Airports & aviation

Oct 10, 2012

Seriously, can Canberra really be Sydney’s second airport?

Barry O'Farrell and Canberra Airport believe High Speed Rail will allow Sydney's second airport to be located 250 km away in Canberra. Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, reckons the idea is outrageous.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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.

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.

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

25 thoughts on “Seriously, can Canberra really be Sydney’s second airport?

  1. Ned Kelly

    Barry your letting the side down badly , Ask the public of NSW and find out what they think , LOL oh sorry , Thats right , you already know , They DONT want it there , But your doing the same as Gillard , ignoring the people , Careful doing doing that Barry , we will only give you one chance mate , you have already shot yourself in one foot , dont shoot the other eh .

  2. Alan Davies

    So that seems to be the end of the Canberra option:

    Second airport plan dashed

    Amazed though that “All new homes must be insulated against noise.”

  3. Alan Davies

    Sportsbet have opened a book on the location of Sydney’s second airport, but no mention of the Canberra option. From the website:

    Location of Sydneys 2nd Airport. Pay out on legislation being passed for Sydney’s second airport by Nov 2013. If legislation not passed, all bets are voided.

    Badgerys Creek
    Nepean (Western Sydney)
    Central Coast

  4. Rais

    If you’re going to build a Melbourne – Canberra – Sydney high speed rail you’d better hurry up and do it while you can still make Western Australia pay for it!

  5. Alan Davies

    Evan Granger #20:

    I read somewhere that Canberra Airport is affected by fog six days a year, on average. Can’t recall source.

    Cheque’s in the mail!

  6. Evan Granger

    G’day all,

    Looks like the comments section for this article has quickly turned into a HSR discussion, rather than a discussion on where syd’s second airport should be located. I’ll try to get it back on track (I hope my payment’s in the mail, Alan).

    I’d like to ask you all your thoughts on Canberra and fog?
    Is it really wise to direct even more air traffic to an airport that is plagued by fog problems?
    OR is the fog problem just a beat up? Not being a local, I wouldn’t know for sure.

    If those pesky Federation-types didn’t have their way on founding Canberra, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

  7. michael r james

    Let me reveal my prejudices: I don’t believe any AngloSaxons should be put in charge of planning & running trains. Yes, yes they invented them and built most of them around the world in the 19th century but somewhere in the 20th they lost the ability and enthusiasm. It was passed to the Europeans (and yes, the historic enemy France! the gall) and Japanese (and in 21stC to Chinese). Of course they are not too hot on airlines or airports either. I might make a noble exception for Richard Branson. In the early days of Eurostar I often wished Branson had won the rights, or that it was split between two companies. Yes, get your Rod Eddingtons and Nick Greiners lined up against the wall and … Instead Nick Greiner is being given the power of a latterday Robert Moses. They and their ilk are miring Australian transport policy in the dark ages, for another few decades at least.

    Incidentally I see that the channel tunnel has been so successful that it is being proposed to build a new one with bigger bore tunnels so that capacity will be tripled! They’ll probably get it built before we get any HSR to anywhere.

  8. IkaInk

    @Ben Shea – That article is quite funny in the scheme of things. 12 years ago and the debate nor the ideas don’t seem to have changed. I imagine that if Qantas was given monopoly control of the HSR network in Australia then perhaps Joyce might support it.

  9. michael r james

    Ben Shea at 3:55 pm

    The Narita train is not a HSR! It may be a fast train but it only serves one purpose to connect the (distant) airport to the city. In the same manner, the super-fast MagLev that connects Shanghai airport to the city (31km) is not a part of any discussion of HSR. It is just an extension of the city’s Metro system like in any big city. (It is true that they have dreamed of extending it to the Hangzhou airport across the bay and that would begin to ressemble what we are talking about, especially if it continued on to Hangzhou city but that is all on ice.)

    As covered partly in the discussion above of IkaInk at 4:17 am, using HSR to link airports doesn’t really make any sense except in exceptional circumstances. Which is not the case of Canberra airport serving as de facto airport for Melbourne and Sydney–because in this case the HSR is to ferry pax to Melbourne city and Sydney city.

  10. Ben Shea

    @michael r james: saying that around the world HSR does not serve airports is incorrect.
    That high speed train serves Narita. I’ve taken it from Narita to downtown Tokyo. Works like a dream.

  11. Ben Shea

    Hilarious reading this! Just found a NYT article from 2000 in which Qantas is more than supportive of this idea (Speedrail) and even offers to do the onboarding for the passengers, “The Australian airline Qantas will be contracted to carry out passenger handling, including on-board services, ticketing and station management. The line will also have stations at the Sydney and Canberra airports.”
    Also found an article from the ABC in 2000 talking about three decades of federal government inaction. Must now be four.
    Talk about recycling news!

  12. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #13:

    Yes, that’s what I’ve said but you (and marcfranc earlier and Russ more recently) make a fair point I hadn’t properly considered. On that basis I’ll back off on the KSA station argument. As I noted at #10, that reduces the capital cost to around double Canberra Airport’s estimate, still a significant difference.

  13. IkaInk

    Alan, let me get your thinking straight here, because at the moment its baffling me and I’m not sure if I’m understanding you.

    1) You believe that if Canberra was used as the secondary airport, connecting flights would not leave Canberra because there wouldn’t be enough passengers, and therefore passengers would catch the HSR to KSR for their connections?

    2) You believe that if a second airport was built in Sydney, a fair amount of people would travel from one airport to the other for connecting flights?

    You haven’t said 2) directly, but I feel it must be implied as a result of 1). If its not, please explain how the economy of scale would change if the second airport was located in Sydney instead of Canberra.

    I bring this up, because I’ve travelled a fair bit in my relatively short life so far, and I’ve never left one airport to travel to another for a connecting flight. I can’t imagine its something done often at all, even for two airports in the same city.

  14. michael r james

    Of course in the next-door blog Ben Sandilands has some thoughts about the effect of such links to Canberra:

    Canberra aims too low in wanting to be Sydney’s 2nd airport
    BEN SANDILANDS | OCT 08, 2012
    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 ….
    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.]

    But as I previously remarked Sydney and NSW government would realize their mistake in even “fantasy support” of the HSR link when they thought it through. Maybe not Bob Carr who has always wanted to stop Sydney growing. I have some differences with Ben but not on this: there is no doubt in the world that if done correctly Canberra (or adjoining territory in NSW, even Gouburn) would begin to become Sydney’s fourth CBD (after N Syd & Parramatta).

  15. michael r james

    IkaInk at at 6:23 am

    I agree. I can’t be bothered to go over all the same points with Alan. The Phase 2 report of course will not strongly recommend building it–or the government’s response to it as transparently previewed by la Gillard–entirely on the basis of cost, a cost which is the main “outrage”. Like AD’s “preferred cost of $19bn”.

    OK, just to deal briefly with this one:
    “I can’t see how it would make sense to build HSR from Canberra to Sydney CBD and not route the line via KSA.”

    I don’t get it. You think people will fly into Canberra just to HSR it to Sydney KSA for another flight? That’s obviously not the way it would work. (But it is another reason why KSA and Sydney will fight this idea since it would certainly lead to a big expansion in Canberra airport and flights to everywhere.) And you can see around the world HSR does not serve airports—this Canberra airport connection is the special case of substituting it for Sydney airport (but for pax bound for Sydney not its airport!). The Eurostar does not go to Heathrow or CDG. (After 25 y of operation there is now a TGV line that goes to CDG because of the demand for pax from north (London, Brussels, Amsterdam) bypassing Paris altogether for the south of France; this line takes pressure off Paris trains plus takes air pax directly south. And actually nearby Disneyland visitors too, all designed to take pressure off the Paris TGV lines which have become hugely popular.)

    However now that I think back, there were ideas mooted before Eurotunnel was built for a new mega-international airport in the middle of the route (a Anglo-French airport) whose purpose would have been very similar to the Melb-Can-Syd concept.

    As to comments that this line would not displace many flights, puuurleeese! Re-read IkaInk’s first post. Also in all city pairs where a HSR link is established the air service almost disappears within the first year of HSR operation. And as I am weary of saying, if Canberra was made Sydney’s (& Melbourne’s) second airport the HSR would have a huge captive set of pax that would be a big help in its finances.

    As to Alan Joyce, seriously? OTOH it would be interesting to hear what Richard Branson would say since he has not only started and run successful airlines but also has run a fast (not HS) railway (London to Scotland).

  16. Alan Davies

    Russ #8:

    Thanks Russ. Sorry to just reference your comment but I was too flat-chat to reply in detail to marcfranc today.

    Anyway, I can’t see how it would make sense to build HSR from Canberra to Sydney CBD and not route the line via KSA.

    Connecting passengers make up 20% of all traffic though Sydney airport. They include country NSW, interstate and international passengers travelling beyond the Sydney basin. I don’t have a figure but I expect connections make up a significantly larger proportion of international travellers e.g. my last two OS trips from Melbourne were both via Sydney.

    I think it would be hard for Canberra Airport to attract large numbers of international flights if HSR didn’t go via KSA. For example, inbound connecting passengers would have to wait for probably an average of 15 minutes for HSR at Canberra, then travel for an hour to Central, and then catch AirportLink to KSA to get a domestic flight to their destination.

    Update: I realise now you’re arguing airlines would provide additional domestic connections directly into Canberra. I’d have to disagree with that. There’d be huge diseconomies. It would mean woeful flight frequencies out of Canberra. I can’t see it working.

    In any event, even without a KSA station, the cost of building HSR is still double Canberra Airport’s estimate of $11 billion. That’s $19 billion + 15% procurement. Then there’s the initial rolling stock set-up. A 30 minute frequency needs 6 train sets, plus emergencies, but I don’t know the cost (an Airbus A380 costs circa $300 million).

    A reminder too that there are quite a few other reasons why Canberra is a bad idea.

    Dylan Nicholson #9:

    Building an airport at Badgerys Creek is more sensible than any other option IMHO.

  17. Dylan Nicholson

    I have to say it’s not a topic I know much about, but presumably the option of doing something like Osaka or Hong Kong has and building a new airport on an artificial island is more sensible than Canberra…

  18. Russ

    Since my name was mentioned… marcfranc, there was a lot more to my comment than that. Notably that different airport options suit different travel patterns. A Canberra airport, being further from Sydney, would best suit international flights that could serve the entire South-East basin from an interior hub; it’s value as a low-cost second airport is quite limited because it is quite some distance from Sydney, a HSR from Sydney to Canberra won’t displace many flights, and it won’t divert passengers who don’t really need to use KSA.

    I’ll add here that a second airport in that area can (and probably ought) to be considered independently of a HSR. It may be worthwhile regardless, but again, mostly for international flights where it would serve Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide relatively well, and free up KSA capacity for short-hop domestic flights.

    And it is here I must disagree with Alan. If international flights are leaving from Canberra, then it is only a matter of common sense that domestic connections will go direct to Canberra, and not KSA. There is no need for a link back. Indeed, it would rather be the point not to do so, since those flights make up a significant chuck of KSA traffic.

  19. marcfranc

    Alan Davies:

    I may be missing something, but the only relevant comments on your earlier post (from ‘Russ’) appear to claim that transit passengers would have no reason to travel to a low-cost airport and therefore they wouldn’t use Canberra?

    Just to restate: You appear to claim that a Canberra-Sydney HSR link would cost almost three times the amount estimated by Canberra Airport largely because it would need to include a stop at Kingsford-Smith Airport on the basis that a small percentage of passengers through KSA are not served by the connections currently available through Canberra Airport.

    Barry O’Farrell and Canberra Airport are talking about east coast HSR as an alternative to a second Sydney BASIN airport. Would a Canberra Airport connected to Sydney by HSR be seen as ‘Sydney (Canberra) International Airport’ or just ‘Canberra International Airport’? Who cares.

  20. marcfranc

    Alan Davies:

    The only reference I can find in your previous post to a Canberra-Sydney HSR having to be routed via KSA is “Connecting passengers make up 20% of all traffic though the existing airport. They include country NSW, interstate and international passengers travelling beyond the Sydney basin.”

    I don’t know how you get from there to the proposition that Canberra Airport would be used mostly for international flights and therefore the HSR line has to be routed via Sydney Airport to facilitate connecting flights.

    Obviously, the very small percentage of travellers who would need to connect with flights at KSA (travellers to and from some country NSW destinations and some Pacific islands?) wouldn’t use an upgraded Canberra Airport. They would of course fly direct to/from KSA.

    I don’t think anybody is taling about making increased use of Canberra Airport to the extent that we would close KSA. Rather, that another airport for the Sydney basin looks unlikely for political reasons and Canberra Airport could take some of the load, particularly if we could get east coast HSR (which depending on the extent of such a network would dramatically reduce the volume of air travel in and out of Sydney generally).


    As mentioned, you need to read the comments, too. And note that neither O’Farrell nor Canberra Airport is talking about east coast HSR as an alternative to a second Sydney airport. They still want a second airport, only in Canberra. AD

  21. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #3:

    So, you’re suggesting just five words, “may it rest in peace”, at the very end of an article, and dependent on the Phase 2 report reaching a negative finding, constitute an assault on east coast HSR? Hmmmm. And I don’t think it’s at all obvious that if HSR were built from Sydney to Canberra it would inevitably be extended to Melbourne. And what’s Gillard’s bias in this case that I should’ve mentioned?

    marcfranc #4:

    Why a Canberra airport would primarily be used for international flights is discussed in my previous post and especially in the associated comments (e.g. see here). The line would need to go to KSA to enable connections. Those who live in Sydney might not realise how often international flights terminate in Sydney. As for taking “another opportunity to scorn the concept of east coast HSR”, see my response to IkaInk at #2.

  22. marcfranc

    Canberra Airport may or may not be a viable substitute for a second Sydney airport, but you are using Canberra’s Airport’s possibly overreaching ambitions as yet another opportunity to scorn the concept of east coast HSR.

    Of course Canberra Aiport’s report is self-serving — as is the contribution of every other interested party in the debate about HSR, including mine as a potential user.

    Canberra Airport’s cost estimates of $11 billion may be optimistic, but where do you get your $30 billion? Apparently in part ‘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.’

    Why? The Canberra Airport report makes no mention of a stop at KSA. Canberra Aiport handles around 850 flights a week to and from Australian destinations. Why would people arriving or departing Canberra Airport have to connect with flights at KSA? Even with Canberra taking overflow traffic from Sydney it’s unlikely the number of international flights would approach the existing number of domestic flights.

    Really, you need to get out of Melbourne more if you are going to comment on urban issues outside Victoria. Alternatively, perhaps go back to being the Melbourne Urbanist

  23. IkaInk

    You’re right, I did get distracted by the HSR debate again (on which I’ve commented lots), but don’t think Alan Joyce isn’t completely aware that if HSR is built to Canberra it will almost certainly be built to Melbourne and eventually Brisbane as well. Alan Joyce will never publicly state that HSR is a good idea in Australia because the domestic market is still bread and butter to Qantas and any competition, especially along the East-Coast could seriously hurt the company, as Joyce has himself claimed, regarding a different sort of competition.

    I also apologise, it is worth quoting Joyce, Julia Gillard and Barry O’Farrell, but qualify the statements and where conflicts of interests or biases exist then state them. You’ve done that with O’Farrell, you’ve also done it with Capital Airport Group. You haven’t done it with Gillard or more importantly Joyce (who’s conflict of interest is no less than C.A.G).

    I suspect you’re implicitly seeing this as an assault on the viability of east coast HSR (e.g. “…his opinions on HSR…”). It’s not.

    Oh really? Then why this snarky comment at the bottom of the article?

    The signs are the Commonwealth’s Phase 2 report will lay the whole idea to rest. If so, may it rest in peace.

  24. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #1:

    I don’t think Qantas would be prepared to see the attractiveness and capacity of their home base and busiest market trashed just so they could protect the relatively small Sydney-Canberra air market from inter-modal competition. The competitiveness and efficiency of Sydney affects their entire operations, both national and international. Sydney’s ability to attract and handle flights is far more relevant to the future of the airline.

    I don’t agree with the implication that Alan Joyce’s comments on the second airport issue are so self-interested they’re not worth quoting. I think the views of Australia’s largest airline and biggest user of Sydney Airport are important technically and very influential politically. Should the views of Julia Gillard and Barry O’Farrell on this issue also be dismissed because they’re self-interested?

    You say you can’t be bothered arguing the points you’ve argued before, but where? The only other times I’ve raised the issue of the second Sydney airport (here and here) you didn’t make any comments.

    IkaInk, I suspect you’re implicitly seeing this as an assault on the viability of east coast HSR (e.g. “…his opinions on HSR…”). It’s not. It’s a discussion about where a second Sydney airport should go. HSR is relevant to the extent one option (Canberra) relies on it. Whether or not HSR is a sensible option more generally in Australia is a different question.

  25. IkaInk

    I can’t be bothered arguing the points I’ve already argued with you Alan, and no doubt other people will bring them up; but is it really worth quoting the CEO of an Airline Company on his opinions of HSR? How would shareholders of Qantas react if Alan Joyce went on the record saying “well, Melbourne-Sydney is the fourth busiest air-route in the world and Sydney-Brisbane is not far behind at number 12, so it really does make sense for us to provide an alternative means of travelling this corridor to reduce the amount of flights and reduce demand at the overloaded Sydney airport.”?

    I imagine he’d be out of a job within a few weeks.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details