Does a rail line to Melbourne airport make sense?

The Age ran a front page story on Saturday (Train derailed by buck-passing and vested interests) on the need for a rail link from the airport to the CBD. I say story, but as the headline and this quote indicate, it was more advocacy than news:

“But thanks to decades of buck-passing and pandering to vested interests by successive state and federal governments, Melbourne – unlike so many other cities of its size and wealth – does not have a railway line to its airport”.

So having pressed the civic pride button, it’s a pity The Age didn’t also push the rationality pedal and ask: is there a case for constructing a new public transport system (rail) to compete with the existing one (bus)?

Airtrain terminal Qld international airport

I would quite like to have a rail line from the CBD to the airport, but as I’ve indicated before (here and here), only if it makes sense. Let’s look at some pertinent issues.

First, the feasibility studies undertaken by the Government conclude that the numbers for rail don’t stack up (yet). The most recent evaluations, undertaken in 2001 by BAH and in 2009 by IMIS, both concluded there is not a strong enough case to build a new rail line to the airport.

The Department of Transport projected rail would capture only 9% of all airport trips and would require a subsidy of $350-450 million over 10 years (in 2001 dollars).

Second, in 2003 the Government upgraded the Skybus service so it could deal better with congested conditions around the CBD and on the Tullamarine Freeway. According to the Transport Department, new roadworks enabled Skybus to bypass traffic delays at the Tullamarine/Calder Freeway interchange and at the city fringe. The package included lane widening as well as line marking changes to create an emergency lane wide enough for buses.

In addition, activated signals were installed at three freeway on ramps to allow buses right of way. Transponders were installed on the buses to automatically activate signals. City end roadworks consisted of bus priority turn lanes at various intersections between Citylink tollway and the city terminus at Southern Cross station. In the future, when congestion grows and peak period journey times increase, the Department says the Citylink transit lanes will be available for use by buses.

Third, the Government has nevertheless reserved land in the East Albion corridor for possible use in the event a rail line should become viable (which could also be used as part of a Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne high speed rail project should that be built).

Fourth, the new rail lines constructed to Sydney and Brisbane airports are not performing well according to the Transport Minister, Martin Pakula. He told The Age, “Brisbane’s Airtrain runs only until 8pm each night, and carries 9 per cent of passengers (about 1.5 million people a year). Sydney’s Airport Link, which now carries 11 per cent of passengers (6 million a year), went into receivership soon after opening because of insufficient patronage”.

Much as I’d like to see an airport rail link, I can’t see that there’s a case for it just yet. In my view there are much higher priorities for scarce funding, like improving outer suburban bus services. A Skybus trip that blows out to 40 minutes in the peak does not in my opinion justify investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new infrastructure. Moreover, the Minister for Transport says a new bus service between the airport and Broadmeadows railway station will start operating from next year.

However rather than get down and dirty and investigate whether or not there is an economic, social or environmental warrant for rail, The Age has gone down the path of showing what the vested interests have to lose from any change.

The story shows that Skybus earned $28 million last year, taxi drivers at least $100 million and the airport operator earned $100 million from parking fees (these are revenues, not profit). No surprise that these interests might not welcome a new rail line, but that’s very different from saying there’s actually a logical case for one.

If The Age wants to do some real investigative reporting and argue that the most recent feasibility studies are fundamentally flawed, then I think that would be extremely pertinent and we all need to see it. If The Age wants to make a case that a rail line to the airport would give a greater social payoff than other public transport projects then I’d like to see that too. And if The Age wants to conjure an argument that a rail line would somehow be the most cost-effective way of reducing GHG emissions from Skybus and taxis then let’s hear it.

Perhaps the most simplistic aspect of The Age’s reporting is the conflation of a possible rail link to the airport with the solution to congestion on the Tullamarine freeway. The fact is that airport-related traffic is only one component of traffic on the Tullamarine. There is a range of other potential solutions to congestion that address a wider range of users, not just airport traffic. I would like to see a comparison of the proposed airport link with other options like, for example, imposing a congestion-related price on use of the freeway.

This current campaign has all the hallmarks of political populism, like the Alice Springs to Darwin rail line or every second Queensland coastal town that wants to be designated as an international airport. The Age should leave that sort of hyperbole to the politicians and concentrate on doing its own job, like demanding that those who promote populist ideas back up their case with concrete evidence.

10 Comments on “Does a rail line to Melbourne airport make sense?”

  1. TomD says:

    On the many occasions I have made use of the Skybus system it has proved to be a good and reliable service. Friendly too! It is also priced quite effectively and provides the essential high frequency/minimal delay .. and much cheaper .. alternative to catching a cab.

    (On this score, the Airport to City taxi fare is really off putting as it in effect adds $50 to any airfare. This is such a proportionally significant add-on to an interstate trip cost, that if Skybus did not exist the added burden here could potentially even impact on a decision to visit.)

    Until I read your blog, I was not aware of the range of special measures taken to expedite the Skybus’ progress and speed of arrival into the CBD. I wonder just how many people ARE aware of this? (A good marketing bonus possibly.)

    The fact that this has been done reflects very well on the government, as does their foresight in setting aside and retaining land for potential improved rail access to Sydney, let alone the airport at some appropriate point in the future.

  2. Alan Davies says:

    Have amended text to show subsidy estimated in 2001 study was $350-450 million over ten years (not annual)

  3. Moss says:

    Alan, this is certainly an emotive issue as indicated by the replies to your article on the Age website at present!

    • Alan Davies says:

      I expect the politicians will be thinking “stuff the rational evaluation process,if the people want to see lions eating Christians then let’s give it to ’em”!

  4. […] I said in this post, if there is new information about the feasibility of the rail link, or some fundamental flaw with […]

  5. […] previously discussed the issue of a Melbourne Airport-CBD rail link here, here, here, here and here). Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)More on Melbourne Airport rail […]

  6. […] previously discussed the issue of a Melbourne Airport-CBD rail link here, here, here, here, here and here). Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)More on Melbourne Airport rail […]

  7. […] Those arguing for rail point out that it could bring signficant money to Melbourne, that Melbourne is growing (as is the congestion on the Tullamarine freeway), and that it is a necessary competition to the exhorbitant parking fees paid by those who drive to the airport (this last from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission). Those arguing against a train claim it is not needed and likely to be uneconomic, based on experiences in Sydney and Brisbane, and that a travel time of 40 minutes each way to the airport during peak time is acceptable. […]

  8. […] come. Not yet. I’ve outlined the case against an airport rail link before (here, here, here, here, here, here and here), but in summary the key objections […]

  9. Paul Grgurich says:

    With a background in urban infrastructure feasibility I would say I am fairly qualified to comment on this issue. I make the following observations.

    1) Airport rail is almost never NPV positive – simple reason – there will never be enough even demand for what is effectively a single end point destination.

    2) Airport rail will not work if it does not form part of the standard city-wide transport system and is in effect charged at the same rate – ie Zone 2 fare for Melbourne – it has to be significantly cheaper than a taxi otherwise the door to door convenience will always prevail. If you charge $10-$12 per ticket for a trip to the CBD, the difference over a cab fare is about $35. With 3 people its only $10-$15, at at 4 people it is $0, so even at standard prices, you will only pick up singles and doubles, and almost no business doubles as they will value the amenity of a taxi too much.

    3) The entire transport system is subsidised to a massive degree so this line should be just the same.

    4) To make it really work you need to fully integrate it into the transport network. With the completion of the new highspeed line that passes thru Sunshine on its way to Geelong – you get about half way to the Airport. If wou were to swing this back up the cross city goods line and then into the airport this is the most efficient route.

    5) Continuing the Airport line out to meet up with the Bendigo line north of Sunbury will greatly enhance its value. The advantage of this is that all Diesel trains will travel From Bendigo – miss congested Sunbury/St Albans and contuinue on a high speed line via the airport to the CBD.

    6) By removing the Bendigo traffic from Sunbury, the Sunbury line can be fully electrified and become better integrated into the metro system. This would greatly increase efficiency and keep the 2 train systems separate as is being done on the Geelong route.

    7) Some airport trains should keep going past the CBD and onto hubs with carparking in the east – ie Dandenong and even Traralgon.

    8) Similarly the Traralgon train should terminate at the airport not the CBD – this is the model employed in European cities whereby the CBD is not an end destination – just a stop along the way.


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