Is there a case for rail to Avalon Airport?

A bum rap

One of the great mysteries of 2010 is why the then Opposition promised to spend taxpayers funds to provide a rail service from the CBD to Avalon Airport. This wasn’t a promise to conduct a study, as was the case with the Doncaster, Rowville and Melbourne Airport rail lines, but a firm commitment to take action, with a minimum of $50 million to be spent in the first term of a Baillieu Government.

I’ve been scratching my head to come up with a rationale for this rail line, which Mr Baillieu says will cost $250 million. As I understand it, the Government will contribute the first $50 million and share the remaining $200 million with the Commonwealth and Lindsay Fox (although the size of each party’s contribution has not been revealed).

It’s hard to believe, with the range of other transport problems confronting Melbourne and a tight budgetary outlook, how this could even be on the table, much less be the Government’s highest priority.

The customary rationale for building a high capacity transport system is that current arrangements are approaching or exceed capacity. When I discussed this proposal during the election campaign last year, I noted there were only around 13 scheduled departures from Avalon on a weekday and that just 1.5 million passengers use the airport annually. This compares with 26 million using Tullamarine.These Airservices Australia figures indicate Melbourne Airport handles over twenty times as many aircraft movements as Avalon.  I went on to say:

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.

Sita Coaches currently carries fewer than 200 passengers per day between Avalon and the CBD for $20 each. So on the face of it, it’s hard to see why public funds should be prioritised to an Avalon rail line for any reason whatsoever, much less ahead of Melbourne Airport (which is itself a long way from needing rail at this time).

One argument I’ve heard is that Avalon needs a rail line to expand its air cargo capacity. This sounds particularly unlikely to me. Just why customers would pay a large premium to send high value, low weight, high priority articles by air from interstate and overseas, only to then have them transported from Avalon to the CBD and beyond by rail, is a mystery. Couriers were invented to provide speed, flexibility and demand-responsiveness for just this sort of task. The owner of Avalon might want a rail line, but it’s not apparent that its purpose would primarily be to service air traffic. In any event, I’m not sure it would be a good idea for the taxpayer to fund rail for an airport operated by a company that has its own logistics operation.

Another possible argument for an Avalon rail line might be that Melbourne Airport has capacity constraints. This is probably the least convincing of any rationale. Melbourne Airport’s great advantage, especially compared to its key rival in Sydney, is that it has enormous potential for expansion and no curfew. It has a primary north-south runway and a secondary east-west runway with the potential to accommodate two further runways as well as additional operational areas, terminals, aviation support and commercial facilities. Read the rest of this entry »

What makes great architecture?

House of Mukesh Ambani, richest person in India

I’ve written the odd bit about architecture and design before (see here) but I always intended to write more. I’d especially like to review buildings, but it’s hard to get any hard information on how buildings perform for their owners and users – that’s one reason why so much architectural writing is either self-serving or vacuous.

So this interesting piece by Indian economist, Ajay Shah, offers another way to approach the subject of architecture. He poses the question: “when and where do great feats of architecture come about?…… Why do some places achieve great feats of architecture, while others routinely opt for merely functional structures?”.

He says that he is instinctively unsatisfied with the claim that the USA lacks great architecture because Americans have poor taste. Instead, he offers the following five explanations for “great feats of architecture”:

Surplus — To go beyond merely functional structures requires resources to spare. At low levels of income, people are likely to merely try to get some land and brick and stone together. In these things, we have nonlinear Engel curves. Pratapgarh looks picayune because Shivaji lacked surplus

The desire to make a statement and to impress — Ozymandius wanted to make a point: He wanted ye Mighty to look at his works and despair. I have often felt this was one of the motivations for the structures on Raisina Hill or the Taj Mahal

Arms races — There may also be an element of an arms race in these things. Perhaps the chaps who built the Qutub Minar (1193-1368) in Delhi set off an arms race, where each new potentate who came along was keen to outdo the achievement of the predecessor. I used to think that the Taj Mahal (1632-1648) was so perfect, that it could not be matched, and thus it put an end to this arms race. But then I saw the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (1671-1673), and I had to revise my opinion……

Transparency — You only need to impress someone when there is asymmetric information, where that someone does not know how great you are. Shah Jahan needed to build big because the targets of his attention did not know the GDP of his dominion and his tax/GDP ratio. In this age of Forbes league tables, Mukesh Ambani does not need to build a fabulous structure for you to know he’s the richest guy in India. A merely functional house suffices; a great feat of architecture is not undertaken

Accountability — The incremental expense of going from a merely functional structure to a great feat of architecture is generally hard to justify. Hence, one might expect to see more interesting architecture from autocratic places+periods, where decision makers wield discretionary power with weak checks and balances. As an example, I think that Britain had the greatest empire, but the architecture of the European continent is superior: this may have to do with the early flowering of democracy in the UK. Read the rest of this entry »

– What can history teach us about rail?

What happens when you have real data on transport

Back on April 5th I noted that the suburban rail network we have in Melbourne today was substantially in place by the end of the nineteenth century.

I asked why, with the threat of climate change and peak oil hanging over us, we can’t replicate the achievements of the nineteenth century and massively expand Melbourne’s rail network. If our forebears of four or five generations ago could do it, why can’t we, with our superior technology, do even better?

I pointed out – quite accurately as it turned out – that I couldn’t bring an historian’s eye to the subject. I proposed six hypotheses to explain why it would be much harder to build the suburban network today. One of my reasons was that back then the railways covered their operating costs. A reader, Russ, pointed out that the experience in Victoria was quite different:

After the 1880s the government stepped in, and via the combination of rampant corruption and misplaced optimism in the largest real estate bubble in Australian history built 90% of the existing network – most of it completely wasted expenditure.

On his recommendation, I’ve been flipping through The Land Boomers by Michael Cannon. According to Cannon, transport was so vital to Melbourne’s growth that the story of Victorian politics in the 1880s was largely the story of the building of railways:

Hundreds of miles of track, some of it quite useless, pushed out from the egocentric city to the rampant suburbs and the far countryside. Hardly a member of Parliament whose vote could be bought went without his bribe in the form of a new railway, a spur line, or advance information on governmental plans to enable him to buy choice land in advance – the value of which was enormously enhanced when the line went through. It was a dispiriting chapter in Victorian political morality. Read the rest of this entry »

Melbourne ‘fantasy rail map’

Map by cwer

As it’s the holidays I thought I’d show this 2009 map I stumbled across at Railpage. This is an example of the growing genre of ‘fantasy maps’, fed no doubt by easy access to GIS. It’s one person’s vision of what Melbourne’s rail system could look like at some point in the future at an unspecified financial and political cost. What distinguishes this one from the flotsam is the way the author has used the same graphic style as the current Metlink map, which you can see here.

It doesn’t have the new line to Avalon Airport the Government has committed itself to, perhaps because no one ever conceived in 2009 that it could ever be a priority. But it does have the now well known new lines to Melbourne Airport, Rowville and Doncaster, the latter extended to Donvale in the east, and via Fitzroy in the west to connect to the Melbourne Metro link from the west at Parkville. The Metro carries on via Swanston St to the Domain and St Kilda and connects to the Sandringham line at Ripponlea and the Dandenong line at Caulfield.

The map shows the Regional Rail Link as well as a branch line to Aurora and extensions of existing lines to Whittlesea, Yarra Glen and Clyde. The Glen Waverley line is extended via Knox to connect to the Belgrave line. The Alamein line is extended to connect with the Glen Waverley line and onto the Dandenong line via Chadstone. The Upfield line connects to the Craigieburn line at Roxburgh Park. All lines appear to be fully electrified and the number of tracks is increased to expand capacity on a number of existing lines.

The curmudgeons at Railpage have picked up on a few oddities (Rushall a Premium Station!?), but what I find amusing is that Doncaster is shown in Zone 2!  I’m not expecting to see that in any of the PR material associated with the Government’s feasiblity study. Also, a traveller can get as far as Airport West on a Zone 1 ticket, but the Airport is Zone 2. And to go from the Airport to Keilor West is a Zone 1-2!

These are mere details in a ‘fantasy map’ but they illustrate some of the anomalies with Melbourne’s zonal fare system that I discussed last week.

Are Melbourne’s houses too big?

Metricon’s Grandview – what a 27 square (252 m2) house looks like

According to the State’s Building Commission, new houses in Victoria were 252 m2 on average in 2008-09 compared with 217 m2 in 2000-01. This report says “homes in Victoria are getting bigger, much bigger – leading to warnings that some people may be building homes bigger than they need by borrowing more than they can afford”. The Building Commissioner is quoted as saying:

The promotion of larger homes by medium and high volume builders, where added rooms are used as a marketing tool, have contributed to the increase in size……consumers are up-sold to home theatres, additional bathrooms and media rooms

I have a couple of thoughts/reactions to this.

First, some context – while there are buyers who want a behemoth like Metricon’s 49 square ‘Monarch’, almost three quarters (74%) of Growth Area buyers purchase a single level dwelling. Moreover, 70% of homes are less than 30 squares and 47% are less than 26 squares. Some are buying a “McMansion”, but most are buying something like Metricon’s Grandview.

Second, the claim that buyers are so gullible they are “upsold” to bigger homes they don’t “need” is patronising. Buyers do know what they want. Two thirds of Growth Area purchasers are buying their second home – half of this group are buying their third or fourth home. And nearly half (48%) of adult buyers in the Growth Areas are aged 35 years or more.

Third, if people are buying homes they can’t afford, that’s not primarily an issue of dwelling size. I expect over-stretched buyers would more likely be purchasing a home that’s closer to the city centre — it would be smaller than a fringe “McMansion” but cost more because of its greater accessibility. If there has been an upward movement in the proportion of people buying homes they can’t afford, the problem and the solution lie with lending policies rather than with dwelling size. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the proposed airport train off the rails?

Royal wedding preview

The idea of a high-speed Melbourne Airport-to-CBD rail line is in the news yet again, this time advocated by the RACV.

You’ve got to give the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria its due. While simultaneously calling for roadworks to reduce congestion and improvements to traffic flow in Hoddle Street, it’s morphing into a general transport lobby group that “advocates improved transport services for all its members, including those who use public transport”.

This story on the RACV’s call for an airport train has attracted over 100 comments, most of them favouring a rail line. There’re the same themes that come up every time The Age runs pro-airport rail stories – it’s embarrassing that Melbourne doesn’t have a dedicated rail line; car parking prices at the airport are extortionary; Skybus fares cost an arm and a leg; the contract with Citylink won’t allow competition; and the airport and taxi industry won’t let anyone kill their golden goose.

Even while they approvingly cite the example of Sydney’s and Brisbane’s airport trains, commenters nevertheless generally assume an airport train would be high speed, would solve congestion on Melbourne’s freeways and would cost no more than a Zone 1-2 fare.

I’ve explained before why an airport rail line is unlikely to make sense for a while yet, but it’s a good idea to take another more considered view of its prospects than those advanced by unabashed boosters. Here’re twelve reasons why a rail line to Melbourne Airport is unlikely to make sense for a while yet.

First, Skybus already provides a dedicated public transport service from the airport to the CBD with higher frequencies and longer span of hours than any train service in Melbourne. Most times trips to Southern Cross station take 20 minutes. While they blow out to over 40 minutes in peak hour, that could be addressed for a fraction of the cost of a new rail line by extending the existing dedicated on-road lane to other sections of the route that are prone to congestion.

Second, there’s little to be gained from spending more than a billion dollars to replace a high quality public transport service (Skybus) with another one (train), when the money could be spent on providing better public transport to areas that don’t currently have adequate service.

Third, every study undertaken to date has concluded that a rail service isn’t warranted. It might be in the future but not yet. In the meantime, there is considerable potential to increase the capacity and speed of Skybus. As pointed out here, Brisbane’s south-east busway already carries 15,000 passengers per hour. Read the rest of this entry »

Does the media neglect policy?

BRT - Backpacker Rapid Transit (H/T #Bustration)

In this short clip, Jon Faine from ABC 774 takes Victoria’s Transport Minister, Terry Mulder, to task for point-scoring over the Regional Rail Link (RRL). Despite criticising the proposed new $4.2 billion rail line while in opposition, the Baillieu Government has finally announced that the project will nevertheless go ahead.

You’ve got to admire Jon Faine’s persistence in hammering away at the theme of hypocrisy. The Minister is shamelessly milking the “blame it on the last lot” mantra well beyond its ‘use by’ date and Faine accordingly seems determined to make him pay for his back-flip. Straight up, Faine asks: “You criticised (the RRL) in opposition and now you’re rubber-stamping it and the price goes up, how come?”. Then towards the end of the interview Faine sums up the situation:

So in other words the bottom line is you opposed a program in opposition that you now endorse in government; you said it wasn’t needed and now it is; it was gonna cost $4 billion, it’s now gonna cost a bit more because you’re including the cost of the trains when before you weren’t and two underpasses which hadn’t been factored in; other than that it doesn’t sound as if it was that far off target at all

That’s all well and good. However the trouble is it’s the only issue Faine addresses. He doesn’t address the substance of the RRL. He’s not interested in the main benefits – more peak hour train services in the west – the Minister says the project will deliver. He doesn’t ask if it will be money well spent or whether there might be better projects the money could be spent on. He doesn’t pursue the claim made by some that the same objectives could be achieved at substantially lower cost, or that Geelong commuters will have to travel further, or that neither of the two new stations will have electrified services.

Of course it’s very important that the media calls politicians to account on matters like hypocrisy, but there’s also a question of balance. The appetite of the media for issues of behaviour – by which I mean proprieties and manners, ethics, honesty and dishonesty, hypocrisy, corruption, law breaking, broken promises and such like – crowds out consideration of the substance of policy. Once a hot story about bad behaviour takes flight, there’s not much space for anything else to get off the ground. Read the rest of this entry »