Is the Opposition’s promised airport rail line good policy?

What New Yorker's complain about - NOISE!

The Age reported today that the Opposition has promised to start planning immediately for a new rail line from the CBD to the airport if elected. The leader of the Opposition, Mr Ted Baillieu, said tickets would be priced the same as current Zone 2 fares.

I’m not at all surprised. This idea has immense popular support from readers of The Age and, I daresay, from Melburnites generally.

There is little doubt that a time will come, given projected passenger numbers through Tullamarine, when passenger volumes will justify replacing the existing privately-owned Skybus service with rail.

But the available evidence indicates that time hasn’t come. Not yet. I’ve previously outlined the case against constructing an airport rail link at this time (herehereherehereherehere and here), but in summary the key objections are:

  • Various technical studies have indicated that, thus far, rail is not warranted
  • Airport rail lines in Brisbane and Sydney, which charge in the region of $17 one way, both experienced financial difficulty
  • Brisbane’s Airtrain offers much lower frequencies and span of service (it stops at 8pm) than Tullamarines’ Skybus. Skybus operates 24 hours a day and for most of that time offers 10-15 minute frequencies
  • Airport workers are already served by the existing Smartbus 901 service which offers 15 minute frequencies and connects with Broadmeadows station. As it is an orbital service, it also connects with other rail lines on its journey around Melbourne’s outer suburbs and down to Frankston. Further, Skybus offers airport workers a discounted fare.
  • A plausible train service would take longer than Skybus to travel from the airport to the CBD in the off-peak and about the same in the peak. A high speed service is possible but would cost much more
  • There is scope to improve Skybus’s travel time in peak periods by undertaking further works to give it priority on the freeway and within the city centre and airport. There is also scope to provide additional services in peak periods

There are also other issues – a new rail line would:

  • Require an ongoing Government subsidy whereas the existing Skybus service is privately financed and profitable
  • Only carry a small proportion of all airport travellers – probably around 10%, at best 15%
  • Not provide long-term relief from traffic congestion on the Tullamarine freeway (any more than widening the freeway would)
  • Provide only a small benefit in terms of greenhouse savings – it would be a very expensive way of lowering emissions

There are three key questions that should be addressed in thinking through the wisdom of building an airport rail link now. First, what else could the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost be spent on that would provide a better return? Second, what would be the tangible benefits? Third, who would benefit?

I think there are other projects, such as improving outer suburban public transport services, that should rank much more highly than a rail line to the airport. I’m hard pressed to see that there are significant social benefits – which doesn’t surprise me because a rail line would replace one form of public transport with another. The main beneficiaries of the subsidy would be CBD business travellers and tourists who travel occasionally.

The sensible course of action is to build the rail line when it is warranted. In the meantime, Mr Ballieu should indicate what other projects he would sacrifice in order to fund building it and operating it.

Governments don’t often get praise from critics, but I think the Premier and his Ministers deserve to be lauded for holding their ground on this issue. It would be very easy to cave in to populist pressure – isn’t this what governments are supposed to do? – so I think credit should be given where it’s deserved.

13 Comments on “Is the Opposition’s promised airport rail line good policy?”

  1. kymbos says:


    I happened upon this blog a couple of weeks ago, and have enjoyed every post you’ve made. It is now part of my core reading.

    Thanks for your ongoing insights.


  2. […] The Liberal plan for an airport rail link […]

  3. Dave says:

    I’m not sure the main subsidy would be CBD business travellers. Once you could travel to the Airport on a regular Zone1+2 ticket, you can travel anywhere in Melbourne (or to Stony Point…)
    So for those on regular PT already (monthly passes, or just familiar) suddenly going to the Airport is just like going to Box Hill, only perhaps with a bigger bag.

    I’d be interested in seeing a trial of Skybus at metcard prices (as suggested by the PTUA) to gauge what latent demand there is for the service. I know, Skybus is express, not local, etc but it might give a reasonable approximation of the current PT-link demand.

    I’d still be happy for the link to stay as buses (or bendy-buses) until it’s proven a fully separated corridor is required – I think most people would, if on-time running can be maintained and capacity is sufficient.

    However, I’d want to know that provision is made for a rail link such that we don’t build over potential access corridors, later requiring expensive, potentially prohibitive tunneling or acquisition costs.

  4. Dave says:

    I think I recall some VATS travel data from the late 90’s that showed that most Melbourne airport workers lived in the northern and western suburbs, or the urban fringe areas to the north and west. I wonder what VISTA, which has replaced VATS, data shows for likely commuting travel to and from the airport?

  5. […] not warranted by patronage.  Given that the numbers don’t make sense (yet) for a rail line from the CBD to Tullamarine, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to add up for a small operation like Avalon. […]

  6. […] none of these lines, on the face of it, seem ready for the green light just yet (here, here and here). Unless new information is introduced or the projects are redefined, it seems to me that any […]

  7. […] it would have any more than a marginal impact on the airport’s parking policies. It might (or might not) be justified on other grounds, but a train is not really a substitute for […]

  8. […] discussed a rail line to the airport on a number of occasions before e.g. here, here and […]

  9. […] main challenge with land transport to the airport lies. To date, attention has been side-tracked by the debate over a CBD rail line and the much bigger problem ignored. The second issue is the need to use […]

  10. […] proposed Rowville, Doncaster and Melbourne Airport rail lines are evidence of our preoccupation with radial train lines. They were key issues during […]

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