What should we do about the Airport?

Proposal for an orbital Bus Rapid Transit service

The key transport challenge at Melbourne Airport isn’t to build a rail line to the CBD. Rather, it’s how to move growing numbers of travellers from dispersed suburban locations to the airport and back again. Here’s a (speculative) idea about how that might be done.

This is a pressing issue because passenger movements through the airport are projected to increase from 26 million in 2009/10 to between 44 and 55 million by 2027/28. That’s potentially a doubling of demand within twenty years. On current settings, with 69% of trips to the airport made by private car and 17% by taxi, the outcome could either be gridlock or massive expansion of the freeway network.

Providing a high capacity connection between the airport and CBD is an important part of the answer but it won’t work for all those travellers whose journey starts or ends in homes and workplaces in the suburbs. Theoretically, they could take a train to Southern Cross and transfer there to the airport service, but they’d be unlikely to do that for a number of reasons.

First, the journey would take too long – travellers would have to walk, drive or bus to their nearest station, transfer to a train or tram, and transfer again at Southern Cross station. Second, parking is inadequate – many would seek to drive to their nearest station, but there’re severe constraints on expanding parking in built-up areas. Limited economies of scale mean it would also be hard to provide an acceptable level of security for cars parked overnight at Melbourne’s 200+ rail stations. In addition, baggage would be problematic on peak hour public transport, which wasn’t designed with this purpose in mind. There would be delays in loading and unloading trains, trams and buses at rush hour and suitcases in aisles would reduce capacity.

Trying to leverage the existing suburban rail system would, in short, be too hard. Most Melburnians would simply continue to drive to the airport, leading to worse congestion. They would apply intense political pressure to have the freeway network expanded.

I’d like to offer a different solution. I think two key actions will be needed over the next twenty or so years. The first is to restrict access by car to the airport – unless there is a positive disincentive to driving (something less damaging than congestion!), alternative modes will not be viable. The second is to move the effective entry to the airport to multiple locations in the suburbs. Here’s a broad schematic of how I think it might work:

  • Set charges that are high enough to discourage the great bulk of motorists from entering the airport or using the short term and long term car parks
  • Provide an orbital transit service running from the airport to the west and to the south east along (mostly) existing freeways – see map
  • Construct a small number of car parks with transit stations along this route, near freeway interchanges
  • Aim to operate at a frequency and span of hours at least comparable to that currently provided by Skybus.

Under this scenario, Melburnians could drive to the ring road, park in a secure facility, and board the airport transit service. It would be little different from using the current long term car park and shuttle bus – the only real difference is the car leg would be shorter and the transit leg longer (although the overall time should be faster!). I also envision that ‘farewellers and greeters’ and taxi users would mostly go no further than the nearest transit station. The idea is the stations would be the effective ‘entry’ to the airport.

Some form of rail in the median or in an appropriated freeway lane might be possible, but articulated buses operating in a dedicated freeway lane (liberated by the reduced traffic!) would be a much lower cost solution. Buses would accordingly need to be comfortable. Since they would operate exclusively on freeways, it is possible they could be larger than conventional articulated buses, giving scope for a higher level of comfort and greater capacity. They should have the feel inside of trams.

A couple of issues warrant special mention. First, the attitude of the airport owner is crucial and there are doubtless all sorts of existing contractual complexities. However I envision that the owner could be compensated for the net cost of foregone parking revenue, if required. Alternatively, the owner might tender for the rights to manage the new car parks.

Second, the proposal assumes that a high-standard connection would be made between the Metropolitan Ring Road and EastLink sometime around 2020. That’s a contentious issue that muddies the waters. It does not follow, however, that the connection would have to cater for all forms of traffic – it could be dedicated solely for public transport and emergency vehicle use.

Third, assuming the proposal were funded commercially, those who currently drive to the airport would have to pay more than at present because of the combined costs of parking, transit and ancillary freeway works. On the other hand, their out-of-pocket motoring costs would be lower and, crucially, they would save time when travelling in peak periods. As the proposal would have broader economic benefits and save money on road building, the Government could subsidise fares if it wished.

Fourth, there would be scope to use the spare capacity in the transit lane for a HOT (High Occupancy Tolled) lane for cars. This would be an important step toward the wider introduction of road pricing.

This is a conceptual proposal that might fall over on closer scrutiny. But even if it did, its value would lie in drawing attention to two key issues. The first is the need to recognise where the main challenge with land transport to the airport lies. To date, attention has been side-tracked by the debate over a CBD rail line while the much bigger looming problem has been ignored. The second issue is the need to use existing resources more efficiently. Rather than expensive new rail lines, this proposal aims to use the freeway system more efficiently by creating ‘new’ road space for Bus Rapid Transit.


24 Comments on “What should we do about the Airport?”

  1. rohan says:

    Could work (when outer ring road completed) – has it been tried anywhere else ? Rail though could be similarly set up – reduce transfers with the train from the airport keeping going after Southern Corss stopping only at certain stations with the facilities you describe. Maybe they alternate, one going down Pakenham line, stopping Sth Yarra, Caulfield, Springvale, Dandenong, other to Ringwood, stopping Box Hill, Camberwell only. Be good to actually see a map of where airport users come from

    • Alan Davies says:

      One problem with that option is capacity – finding enough train paths to run purpose-designed airport trains on those two lines given forecasts that on trend we’re running out of capacity in the metropolitan system. Even with upgrades, it would be hard to get a decent frequency. The other difficulty would be finding space to put in car parks at places like Sth Yarra, Box Hill, Camberwell, etc. It would be very expensive to build even multi story car parks at those sorts of locations whereas I think it’s more likely the ring road offers the potential to construct car parks at grade.

  2. Jarks says:

    While I agree that a rail link to the CBD is not necessary, I don’t think this idea will be the solution.

    Firstly, you need to consider how far apart these transit stops will occur on freeways. The more stops, the longer the rapid transit portion journey will take. The less stops, the longer the car portion of the journey will take. I do believe many people will decide that once they’re already in the car, they might as well continue on.

    Secondly, as a resident nearby to the airport, why should I have to divert to the freeway when my trip to the Airport is just as far away? We’ve chosen our location somewhat based on its proximity to the airport because we travel quite a bit. For us, it doesn’t seem fair that our family and friends would be forced to pay even more for carparking to either say goodbye to us, or greet us as we arrive. (These people usually drive us to/from the airport as well, so our car would be secure at home)

    Finally, the most recent Smart Bus addition does go via the airport and meets a train at Broadmeadows. Why not use further funding to increase service frequency, ease connection between the two modes and possibly rolling stock to include luggage areas on the Craigieburn lines and then advertise this low-cost option to passengers?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Re your first point, my proposal is aimed at meeting most airport demand from around 2020 onwards – it’s not intended just as a public transport alternative to driving. The key component is that it should quite simply be too expensive to park at the airport – the option just wouldn’t be there for most people. Travellers who want to drive would instead have to park in the (much cheaper) ring road car parks. I envision maybe two car parks to the west, one on the Tullamarine, and four to the east/south.

      Re your second point, I did wonder about that and it is a hard one. Yes, there needs to be a carpark for travellers from Sunbury and from nearby but it should be near rather than on the airport. There’s a danger that people would drive from the other side of town and snaffle the car parks. However, my thought is that by 2020-30 the ring road would be so congested for such long periods that it won’t be worth it for motorists from other parts of Melbourne to drive to the airport – the transit system with its exclusive lane would be faster.

      Re your third point, travellers coming from the CBD would use a greatly expanded Skybus (or a rail line if it’s warranted by 2020-30). I don’t see the Broadmeadows train and Smartbus combination as making a significant contribution to the total travel task. It’s way too slow. It’s there so that a zone 2 fare option is available for those who are cash poor and time rich.

  3. Séan says:

    Why is there this assumption that the only rail link to the airport must be a direct, dedicated line to the CBD? A branch from Broadmeadows station (perhaps running as a shuttle), using the fright line between Albion and Jacana (which is apparently in desperate need of upgrading anyway) or even a new suburban line with the airport being one of several stations. All these are much more prudent options than the unrealistic obsession with a dedicated line with only two stops on it. It’s also much more likely to fulfil one of the key criteria to avoid the creation of a white elephant by being part of the typical fare structure.

    In any case, the ring road bus sounds like another in a line of stop gap measures for when the government/DOT can’t be bothered building a rail link to the airport. There already is the 901 bus that takes a leisurely FOUR HOURS to get from Frankston station to Terminal 4. The sole benefit of this as an airport service from the south east is that one can do the trip on a Zone 2 two hour ticket. Surely though, anyone who values their time slightly higher than the average sweatshop worker will splash out an extra $3.10 to follow Metlink’s own advice by getting the train from Frankston to Broadmeadows and then the 901 from Broadmeadows to T4, which saves them over two hours. Now, while the 901 doesn’t use the ring road, I can’t imagine the ring road trip beating the train+901, particularly given the stops required. The ring road bus is also likely, like every other road, to experience capacity constraints which the bus will be caught up in as much as any other vehicle.

    Also, in your post, you seem to see the ring road bus existing along side an airport rail link. Therefore, why bother running the bus south of the Burnley branch of lines or north of the Footscray branches? People in these areas are likely to be just as well, if not better, served by higher capacity rail services and therefore use these. The savings from this cut in route could be much better used by increasing capacity in the rest of the arc to help with one of Melbourne public transport’s major problems, trying to move east-west in the northern suburbs.

    As for the need to restrict car access to the airport, there’s already plenty of disincentive to drive to the airport due to the airport’s outrageous parking charges. The main reason they are able to get away with it is that the alternatives are either even more expensive (taxi) or woeful (901). A real alternative is needed to belt the airport into line and a few buses doing a long lap around Melbourne ain’t it.

    • Alan Davies says:

      The key to what I’m proposing is that driving to the airport would simply no longer be worth it. It wouldn’t be an option for most travellers. Given that, there are then two basic options to get from Melbourne’s suburbs to the airport (the existing CBD-Airport connection, whether Skybus or a new rail line, is assumed to continue and hence is common to both options):

      1. use the existing train system to get from the suburbs to the CBD and connect at SXS to the airport service
      2. provide a dedicated transit system along the lines I’ve proposed to collect patrons from car parks along the ring road

      As I said in the early part of my post, there are problems with option 1. It would take too long, it mixes baggage with CBD workers and there are serious difficulties with providing parking at suburban stations. I don’t think many suburbanites, whether on business or holidays, would be prepared to walk, bus or taxi to their local station. I fear it would be so unpopular that the pressure to expand road capacity would be inexorable.

      I appreciate that many people don’t see buses as real transit but I think buses have the huge advantage that they can use the existing ring road system in their own dedicated lane.

      • Séan says:

        I posit that driving/taxi to the airport isn’t really worth it now. Living in Ivanhoe, less than 5 minutes from Bell St and hardly in the sticks, I was quoted a fare of around $50 on the taxi website last year. Went for the train + Skybus instead (around $20) and will be going for the train + train + 901 ($6) in future until a proper alternative arrives.

        I fail to see why getting to a ring road bus carpark is any more convenient than getting to a train station. The recent debates over expanding car parks at train stations should point to the idea that people don’t have a problem with travelling to train stations (although the capacity issues should be solved with better transport links, not more car parks). The issue of luggage may be a convenience issue to some, but I think it is less of a concern than in the past due to the gradual reductions in baggage allowances in the low cost carrier world. In any case, people are still allowed to bring bicycles on board, so a few bags won’t be too much of an impost.

        The ability to get to a station isn’t just an issue for airport passengers but for all passengers and is one of the major issues facing Melbourne’s public transport system. This facet of the problem is relevant to both the rail and ring road proposals. Also, given the lack of detail of the route (i.e. how many stops), it’s hard to predict a travel time from the SE end to the airport. Given that one can reach Broadmeadows from Frankston in about 90 minutes by train (plus connection time in city loop), a ring road is going to have to have very few stops to be competitive even in non peak hour conditions, which will necessarily reduce convenience and increase door to door time for many users as they will have to travel longer to their nearest ring road stop. They’re called “outer” suburbs for a reason. Expecting to get to the airport in under an hour from the SE would be wildly optimistic and be calling for the breaking of the laws of physics.

        Also, this isn’t a bus vs train issue. Although being about 1.9m tall, I’m not inherently against buses. They just don’t seem to be being put to best use in this scenario and in my opinion would be much better utilised by improving links between train stations and the suburbs they are meant to connect with.

  4. brisurban says:

    I think this is a great idea Alan. SmartBus also does something like this and is successful.
    Perth has trains travelling down freeways and Brisbane has busways parallel to freeways.
    They work because buses, bicycles and cars feed them.

    I take it that there are many trips that use ring-roads, so why not public transport?
    As long as it is linked, I think it could work very well. It is also a neat way to serve non-radial trips.

    You could start by building the busway stations in the freeway where overpasses are (so you can get connections into it) and designating two lanes as T2/Bus lanes on the ring roads. It could be extremely cheap and fast to get going.

    As for asking for a premium fare, I think that should only be charged at one station- the Airport. Elsewhere it could just be a general purpose way to get from suburb to suburb without having to go to the CBD first.

  5. brisurban says:

    “A couple of issues warrant special mention. First, the attitude of the airport owner is crucial and there are doubtless all sorts of existing contractual complexities. However I envision that the owner could be compensated for the net cost of foregone parking revenue, if required. Alternatively, the owner might tender for the rights to manage the new car parks.”:

    If you charge a premium fare to access Melbourne Airport Station, then just promise the Airport a cut of the profits from people who come by bus. So, I don’t know, 5% of the profit for every trip that comes off the busway that accesses Melbourne Airport.

  6. brisurban says:

    There’s something similar going on in Toronto- 407 Transitway. Funnily enough the picture on their website has Brisbane busway as one of the images.
    http://www.lgl.ca/407Transitway/index.html

  7. anne beaumont says:

    As someone coming from a western suburb (Williamstown) I think the idea is well worth pursuing. To get to the airport using public transport at present means train to the city then Skybus. The last trip we took (leaving 8 December returning 31 December) was on a flight leaving @ 10.30 which meant potentially braving peak hour on the Ring Road or a crowded peak-hour train. Not a good idea. So we booked an overnight stay at a motel which also had secure long-term parking for much less than the airport and a shuttle bus service. A bus in a dedicated lane along the Ring road with the ability to park at a reasonably ‘local’ interchange would certainly attract us and I suspect an increasing number of those from the still somewhat neglected western suburbs.

  8. Dave says:

    I wonder if you’re overestimating the effect of airport travellers on the existing PT network Alan. Skybus carries maybe 400 people per hour at peak times now (6 buses/hr, let’s say articulated, averaging 80% full), so let’s say 1000 per hour in 20 years. Call it two trains worth, at with most people getting seats. It doesn’t seem an undue burden, especially since in the sharper AM peak a lot of airport traffic is contraflow, heading to the airport when city workers are coming in. OK, doesn’t address the suburbs, but we’ll get there.
    Bulky bags are on the decline given baggage charges seem to be on an inexorable rise. So with lighter bags, most people become more mobile. Why not just be dropped at the local station then, or ride a regular (smarter than now) Smartbus rather than ‘dedicated’ airport bus?
    I’m in favour of what you’re proposing only for the dedicated lane. People can ‘kiss and wave’ as easily at a suburban bus/train station as at a ‘dedicated’ airport carpark, or get a cab from their local station to home (call ahead and book – they have to supply it. Otherwise, what else are relatives for?)
    If parking is to be provided at suburban locations, charge it appropriately. Your average middle suburban house is say $600k – that’s a hefty cost to recoup in a reasonable timeframe via parking charges…. I suspect if you did that, most people would suddenly either a)just drive to the airport anyway, or b)get PT direct from their house.

  9. Moss says:

    There are multiple long term infrastructure projects that can be elegantly fused together to provide a far superior alternative. Part of the problem is that we break all of these into different pieces when we should be looking more holistically. Here is the solution (not cheap, but extremely flexible and massively increases capacity in the future):

    – Build your airport rail line from the city as a grade separated, high speed capable system (for eventual extension north to Canberra and Sydney).
    – Run it under Southern Cross, and then under the CBD (with a central station), then out the Eastern freeway to Doncaster, then along the Eastlink to Frankston.
    – Link in your stations to the ends/junctions of the existing metropolitain network (Ringwood, Rowville (extend Glen Waverly line), Dandenong, Frankston.
    – Run it as an express through service per metro style systems, but with fewer stops and much faster speeds to the CBD and Airport.
    – Offer it as a premium service (like the RER in Paris). Pretty sure you would get significant patronage travelling to board the service outwards on exiting rail lines from middle suburbs which greatly increases capacity on the existing network.
    – If you want, you could even include a freight aspect by extending eventually to the Port of Hastings (not sure about that – there would be obvious limitations on the kind of cargo and weights etc).

    Express trains from Frankston to Airport might take 40 minutes max – unbeatable.

    Totally unaffected by existing metropolitan system, reliability would be excellent (important for flight connections). Could even be run as a driverless system per Copenhagen metro and numerous others around the world.

    Where is the vision?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Well, if “vision” is going to be defined as unconstrained by budget, how’s this map (scroll down to the second map) from a poster at Skyscrapercity.com? He estimates it will cost $1 billion p.a. for forty years. Although most of the posters there are pretty knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the metro rail system, they do have the good grace to class their proposals as “fantasies”. 🙂

      • brisurban says:

        I would agree with Aland in that I have serious issues with “blanket the entire city in metro/light rail/heavy rail/busway” plans.
        Building heavy infrastructure is the SLOWEST and COSTLIEST way to get more patronage. And the location of many of these proposals serves the inner city which is already saturated with public transport- it is the outer areas that have the problems of low frequency and poor connectivity.

        Not every problem is an infrastructure deficit problem.
        Melbourne has huge amounts of rail infrastructure (200+ stations vs Toronto’s 80 or so train stations).

        • Moss says:

          Building heavy infrastructure is slowest and costliest if it is not SYNERGISTIC. ie if it is build in isolation. A project such as I propose serves the entire outer east, as well as the middle suburbs, because it significantly expands capacity – commuters can travel against the flow in order to get to a premium express service.

          Alan always rains on the parade! But naysayers never built anything, did they? Lack of vision didn’t give us the snowy hydro, or the channel tunnel, or get man onto the moon. What is required is some imagination for what the best solution could be, and THEN bring it down to earth with engineering. No project starts with a black hat!

          • Alan Davies says:

            Ouch! I think we’ve had this discussion before, Moss. I’ve written before about “vision” (here) and I should do so again. In the meantime, this is a relevant news report:

            Nation Demands Tax Dollars Only Be Wasted On Stuff That’s Awesome

            WASHINGTON—Acknowledging that the outrageous misappropriation of public funds is inevitable, an estimated 500,000 Americans gathered in the nation’s capital Sunday to demand their misused tax dollars at least be squandered on something really awesome that everyone can enjoy.

            Protestors from every state in the union voiced concerns that the federal government is misusing its wasteful spending on special interests, bloated no-bid contracts, and other boring shit like that.

            “Washington has been pouring our hard-earned dollars down the drain for too long,” said activist Brian McGill, addressing a crowd on the National Mall. “And that won’t ever change—we understand that. But we have a message for our elected officials: When you waste taxpayer money, you’d better waste it on something that seriously kicks ass.”

            “Our government throws away billions on the hopelessly inefficient bureaucracy that runs the Pentagon,” McGill continued. “But has it thrown away even one red cent of that same inflated defense budget on, say, a huge fucking laser cannon that we can take turns shooting?”

  10. brisurban says:

    Why wait until you get these funds and time for a rail solution when you can have buses much sooner?
    People value benefits that come to them sooner rather than later. None of this is to say that rail can’t happen along this corridor.

    Alan’s proposal (can I call it a Melbourne Orbital Busway) I think is much broader than just a airport service. You could get a very good cross-town service as well on it too.
    And if the project somehow doesn’t get the patronage, you can redeploy those buses elsewhere on the network.
    So it is a lower risk project in the first instance as well.

    Bus lanes on the Tullamarine Freeway to Melbourne Airport might be worth investigating.
    As patronage builds, that freeway might be worth looking at to put rail into it in the future. Perth has done this with the Joondalup and Mandurah lines.

  11. Tea says:

    I like your ideas about alternative options for a mass transit airport service. However, I think the heavy disincentive to drivers is unnecessary and, in many cases, unfair.

    For example, it’s easy enough to say make parking prohibitively expensive to “force” people to use alternatives, but what about people who want to pick up/drop off people at the airport (I’m sorry but it’s nice to have family members see you off and be there waiting for you at the gate when you return – have a heart!)? And what about people who are physically incapable of carrying luggage from their car to the train to the bus to the terminal? Airports provide luggage trolleys for a reason. I’m a relatively young, fit person, but even I’m incapable of dragging two suitcases and my carry on and my laptop and my purse halfway around the city on public transport. What about people with babies and very young children? And what about people who live in regional areas?

    The only thing prohibitively high parking will achieve is cause more trips to the airport to be made by taxi, which really defeats the purpose of reducing car usage.

    Why can’t we simply accept that people either want or need to drive to the airport and plan accordingly? It’s great to offer a cheaper and convenient alternative, but really what’s the problem with driving? I fail to see why it’s seen as a bad thing for people to drive to the airport.

  12. […] possibly all be done by car due to congestion, but neither can it be done by rail from the CBD. Something like this is a more a plausible […]

  13. Sean Deany says:

    Its a good idea and would surely introduce real BRT (bus rapid transit) as an alternative mode of transport on Melbourne’s existing freeways. This could certainly be rolled out well before 2020, even on a tight budget. This said I believe some form of Airport rail link via the CBD will be also require by say 2030 as a means into coping with the expected numbers of people using the airport by then.

  14. […] Melbourne Airport does have growing access problems, particularly congestion on the freeway system. The provision of an efficient high capacity transit system to the CBD (Skybus) has not prevented this and neither will a rail line. Similarly, a rail line to Avalon will not “cure” congestion on the freeway to Geelong, much less on Tullamarine or the Western Ring Road. A more efficient approach to addressing Melbourne Airport’s landside access issues would be to provide something along these lines. […]

  15. Don says:

    There is no single plan that could fix this problem. A multitude of solutions would be required.
    – The expansion of the Tullamrine from 2 lanes eachway to 3 lanes each way on the final leg would be needed.
    – Building the railline from Broadmeadows to the airport (on the existing railreserve) to connect to the Metro system.
    – Connect the Sunshine Metro line to the airport via the existing freight line. Adding a line eachway for commuter trains, or disusing it for freight.
    – Extending the 59 Tram route 5 km up from Airport West Westfield up Melrose Drive.
    – possibility to build a new Metro line (mostly as a tunnel so would be expensive) extending the Flemington Racecourse line under Footscray, up to Maribyrnong, under Highpoint, unper the new Defence site suburb, and then to the airport via Avondalem Heights, East Keilor.
    – a direct rail service from SXS either as a Maglev style, which would be expensive, or as a Monorail up the Tullamarine Freeway, which would be significantly cheaper.

    Greater Publi transport connections in the West would take more western suburb traffic to the airport off of the freeway, freeing up more space for more easter suburb commuters to clog it up 🙂

  16. PRT Fan says:

    The BRT should be built on 2 lanes of Springvale Rd, rather than EastLink.

    Commerce takes place on either side of a main road, not on either side of a motorway.

    There are train stations, shopping malls, schools, restaurants, big offices, on Springvale Rd.

    Look at St Kilda Rd in Melbourne, most people that work there probably go by tram: A) parking is expensive. B) its quicker and cheaper to go there by tram (or train to Flinders then tram).

    That can be replicated on Springvale Rd too.


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