What can Sydney teach us about airport rail lines?Posted: February 16, 2011
There is little doubt that Melbourne Airport needs action to improve land-side access for passengers arriving and departing from the airport.
Many observers argue the solution is a rail line from the CBD to the airport. I think there’s a much bigger picture they’re missing. They would be well advised to look at the Airport Monitoring Report 2009-10, just released by the ACCC (see chart).
It shows that only 39% of trips to Sydney Airport are made by private car (on-airport parking, rentals and kerbside drop-off), compared to 69% for Melbourne Airport. Since Sydney has a train and Melbourne doesn’t, it’s tempting to conclude that a train is the answer to Melbourne’s woes.
However the ACCC’s report says that more people travel to Melbourne Airport by public transport (14% – all by bus) than is the case for Sydney Airport (12% – train and bus).
A key difference between the two airports is that taxis (incl ‘mini buses’) are far more popular in Sydney, where they account for 49% of all airport trips. The comparable figure for Melbourne is just 17%.
Part of the reason for this difference is taxis are more competitive in Sydney against cars and against the train – Kingsford Smith is 8 km from the CBD and hence is relatively central. In contrast, Melbourne is 22 km from the CBD so taxis are not as competitive with either buses or cars (other reasons for the difference include more tourists at Sydney, as well as higher parking charges).
As I discussed last week, Brisbane’s airport – like Melbourne’s – is also located a considerable distance from the city centre. It might be that the location of both airports on the edge of their respective metropolitan areas – well away from the centre of gravity of population in both cities – is a key reason for their high private car use (and low taxi use).
Yet distance can’t be the whole explanation. The Brisbane airport train only captures 5% of trips and all up, public transport carries 8% of airport journeys. That’s considerably less than either Sydney or train-free Melbourne.
Given the experience of Sydney and Brisbane, it cannot simply be assumed that constructing a rail line from the CBD to Melbourne Airport will inevitably lead to a significant increase in public transport use – at the expense of cars – over and above the already substantial mode share enjoyed by buses.
Or more to the point, it cannot be assumed that the size of any mode shift resulting from the provision of a rail line to the CBD would justify a likely cost in the region of $1 billion.
I think there will inevitably come a time when the demand for movement between the airport and the CBD exceeds whatever extra capacity can be eked out of the bus system. That will require some higher capacity transport technology – probably rail-based – to supplement or replace buses on that route.
But the critical point is that even a rail line would still only carry a small fraction of all travel to and from Melbourne airport. Like the residents of Brisbane and Sydney, the great bulk of Melburnites – whose trips start or end all over the metropolitan area – would ignore the train and continue driving to the airport.
The key challenge facing Melbourne Airport isn’t any gross failing in the ability of buses to transport people to and from the CBD. We’re already doing reasonably well at that. Rather, it’s how to move growing numbers of people from dispersed suburban locations to the airport and back again.
It’s analogous to the transport problem presented by the CBD but the solution is far more difficult. The CBD is an order of magnitude larger than the airport and located at the centre of the metropolitan area, not the edge. The CBD wasn’t established in the post-war era – it has had generations of investment in radial train and tram infrastructure starting from the days when cars did not even exist.
What we need to do is think much more imaginatively, widely and deeply about how we’re going to manage rising demand for air travel and the associated increase in land-side movement to and from the airport. If we just focus on replacing CBD buses with a CBD train we’ll miss the much, much bigger transport problem looming ahead. Public transport will undoubtedly have a key role to play in addressing that problem but the form and scope it takes should be a function of the problem.