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Trains, planes and automobiles: how our cities get the mix wrong

Committing to new infrastructure is dangerous when political motivations are the driver. AAP/AAP Image/Alan Porritt)

It’s hard to get past the feeling that we are stuck in 1970s thinking when it comes to planning infrastructure such as airports.

The Federal government has finally announced Badgerys Creek in Sydney’s south-west as the city’s second airport, with an intention to go to tender - but without vital details on the role of the airport or its passenger prospects.

Earlier this week, the Victorian government announced in vague fashion an intent to push ahead with delivery of a Melbourne airport rail link - costs, benefits, delivery timing and network integration issues all uncertain.

These two different examples from Sydney and Melbourne provide indicators of out-of-date Australian thinking on major infrastructure, reflecting a mindset around car and jet travel.

Melbourne - stuck on cars?

Melbourne’s airport rail link has been a long time coming. We recognise its necessity. But the way it will be integrated into the existing transit network is critical. And Melbourne planners appear trapped in a 1970s assumption that people will travel by car to-and-from its airport.

A rail link serving a simplistic point-to-point or A-to-B travel pattern (from Melbourne’s Southern Cross station to Tullamarine airport) will garner a certain amount of ridership, but benefits will be limited for travellers living in the Melbourne’s north or west, who will need to travel into the CBD to access Southern Cross.

Those travelling from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and the southeast will have to change trains - unless there are planned options for a direct connection.

There are plenty of international examples showing the correct way to develop airport links. In Osaka or Tokyo there are at least three different “airport express services” per airport, each addressing different residential catchments, substantially utilising pre-existing rail corridors.

In Melbourne’s case this could be achieved if multiple services converged on the airport. Let’s plan for eventual airport-bound services from Dandenong, Frankston, and from the yet-to-be-built Doncaster rail corridor.

Equally, passengers from the west and north could be offered convenient interchange points at the inner west suburbs of Footscray and Sunshine, or Arden-Macauley to the north, respectively.

These ideas don’t necessarily cost much more from an infrastructure perspective, but they do require a “network” mentality that doesn’t hold sway in Melbourne at this time. Realistically, rail is an afterthought in Melbourne.

Sydney - the world has moved on from jet travel

The Sydney airport saga is also intriguing for its outdated ideas. Sydney “can’t do without” a second, 24 hour airport, we are told, to relieve current congestion and plan for future population needs. Prime minister Tony Abbott announced a A$3 billion road package (albeit hijacked by the dramatic resignation of NSW premier Barry O'Farrell) to accompany the announcement.

But Japan’s Kansai airport serves a population of some 25 million. Greater Tokyo, with nearly 35 million residents, gets by just fine with two airports. London has three airports - but it services a mega-region of Southeast England with a population of more than 20 million.

The federal government seems to have ruled out the idea of executing a detailed airport study - and infrastructure minister Warren Truss has repeatedly refused to table specific figures on a Western Sydney airport’s passenger numbers.

So far, there is little detail on what the new airport’s mix of freight and domestic travel will be, or how it will service international air routes.

The Badgerys Creek announcement effectively says “enough” to the idea of high speed rail connections between Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Yet investigations into the future of high speed rail in Australia have consistently demonstrated that HSR would capture a huge chunk of travel between Sydney and Melbourne, or between those cities and Canberra.

This would mean one airport is enough for Sydney (leaving aside where that airport is located). Inter-city east coast travel would largely shift to fast rail, while that single Sydney airport could focus more on international connections.

The Sydney thinking is trapped in the 1970s - when jet travel was the grand new thing. But since then, the world has moved on. And high speed rail travel is now the preferred option for journeys within countries.

Breaking from past assumptions

Committing to new infrastructure is dangerous when the concept is not thought-through or not up-to-date, or when political motivations are the driver.

We are facing the challenges of the 21st century, not the late 20th century - so its time to break with the simplistic obsessions around roads and planes that prevailed a generation ago.

Better infrastructure demands we table better ideas.

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