More on Melbourne Airport rail link

There’s been a strong reaction, predominantly negative, to my oped in The Age this morning where I argue that there are higher priorities for scarce transport funding at this time than the CBD-Airport rail link championed by the Lord Mayor and The Age.

I expected a hot reaction because The Age’s online poll is currently running 97% in favour of a rail link. Also, there were 208 comments, almost all strongly in favour of a rail link, on this piece run by The Age last Monday.

Some commenters seem to think my brief must be to defend the Minister for Transport and the Government. Others think I must be in the pocket of Skybus, the taxi industry, the Government, or all three. Someone’s even accused me of being anti public transport and of lamenting the decline in driving in my earlier post Why is Gen Y driving less? Lukas, who says he works in DPCD, reckons the consensus “around here” is we do need the link and the reason it’s not happening is “so many industries …have their hands in Brumby’s pockets”. Phew!!

Now that the flood of invective is slowing, let me say that not one of these personal insinuations is true. It is possible to raise serious questions about the desirability of this or any other transport project without being corrupt, incompetent or worse. No project, rail or otherwise, is automatically a “no brainer”.

My point remains that on the information publicly available, it does not seem to me that a rail link from the CBD to the airport is as high a priority at this time as some other pressing transport needs, such as improving outer suburban public transport services. Airport users generally have much better, if imperfect, options at present than those who live in the vast reaches of suburbia.

There are other proposed transport projects – such as a rail line to the eastern suburbs, a rail link from Footscray to the Domain via Parkville, or a circumferential route – that also ought to be “in the frame” along with an airport link when evaluating priorities for scarce funding (funding is never infinite).

As I said in this post, if there is new information about the feasibility of the rail link, or some fundamental flaw with earlier studies, then let’s hear what it is – perhaps it might change everything.


19 Comments on “More on Melbourne Airport rail link”

  1. Jim Wells says:

    Keep up the good work.

    There is no need for an airport rail link at the moment. SkyBus works well but could do better – comfort, and frequency.

  2. Joseph says:

    The popularity of such projects boils down to the difficulty people having in dealing with very large numbers and the fact that the cost gets lost in general government taxation. This was most aptly demonstrated by the overwhelming support in a similar poll for construction of a high speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne. At an estimated cost of $40bn spread over the combined populations of Sydney and Melbourne implies around $5,000 for every man, woman and child. If asked up front whether they would care to foot the bill I suspect the popularity would be somewhat different.

  3. Michael says:

    Perhaps there are larger issues at play. You have focused on the practical issues and asked for people to produce evidence for the need for a rail link to the airport. Maybe there is a general distrust these days about any “independent studies” commissioned by governments or any other stakeholder to evaluate the need for infrastructure. In the popular imagination this kind of study might be seen as an exercise in post-decision justification. I’m not saying they are, but if there is a generally low level of trust in the independence and integrity of studies then you are going to be fighting an uphill battle to counter popular projects. I must admit that although I except your arguments regarding the lack of evidence justifying a rail link to the airport my general expectation regarding planning for transport is that it’s not always completely objective or disinterested. Plans drawn up long ago for an extensive freeway system in melbourne are still being pushed despite question marks over long term need.

    Another point I would like to make about skybus is related to bus services in general. Bus routes are cheap to implement compared to rail or light rail because they don’t need much physical infrastructure. They are also flexible in their routes. Both these features work against casual use of the service. Basically it’s much easier generally to figure out routes and know about the existence of a rail service because of it’s physical characteristics. Maybe there is something lacking in the way bus routes are made visible and promoted to the public. If I am correct about this there should be a way to gauge general knowledge of the skybus service amongst residents of Melbourne. I have to admit I know it exists but that is about it. Where it runs from, how often it runs and how much it costs are a mystery and if I am planning a trip I usually have a lot of other things on my mind and generally prefer to use cars. I have however used airport rail links extensively overseas. Maybe I haven’t been able to explain it fully but buses just aren’t equivalent to trains in the popular imagination and this might cause consternation to economists, but the value trains offer to travellers over buses hasn’t been fully explored.

    • Chris says:

      I agree with this post (it popped up after I’d written mine) it would be interesting to study the effect of painting bus lanes on the road, that way people can trace where the services go as I’m sure they do with trams. Mental mapping and all that I guess, it would certainly raise peoples awareness of buses and the speed of services to which would be nice.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Well I think your second point is right on the money. Buses are (1) prone to getting caught up in congestion (so are trams) (2) jerky, especially if standing (3) have tight seating and leg room (4) tend to take circuitous routes, and (5) as you say, you can’t be sure what route they’re going to take. So I always prefer a train if I’m not familiar with the service.

      In the current context, the Skybus route is very direct and so (4) and (5) probably don’t matter. Transit lanes and more attention to engineering and design could go a long way to ameliorating (1), (2) and (3). How about trolley buses?

      Of course your first point is right too. People are sick of politician’s spin. I think though that anyone with a barrow to push is quite happy to spin it as much as they can. The idea that there should be an ‘objective’ way of assessing things seems to have gone out the window.

      • Michael says:

        I like Chris’ idea of the painted bus lanes. Another issue is luggage and general accessibility. Trains usually have more entry points and wider doors with standing space inside the doors. I haven’t used skybus so it could be solved already, but removing the need to step up into a bus could also make using it a better experience. Perhaps there could be a few high visibility bus stops, similar to the city tram stops that could be elevated to the same level as the bus. These could help brand the service and assist in the mental mapping.

      • Aenveigh says:

        re: points 3,4 and 5; these are all historical attributes that are becoming less prevalent and are not fundamental aspects of buses. Buses can as easily be fitted with spacious seating as trains, the routes are artefacts of poor urban design or transport planning, and route uncertainty follows as a function of (4).
        I too prefer trams/trains to buses as bus seating is typically ridiculously tight, but have been on buses with sensible seating arrangements (nearly always built in the last 5 years, as new designs are mimicking light rail vehicle features).
        New routes, like the 401 (simple and direct) and the Redex in Canberra (ditto, only less frequent) that are well-signed and simple can be done – now we need to see revision of historical routes to acheive the same.

        @Michael
        The door issue can also be achieved on buses (wide and frequent) but again I constantly see vehicles ill-suited for airport use being nevertheless dragooned into it. Skybus is generally pretty good in this regard, having wide doors and low floor (no step), but is still somewhat cramped at a few points.

        Multiple door boardings, like trains, could be achieved through having barrier-protected ‘paid’ plaform areas (rather than fare collection/scanning at the driver) to expedite passenger movements. Yes, you’re giving buses all the features people expect from rail. It won’t work past certain passenger volumes (even articulated buses have limits) but by then you know you’re on the way to needing rail (and for which you should have a reservation up your sleeve, if you’re not already using it for the buses).

  4. Chris says:

    I agree with what your saying the transport debate in Melbourne really is incredibly stupid. I also agree that fixing the buses and the existing train services that the buses should be connecting with is a higher priority than the airport link. But Brumbys never going to fix the buses! He’ll just keep on building freeways and dismissing PT as too expensive or some rubbish. That’s why people are so pissed off and so likely to attack anyone that criticizes investment in PT it’s just that they want to see something (anything) done to improve the rubbish PT in this city.

    And please don’t start with that STUPID idea for a cross city rail tunnel. We already have trains and trams that cover it’s entire footprint. It’s just the dumbest project I think I’ve ever seen.

    • Alan Davies says:

      A line from Footscray to the Domain via Parkville does seem odd but the way I’ve heard it explained is that it’s purpose is to remove capacity constraints elsewhere in the system. Some critics OTOH think there is plenty of spare capacity.

  5. Moss says:

    The problem with most analysis of an “airport rail line” is that it doesn’t look at what would be the optimum system first. It just looks at a CBD to airport link in isolation.
    This is an enormous mistake in planning.
    So how would one ensure the viability of the link? What about tying it into the higher speed V-line route to Bendigo? WHat about laying it down as a very fast train route out of Melbourne? What about running a tunnel under Southern Cross and the CBD and then out along the centre of the eastern freeway and eventually around to Frankston? Imagine how many people from the south east would catch the “airport train” when you are within a 20 minute drive of a rail link that is 30 minutes from the airport!
    One can’t blame people for getting passionate about the rail link – what planners should be doing is creating a vision of “what could be” – the ideal case, and basing patronage against that.

  6. Aenveigh says:

    It’s interesting reading the comments thread on both Age articles. Most people assume the primary benefit of heavy rail, a dedicated right-of-way, can only come with heavy rail. Of course, you can apply the same features to light rail or buses, and achieve the same kind of journey time consistency. However, as dedicated right of way is rarely seen in Melbourne outside the heavy rail network (and pretty limited parts of the tram network) most people assume rail is the only way to achieve consistent rapid journeys.

    Skybus could achieve better reliability with application of dedicated rights of way (perhaps shared with taxis) at critical choke-points for far less cost than rail. I do have to wonder with the Skybus case though, if the quoted $5pm profit/$1m govt stipend, if the service shouldn’t be run by government, and the profit ploughed back into reducing fares (increasing accessibility) and improving service (both frequency and reliability). In particular, perhaps Skybus should be paying for the transponder traffic signal activation systems, and lane painting etc, if it is the primary beneficiary?

  7. Bill Saggers says:

    Congratulations on your article in today’s AGE newspaper.
    It was refreshing and long overdue to see common sense being applied as well as some justice toward the commitment of public funds. Too often the wants of individuals or pressure groups take precedence over the needs of the community and the inevitable turning a blind eye to “who pays”. That these sorts of proposals can be dropped on the table without regard to their cost and who pays is reprehensible.
    One aspect in your article that needs to be challenged though relates to airport workers. Census Journey-To-Work data shows that the overwhelming proportion of currrent airport workers live in a catchment in the vicinity of the airport and to the north and north west, as you would expect.
    Only a very small proportion of workers live in areas that the metropolitan rail network would service adequately.
    Further, while business users to and from CBD origins may find a rail link suits their purpose, it has been known for decades that by far the bulk of users of the airport are not destined for the CBD.
    When the issue of a rail link was canvassed in a government consultative process some years ago the Institution of Transportation Engineers, Australia & New Zealand Section, submitted that:
    (a) There is a history of estimates of usage of proposed airport rail links in other cities being up to three times the subsequent actual usage experience;
    (b) A bus service would provide for Melbourne Airport’s current usage patterns for the foreseeable future and at fare less cost to the community, saving capital and recurring expenditure that could be better spent on other more needy government initiatives; and
    (c) As an ‘insurance measure’ in the event of that strategy not succeeding, land be set aside for a possible future rail link.
    The government at that time welcomed that independent advice.
    Bill Saggers
    Retired Traffic and Transport Planning Engineer

    • Alan Davies says:

      Thanks Bill. Re airport workers,I assume you’re referring to my proposal that they should get a discount on Skybus fares?

      I don’t doubt that the great majority of them would drive no matter how good public transport is, but I think its untenable that such a large concentration of workers (about the same number of jobs as Docklands) does not have access to public transport at the same fares as the rest of the metropolitan area. Providing a discount on Skybus seems a much more cost-effective way of doing that for the few that might come via the CBD than providing a new dedicated transport service.

  8. jack horner says:

    I suspect this type of disagreement is driven by the fact that most people have no idea about opportunity cost – ie what other good things could you do with the money.
    I suspect most people think: Would it be nice to have a train to the airport? Yes. So should there be an airport train line? Yes. QED

  9. […] a comment » Given the evident public interest in the idea of a rail link from the  CBD to the airport, I thought I’d look more closely at some […]

  10. […] 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 […]

  11. […] a service. I expect there would only be a very small number of airport workers in this category as the majority live within the northern and western regions where cars are a considerably more attractive mode than any […]

  12. […] hasn’t 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 […]


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