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.

Fourth, the only two airport train systems in Australia, in Brisbane and Sydney, both experienced severe financial difficulties. Both now make money, Sydney’s after going into receivership and being sold at a loss, and Brisbane’s by cutting back services. Brisbane’s trains operate on a 30 minute frequency and stop operation after 8 pm on a weekday. Melbourne’s Skybus runs every ten minutes for most of the day and operates 24/7. Buses already carry a higher proportion of travellers to Melbourne Airport than trains do at either Sydney or Brisbane.

Fifth, the 901 orbital SmartBus now provides a Zone 1-2 fare to the airport. It runs on a 15 minute frequency for most of the day and operates until midnight. Travellers can transfer to a CBD train at Broadmeadows station or take the SmartBus as far as Frankston via Epping, Greensborough, Ringwood and Dandenong. Skybus also offers concession fares to airport workers.

Sixth, it is extremely unlikely that any dedicated train service would be offered at a Zone 1-2 fare because that would incur an operating loss, whereas Skybus is profitable and hence costs the State nothing. Both the Sydney and Brisbane trains charge $15 one-way from the domestic terminal to the CBD. Skybus charges $16 (for a longer trip). There are sound arguments for charging a different (higher) price for airport travel rather than incurring a substantial ongoing cost to subsidise air travellers, many of whom don’t live in Victoria.

Seventh, it’s also highly unlikely that any new train line would be high-speed. That would be very expensive as it would require a dedicated line and rolling stock and higher engineering standards. Those who hold out hope that it could be part of a Sydney–Melbourne High Speed Rail (HSR) project ignore the fact that numerous studies have found HSR is not viable on this route (the Commonwealth is undertaking another study at the moment). Even if political considerations were to drive a start on HSR, it is far more likely the first stages would be constructed around Sydney, probably in the Newcastle-Sydney corridor.

Eighth, a train would not reduce congestion on Melbourne’s freeway system. Most users live in the suburbs and will continue to drive – a rail line to the CBD won’t change that. In any event, any space liberated by drivers switching to train would be consumed by induced demand.

Ninth, even if a train were to win an unprecedented share of all airport ground travel (say 20% – which would put it way ahead of Brisbane and Sydney), this would be an extraordinarily expensive way of reducing GHG emissions.

Tenth, a train would have no impact on the price of airport parking, which is one of the key gripes of those who support the rail line. High prices are the result of monopoly pricing and would best be addressed in other ways.

Eleventh, there are other transport projects with a higher economic and social warrant for the expenditure of scare government funds than an airport rail link. Indeed, there are projects in other portfolios, like health and education, that would have a much higher return.

Twelfth, an airport rail line would be the wrong project. With airport use projected to grow strongly, the key ground transport challenge is to move Melburnians from dispersed home and work locations to the airport and back again. That can’t possibly all be done by car due to congestion, but neither can it be done by rail from the CBD. Something like this, which recognises rather than ignores the suburban location of most Melburnians, is a more plausible solution.

So, there are many reasons to be sceptical about the need for an airport rail line at this time. If the RACV wants to strengthen its public transport credentials, there are plenty of other more deserving projects it should advocate ahead of this one. The Government has indicated that it is undertaking another feasibility study of a rail line to the airport. It would be best for the RACV to sit tight and wait to see what that brings.

Even so, I’m impressed by the RACV’s general sophistication. The “A” in RACV seems to be changing from “Auto” to something more general like “Accessibility”. The Public Transport Users Association, which still has a vaguely undergraduate vibe about it (exemplified by the supercilious tone of its web site), could learn a lot about political effectiveness from the RACV.

10 Comments on “Is the proposed airport train off the rails?”

  1. Peter Hill says:

    Alan, your “preliminary” analysis of the Melbourne CBD to Melbourne Airport travel corridor is spot on.

  2. jack horner says:

    I am regretfully concluding that most people, at a deep level, just don’t get the ideas of ‘cost benefit analysis’ and ‘opportunity cost’.** If it looks good they want it, like a lolly. Any more thoughtful analysis is a bridge too far.

    I suspect this goes from the lowest to the highest level – see, for example, the Commonwealth government’s open scorn for any cost benefit analysis of the NBN, and the extremely wobbly justifications for other recent major PT projects (Regional Rail link, metro rail tunnel, Sydney’s absurd metro proposals over 2008-09).

    This raises fundamental questions for commentators who would like to promote rational economic investment.

    ** which is curious, as they must subconsciously apply the principles in their own purchasing decisions.

  3. TomD says:

    To Jack: Maybe people will start to treat cost/benefits as less of a bridge too far when they see the concept more rigorously applied to the obscene salaries and packages provided (without any such considerations) to most corporate CEOs these days … not to mention seriously expensive government decisions to commit to wars and dubious military equipments. Taking your inspiration from the top … the heads of business can often even mean very generously rewarding loss making chief executives for their efforts! Cost/benefit? And no matter whether public or private the ultimate cost is always passed on to your average taxpayers and consumers in one form or the other.

  4. brisurban says:

    I suspect the RACV is broadening its ambit because they know that car’s days are numbered! Perhaps it is much like the way oil companies have branched out to become energy companies which also do wind and solar.

    I think median busway lanes should be looked at for the Tullamarine freeway. This could either be done by adding a lane or re-designating a lane to become T2 or bus only. This would be quite fast to do.

    The Brisbane busway does carry 15 000+ passengers per hour, however I think at this level it would be more efficient labour-wise to upgrade this to rail. The newer busway costs to construct now match or exceed the cost of heavy rail (there is a section of busway at Buranda that came in at about $465 million for 1km). None of this is an argument for rail to Melbourne Airport yet, as I suspect the capacity is nowhere near 15 000 or even 5000 passengers per hour, and therefore does not warrant train service.

    The Calder and Tullamarine Freeways may be good for a busway operation…

    • Alan Davies says:

      You’re right, nowhere near 5,000 p.h. The number of services provided by Skybus from the CBD to the airport during peak periods (from 6am to 8pm) is six buses per hour, giving a nominal one-way seating capacity of 360 per hour. While there are occasions during this period when passengers stand, the actual average patronage is below nominal capacity. The average number of passengers carried per day, both directions, is more likely to be around 5,000 – 6,000.

      • brisurban says:

        When you have got maybe 5000/hour then you might start thinking about rail options.
        The exception here would be very long distance services where the speed of the train (130km/hour) and capacity during peak hour is really required (i.e. Perth-Mandurah).

        A bigger articulated bus with more spaces (say 80-100 spaces) and bus lanes on the Freeway (could be painted overnight) might do the trick.
        Save the dollars for more PT in the suburbs.

  5. I can think of another reason. Unless the connection from the railway station to the airport is convenient, it can be a deterrent. Sydney (domestic) airport has several changes of level, long corridors, awkward barriers, and a rather lacklustre station and trains. Brisbane has an uninspiring climb to the station then a boringly long trip on the suburban rail. Portland, Oregon, by comparison is brilliant. You walk from the luggage carousels straight onto the platform where one or two Light Rail (MAX) vehicles are waiting to take you into the city.

    A cynic might ask if the RACV is actively calling for a Melbourne airport rail link, knowing that it should / will not be built, gaining ‘green’ credentials, while at the same time spinning the need for more roads.

    Readers interested in these subjects might also like to read the Sustainable Cities and Transport Newsletter which can be found at

  6. Alan Davies says:

    Pressure for more rail lines in the Sunday Herald Sun.

  7. […] – Is the proposed airport train off the rails? […]

  8. […] to Melbourne Airport from the CBD is needed just yet because I’ve addressed the issue before (I give 12 reasons here). In summary, though, the key issues are that it will cost billions; there’s already a very good […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s