Are Melburnians mad about trains?

Sir Ken Robinson - animation on changing paradigms in education (click)

Yesterday’s promise by the Victorian Opposition to build a $250 million rail line to Avalon Airport – with an unambiguous commitment to spend $50 million over the first term if elected – confirms how powerful the idea of rail is in this year’s election.

A new line is such a potent idea that Ted Baillieu didn’t even feel the need to lay out the warrant for the line. While the Greens are promising vapourware and the Government is close to mute on transport, the Coalition has put a real rail line on the table.

The Minister for Transport, Martin Pakula, made some lame criticisms of the accuracy of Mr Baillieu’s costing, but there are larger failings with this idea.

The most obvious one is it’s simply 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. Geelong’s population of 175,000 offers growth potential for Avalon, but Tullamarine is always going to overshadow it because it’s much closer to the centre of gravity of Melbourne’s 4 million population.

Today’s listed flights (18 November) show only 13 scheduled departures from Avalon between 6.45am and 9.55pm. Avalon’s owner, Linfox, claims 1.5 million passengers use Avalon each year. This compares with 26 million p.a. using Tullamarine.

If an Avalon train service performed at a level comparable with Brisbane’s Airtrain and captured 9% of current passengers, it would only carry 135,000 persons per year (an average of 370 per day). Skybus carries around 2 million passengers per annum.

Brisbane has an electric train that stops at key suburban and CBD stations and continues on to the Gold Coast. The Opposition is proposing to service Avalon via a spur line from the Melbourne-Geelong line. This line isn’t electrified so it would be a country train – a diesel – which wouldn’t be tightly integrated with the suburban train system.

Routing some trains via Avalon to service airport customers would increase trip times for Geelong residents. If on the other hand additional trains were purchased to service the Avalon trade, then there could be issues with the capacity of the Geelong line, especially at peak periods.

A curious aspect of Mr Baillieu’s proposal is the idea of adding a third rail so that freight can be delivered to the airport by train in the future. That makes no sense.

Rail is very good at carrying heavy bulk freight e.g. coal, cars. Planes are very good at carrying lightweight, high-value and time-sensitive cargo like letters and small parcels (most of which is carried in the bellies of passenger planes rather than in dedicated freight aircraft). Cargo for planes isn’t going to come to the airport on trains – the only substantial freight likely to be carried on a rail line is aviation fuel.

Linfox want to make Avalon an international airport and reckon a train service would increase the number of airport users from the current 1.5 million to “four or five million” per annum. Well I suppose they would say that. Leaving aside the obvious hyperbole, if this were to happen it could undermine Tullamarine and the quality of flights to Melbourne more generally.

If Tullamarine’s growth were to slow, this could make it less attractive to international airlines and consequently reduce the flight options for overseas travellers, including the number of direct flights (i.e. that don’t fly via Sydney or other Australian cities). Any reduction in the number of direct flights could have a detrimental effect on the city’s attractiveness as a place to invest and do business in.

Of course the impact of Avalon on the operations of Tullamarine is a much wider issue than just a train service.  If there’s some strategic argument for developing Avalon as a major competitor to Tullamarine, then that case should be made first before considering whether or not the State and Federal governments should subsidise a rail line.

The obvious way to address Avalon’s public transport needs is to continue with the bus service currently operated by Sita Coaches. The company proudly proclaims it meets every flight and transports adults to Southern Cross station for $20 – or to a selection of CBD hotels for $27. If and when demand warrants it, a shuttle bus connecting to Lara station could be provided. It would still be a vastly cheaper way to go than building a rail line.

The Opposition has now promised rail lines to both Avalon and Tullamarine. Strictly interpreted, the former is a commitment to spend $50 million in its first term and the latter is a commitment to a study. Now that Avalon’s out of the box, it’s hard to see a Tullamarine line getting started in a Baillieu Government’s first term.

What seems to be going on here is the political desire to actually build a real rail line – any line. The attraction of Avalon is it’s the only one cheap enough to actually build. It’s cheaper than a line to Tullamarine, or anywhere else for that matter (although operating losses would not be commensurately lower).

It would be ill-advised but not a total disaster if a rail line were built to Tullamarine in the next term, but a line to Avalon would be an appallingly bad decision.

19 Comments on “Are Melburnians mad about trains?”

  1. Matthew says:

    “While the Greens are promising vapourware”
    I’m with the PTUA and give their policies the best grade. I reckon you’ve got something against the Greens Alan.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Absolutely not. “Vapourware” is a reference to the absence of information on costings funding.

      More: I’ll admit I’m disillusioned with the Greens. I feel they’re talking the (populist) talk but they’re not walking the (real) talk.

  2. Mahyar says:

    Melburnite’s or Melburnites?

    Who cares!

  3. jack horner says:

    The Avalon proposal illustrates:

    1. How irrelevant the whole business of cost-benefit analysis, opportunity cost & alternatives is to the politician’s mindset. They really are on a different planet from economic analysts. This is a gap that sensible public transport supporters somehow must learn to bridge.

    2. How behind the PT authorities are, compared with road authorities, in not having a stock of real, sensible, continuous improvement projects ready in the drawer for when a politician wants to make a splash with an infrastructure commitment, which can be used to moderate the impulse to silly proposals arising from point 1.

    It’s tragic to see the political energy that goes into crazy populist ideas like this when there are or should be dozens of longstanding, worthwhile PT infrastructure proposals ready for the go-ahead.

  4. Buninyong Bunny says:

    “If Tullamarine’s growth were to slow, this could make it less attractive to international airlines and consequently reduce the flight options for overseas travellers, including the number of direct flights (i.e. that don’t fly via Sydney or other Australian cities). Any reduction in the number of direct flights could have a detrimental effect on the city’s attractiveness as a place to invest and do business in.”

    To be honest I don’t quite get this bit. How does increasing patronage at Avalon decrease the attractiveness of Tullamarine to other airlines. I would have thought that it would have made no difference to flights already landing there, simply because the conditions already exist to run direct flights hear.

    I’m new to this blog so I apologize if you have already explained this, but it just seems an odd concept to me.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Melbourne has always struggled to get and retain a decent portfolio of international flights and a decent number of direct flights. Sydney has a number of advantages, especially being bigger and that little bit closer to the US, Asian and European markets i.e. it’s logical to make it the last stop out of, or the first stop into, Australia (obviously not a problem if Melbourne can fill a plane by itself).

      If Tullamarine’s passenger numbers shrink in relative terms compared to Sydney then more international airlines might choose to ignore it and, more importantly, more flights might leave and arrive via Sydney rather than direct from Melbourne.

  5. Whole heartedly agree with this article Alan (apart from maybe the Greens comment!).

    A rail link to Avalon would be a monumental waste of money…

    I think this project also highlights the fault with the Liberal PTDA plan to keep major Public Transport projects in the hands of the Government. Whilst these sorts of bigger projects would need to be approved by a whichever Government is in power regardless of what sort of authority is in place you can bet an independent authority wouldn’t have something as stupid as this on the list to approve in the first place.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think a key question is how would any such authority be designed so that it would be both independent (of politicians?) but at the same time responsive to the electorate.

      • I would argue that it’s very nature would be to be responsive to the electorate. The mandate would be to create efficient public transport that encourages people to use it. Without being responsive to the electorate they wouldn’t be able to do this.

  6. […] the $50 million that Ted Baillieu promised he would spend in his first term to commence building a rail line from the CBD to Avalon Airport. The full cost, he says, would be $250 […]

  7. […] because its cost is estimated at only $250 million. But as some commentators have pointed out, including me, this would almost inevitably be a whiter than white elephant. It could be a real political […]

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

  9. […] a high capacity transport system is that current arrangements are at or over capacity. When I discussed this proposal during the election campaign last year, I noted there were only around 13 scheduled departures from […]

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