Airport railways and aerotropolis names

1 November 2021
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
Peter Thornton discusses the recent assessment on the economic viability of the Sydney Metro - Western Sydney Airport project and accompanying urban development, and outlines points for a successful airport rail link.

Infrastructure Australia recently released a report on the Sydney Metro – Western Sydney Airport (WSA) wherein they assessed that this project should not be included on the Infrastructure Priority List “at this time”. Specifically, this was because they found that the P90 capital cost of the project would outweigh benefits by $1.8 billion in NPV terms, because less than 40% of capacity would be utilised in peak periods and of the $5.545 billion in benefits 64% would go to “urban development (land value uplift, sustainability avoided infrastructure option value” and only 18% to public transport users. There seems to be no mention of how much of that 64% would accrue back to the taxpayer through value capture mechanisms of which there has been much recent debate in the press.

Accordingly, I was moved to write this letter to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) of which they published an edited but unfortunately mangled version – somewhat missing the key point about linking the three designated cities under the Greater Sydney Commission’s plan.

“It comes as no surprise to me, as a consultant in transportation and having led the planning and engineering team in the joint Commonwealth – State study which proved Badgerys Creek as the best site metropolitan Sydney had available for another airport, as well as participating in the following business case studies, that the proposed airport metro running south from St Mary’s does not stack up in IA’s economic evaluation terms. It was always considered that rail access to the airport would not be needed till well into the 2030s, based on access to the airport alone. However, the proposed metro is, like the railway providing access to Sydney airport, a railway which incidentally provides airport access while attempting to serve other urban and employment access needs as well. Therein lies the problem – hybridizing purpose can lead to dual inefficiencies. My own research indicates almost no one within a 10-20 km radius will use rail to access the airport - roads and parking will be too convenient - and I doubt they will do so for proposed employment centres either. The Greater Sydney Commission has sold the Government on the concept of the three cities and yet, instead of investing scarce capital into a fast rapid transit link between the three foci of that strategy – the CBD, Parramatta and the Airport/Aerotropolis - and capable of extension to the Southern Highland and beyond, Government has chosen to spend our money on a disconnected piece of railway which cannot deliver competitive travel times to the places which people who might want to use rail will really want to go.”

The key issue in my mind is that the provision of space for two pairs of tracks through the airport site is one of the most valuable transport assets in metro Sydney and the provision needs to be used for the highest and best use, which does not appear to be happening with this project. Railways are no longer viable for wandering around the countryside and need to be used to link places of high employment and /or high residential density – like CBDs. Given the extent of road upgrading already underway in the form of the Northern Road and the M12, the airport is going to be very accessible by more flexible forms of transport such as high-capacity fast buses and, if Liverpool Council has its way, a trackless tram system, not to mention various forms of personal transport. A 70-minute rail travel time from WSA to the Sydney CBD is simply uncompetitive and will do nothing to enhance passenger usage of the new airport. And while I agree that a rail system should not provide for airport passengers only, the problem is that no one can predict where the workforce at the airport and at the Aerotropolis is going to come from and investment in very high-capacity fixed links along only one possible route is very risky. It takes time for people to switch given they are locked in by mortgages, schools, family commitments and the like. Road based transport will enable workers from residential locations from all points of the compass to efficiently access the employment opportunities.

My summary of what is needed to make a successful airport rail link is:

  • Linking places of high passenger generation capability and growth potential locations – e.g., Parramatta and Sydney CBDs;
  • A CBD to WSA time of 30-35 minutes; Competitive fares with alternatives;
  • Clearly identifiable CBD point of “low friction” access;
  • Similarly, an airport station that is more findable than a taxi rank;
  • Focus on a few key interchanging locations.
  • Fully seated, not commuter standing and crowded, airport style rolling stock;
  • Less than 15-minute headways;
  • A future north-of-harbour connection to tap into Sydney’s “Golden Arc of Employment”.

This could be achieved if the proposed Sydney West Metro from the CBD to Parramatta were to be configured like the Hong Kong Airport link and continued to WSA.[1]

Finally, the Government has just announced that they have recommended that the name of the Aerotropolis city should be Bradfield, after Dr JJC Bradfield. As a fellow, albeit less distinguished, graduate in civil engineering from Bradfield’s alma mater, the University of Sydney, and having spent a deal of my career trying to add onto his transport legacy, I do genuflect before the cabinet of his regalia and memorabilia in the Civil Engineering Board room. But I did send the SMH this letter which did not get published:

“Magnificent though Dr JJC Bradfield’s achievements and legacy in transport infrastructure are, he had little to do with aviation – the Bradfield who did was his son Dr Bill Bradfield. And JJC already deservedly has, amongst many other tributes, honours and naming legacies, a suburb named after him – Bradfield Park – since “gentrified” into West Lindfield, probably because it was in the 1950’s the site of a migrant camp! It is a great pity that the opportunity to spread such naming honours around, and specifically to NSW pioneers and inventors in aviation like Laurence Hargrave, has not been taken up.”

I rather agree with some of the letters that did get published albeit they were somewhat less respectful, criticising the Government’s choice as naming the Aerotropolis after “a long dead white man who helped shape the city 50km away” while another suggested it should be an indigenous name. (SMH letters 17 March 2021)

Of course, the airport itself has been named for Nancy Bird - Walton, now deceased, white and female. So perhaps the name of Aerotropolis should continue in this vein. Women have a bigger connection to early aviation and technology in NSW than they are usually given credit for [2]. For example, on December 5, 1909, Florence Taylor, the first Australian woman to qualify as an engineer and country's first female architect, became the first woman to fly a heavier-than-air machine in Australia, flying a glider from the Narrabeen sandhills near Sydney. She also “put forward many ambitious schemes for the city of Sydney that were dismissed as outlandish but have since come to fruition, such as the construction of a tunnel beneath Sydney Harbour.” [3] And there are others such as Millicent Bryant who, on March 28, 1927, became the first Australian woman to gain a pilot’s licence and Lores Bonney, who began flying in 1931 and was the first pilot to fly between Brisbane and Capetown, South Africa and the first female pilot to fly from Australia to England. So, the city of Taylor? Sounds a bit plain but perhaps the “Florence Taylor Aerotropolis” sounds more distinguished?

It is harder to find an indigenous connection to aviation and technology unless the boomerang is considered, which name is derived from the language of the Dharug people of the Cumberland Plain in which the Aerotropolis is located. The city of Boomerang? Why not?

[1] See my assessment of airport links in the Sydney region at:



Peter Thornton is the Director, Transportation Associates and BoA member in ITLS.