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Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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High speed rail could defer Sydney airport decision, says train lobby

Published 26 June 2013 07:14, Updated 26 June 2013 11:34

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High speed rail could defer Sydney airport decision, says train lobby

A commitment to high-speed rail might defer the need for a second Sydney airport, say supporters of the east coast rail line.

A high-speed east coast rail line could vastly reduce the traffic pressure on Sydney’s crowded airport and reduce the urgency to build a second one, Australia’s rail lobby group says, ahead of a pre-election push to keep the dream alive.

Sydney Airport has 1362 daily take-off and landing slots each day, 763 of them domestic and 430 of which alone are Sydney-Melbourne slots, Australasian Railway Association chief executive Bryan Nye says.

“If you took one-third, or two-thirds of those - we know 50 per cent of passengers would move onto high-speed rail - you suddenly make available 230 more slots,” Nye tells BRW.

“The government has to make a decision about a second Sydney airport. You can’t look at Sydney airport without high-speed rail.”

The hamstrung debate about whether - and where - to build a second Sydney airport is at least creating a void for other ideas to fill. Representatives of rail engineering companies AECOM, CAF and CSR Corporation are meeting mayors and federal politicians, including transport minister Anthony Albanese, in Canberra on Wednesday for a forum that Nye hopes will boost momentum for the creation of a high-speed rail development authority with the power to buy land slated for the 1748-kilometre route.

“If we don’t reserve the corridor today, we’ll never do it,” Nye said on Tuesday.

The airport won’t go away

Linking a high-speed rail network with Sydney’s pressing airport dilemma is not just the tub-thumping opinion of an industry lobby group. UNSW professor and former NSW state head of planning Sue Holliday is, like Nye, on the government’s high-speed rail advisory committee. She takes a similar view.

“It’s entirely possible that if there was a commitment to high-speed rail, one might defer the need for second Sydney airport,” Holliday says. “It might defer it, but won’t obviate it.”

Sunday marks the last day of a consultation on a feasibility report about the rail project that was published in April. While the incumbent Labor government, and Albanese in particular, has shown interest in exploring the possibility of fast train link connecting Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, the opposition leader Tony Abbott in April played down support for funding urban rail projects, saying he was more in favour of road transport.

Nye is quick to say Abbott has not ruled on the high-speed rail proposal.

“He hasn’t made comment on it.”

Still, with the coalition looking strong ahead of September’s federal election, Nye says he has had ‘extensive’ discussions with relevant opposition figures – including infrastructure spokesman Andrew Robb, policy spokesman Arthur Sinodinos, finance spokesman Joe Hockey and environment spokesman Greg Hunt.

Price trumps politics

The biggest hurdle the plan faces is the estimated $114 billion price tag. The most significant part of the construction cost - 29 per cent of it - comes from the 144km of tunnelling required by the suggested route, and almost half of this, 67km, would be tunnels to get access into and out of Sydney.

While not part of the formal proposal, the cost could be reduced by locating the main high-speed rail station for Sydney at Badgery’s Creek about 40km west of the city - one proposed site for the city’s second airport - Holliday says.

This would avoid much of the tunnelling needs but would necessitate a seamless link to allow passengers, particularly business travellers, to connect quickly from the CBD to their long-distance train. It was an idea worth considering as it would also make that part of Sydney a hub for transport and suburban living, Holliday said.

“Fifty per cent of Sydney’s population lives west of Parramatta,” she says. “So from where are the future business leaders going to need to access a very fast train to Melbourne? Are they going to have to drive all the way though the congestion of Sydney... or are they going to pop down to Badgery’s Creek?”

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