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Badgerys Creek Aerotropolis - dead in the water without fast rail?

The so-called aerotropolis being touted by the NSW and Australian governments will be “dead in the water” unless there is a fast rail link to Sydney. That is according to the expert who formulated the aerotropolis concept, Dr John Kasarda.

Much of the planning around rail access to the proposed new airport is, it is argued by many, inadequate and is in fact more tailored to local regional projects than to real airport needs.

The upshot is that the value of the airport to Sydney’s economy will be severely constrained (meaning fewer jobs) and its growth will be slowed markedly.

The value of a fast rail link to Badgerys Creek. Jobs. Much faster.

A fast rail link from the Sydney CBD would guarantee success of a new airport in western Sydney from day one. Without it, growth will be much more unpredictable and inevitably much slower, meaning all those promised jobs (and a functioning aerotropolis) will have to wait many more years. As things stand, the market served by the airport will predominantly be drawn from local customers and from inbound tourists who may well choose to bypass Sydney, heading straight on to other destinations by domestic LCCs. That is a recipe for functional mediocrity.

Even with the best tailwinds, a new airport will not be fully functional for another decade, by which time tourism numbers to Australia are projected to have doubled, making it the nation’s largest export. With Sydney Airport almost at full capacity already in the peak hours that international airlines need to operate, there’s a simple alternative: those tourists will go elsewhere. Melbourne for example, which by that time will probably have become Australia’s largest city.

The chicken and egg: build first and get the benefits

Since the Federal government boldly bit the bullet in 2016 and decided to go ahead with funding Badgerys Creek Airport, there are other interests too in how fast the airport can grow. The construction of essential access infrastructure would accelerate the growth (and value to the economy) of the airport – and therefore the speed at which its owners would be able to privatise it.

On the other hand, building infrastructure that is adequate for future needs is costly. It might not generate an adequate return until the airport achieves higher levels of traffic than predicted in the early years. It is easy to see the quandary here: a classic chicken and egg one. Build the link first and stimulate traffic – or wait till the traffic levels are big enough to justify the expense?

But there is much more to this equation than direct financial returns. The fundamental value of airports is the way they spread economic value right across the city (and in this case the country, as Sydney is the cornerstone of air services in Australia). Airport activity is ubiquitous; it distributes grass roots benefits, as well as eg encouraging major companies to establish locally.

An aerotropolis would be dead in the water without efficient rail linkages

A joint NSW/Commonwealth government paper promoting an aerotropolis around the new airport, specifically refers to the originator of the concept, Dr John Kasarda.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian recently told the overseas investors and infrastructure companies that the new airport offers a “once in a century opportunity”.  But the planned access options resemble more the sub-optimal rail service to Sydney Airport than the Hong Kong style link that this extravagant outlook would justify. And Dr John Kasarda told CAPA earlier this year any prospect of a successful aerotropolis around Badgerys Creek airport would be “dead in the water” if there is no fast rail link to the Sydney CBD.

The need to link into major traffic centres – as well as establishing a substantial volume of capacity at the new airport - is vital in creating an effective platform for an aerotropolis. Quite simply, the current surface transport plans – none of which was specifically designed for a new airport – will destroy any chance of achieving what surely is a once in a century opportunity.

Constructing a fast rail link would need to be - and should be - government funded

Private funding would not be forthcoming for a fast rail link that has a relatively long timeline for full patronage, but it is not hard to construct a public interest case to support it. The ability genuinely to realise this unique opportunity would create massive – and readily measurable – benefits in the wider economy.

Serious consideration has been given to lavishing several billion dollars to revamp some Sydney football stadiums in order to wrest sporting events away from other capital cities – with questionable actual financial benefits. It is hard to fathom the thinking that fails to invest in any real dedicated transport options for a new airport.

This and other issues relating to the new airport will be discussed at length at  CAPA’s Australia Pacific Aviation and Corporate Travel Summit on 1/2 August at the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth.

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