.
It makes sense for some Asia-Pacific enterprises to be located in Canberra, rather than frequently visiting Canberra from an adjacent state capital, especially as Canberra Airport gains more frequent flights to interstate cities or regional centres, and plans for the inevitability of longer haul international flights by Emirates, Singapore Airlines, and the China carriers that already want to put hundreds of additional flights a week into Australian cities.
In this sense Canberra Airport is already a potent catalyst for a transformed ACT economy, and a reminder that protecting as much of the adjacent Majura Plains and beyond as is necessary for a future much larger airport is critical to securely banking and realising that potential.
It is a reason why Canberra will or rather should, also benefit from substantial future developments of high speed rail access, not just to Sydney, but to empty places on today’s maps that will see what everyone should hope will be greener, better, communities.
But there is no need to sell Canberra’s future short by limiting it to being a remote and probably impracticably remote second airport for Sydney using a much delayed and abused public wish for a high speed rail link when the national capital’s future is in replacing Sydney as a growth destination rather than ameliorating its planning failures.
Consider the figures in relation to rail projects in general today. Infastructure Australia sees a construction cost of between $11-19.2 billion for a link of between 270-290 kilometres between Canberra and Sydney. The NSW Government, when cornered, concedes a cost of at least $5 billion including Federal contributions for a 23 kilometre NW rail link between Epping and Rouse Hill, a link that won’t even get commuters directly into the more distant Sydney CBD.
Yet the Sydney end of the Canberra link, which must include a station at Sydney Airport, involves much more than 23 kilometres of new surface and underground lines just to terminate anywhere useful in the city centre or Central station.
For Canberra to focus solely on a subservient relationship with Sydney through a HS rail link that may not be built in the lifetimes of anyone alive today is to sell its own future seriously short.
The game is not one of serving Sydney, but taking from Sydney, since it is there for the taking.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.