Is Avalon side-tracking Tullamarine rail?

Some famous faces spruiking Avalon Airport to Chinese investors

The Baillieu Government is determined to press on with its election commitment to start construction of the $250 million rail link to Avalon Airport in its first term. The Premier did this nice photo op last week waving-in planes at Avalon.

The Age reporter, Andrew Heasley, took a clever line, asking how the Government could commit to Avalon while spending just $6 million on a feasibility study for a rail line to Melbourne Airport. That produced this bizarre explanation from the State’s Aviation Minister, Gordon Rich-Phillips, who effectively said Avalon is going ahead because it’s easier:

There are challenges around an airport link for Melbourne ……Avalon is a clearer project than Melbourne in terms of the logistics associated with doing it. The reality is.…the lack of development around its [Avalon’s] immediate vicinity makes a lot of those logistics questions at Avalon easier than they are for Melbourne….. We have committed to work at Avalon and we’ve committed to feasibility at Melbourne. We don’t have a project for Melbourne [Airport], we have a feasibility study for Melbourne.

While I admire Mr Rich-Phillip’s unusual and possibly courageous frankness, I can’t see that ease matters more than need. Otherwise we’d build new schools where it’s cheapest rather than where the population is growing. Or the Government would be putting Protective Services Officers in retirement villages rather than on rail stations.

I won’t go into depth about what a silly idea the Avalon rail link is because I discussed it only a few weeks ago (Is the Avalon rail link Baillieu’s folly?). Suffice to say that Melbourne Airport is 22 km from the CBD, is the second busiest airport in the country, and has enormous scope for expansion; Avalon is 55 km away, has just six scheduled flights a day, and has enormous scope for expansion. Even if a rail line were built to Avalon, you’d have to wonder what the frequency, hours of operation and ongoing financial losses would be – it’s got to be sobering that Brisbane Airport’s train stops running at 8pm. I don’t have any problem with Avalon Airport per se, my worry is why taxpayers have to kick in when there are better uses our dollars could be put to.

This fascinating PR video produced to market Avalon to Chinese investors (see exhibit) shows what a cast of famous characters are backing Lindsay Fox’s Avalon venture, from the Prime Minister to the Lord Mayor. I know some gilding of the lily should be expected, but seriously Robert Doyle, how could you say “Avalon is the gateway to Melbourne” with a straight face? And as if, Lindsay Fox, travellers using Avalon could continue to get “on a plane in five minutes” if it really did grow to the size you imagine and hope it will?

What I didn’t know until I viewed the video is the Victorian Government, according to the Premier, has “committed to build a fuel pipeline for jets” to Avalon. This is all on the back of Avalon being “Melbourne’s second international airport”. As I’ve said before, it’s time we were given some explanation for what a second international airport actually means – is it something more than a place for motor racing teams and pop stars to land their cargos once a year? No one is going to seriously believe they’ll transport Ferraris to Albert Park or amplifiers to Rod Laver Arena by rail. What’s the logic behind it? We need a clear explanation – in terms of quantified benefits – of why governments are apparently prepared to spend hundreds of millions on infrastructure for Avalon.

Of course, construction of Avalon rail will have minimal practical effect on the need for a rail link to Melbourne Airport, although it could conceivably have a big effect on whether the Government feels obliged politically to proceed with the latter project. What they both have in common however is that no considered case has yet been made for either one. However The Age’s story – subsequently taken up as fact by these letter writers to the paper – implies that rail to Melbourne Airport is automatically a good idea. It’s certainly an infinitely better idea than rail to Avalon (what wouldn’t be?), but it’s by no means obvious that it’s needed now, as I’ve pointed out a number of times before (see Airports & Aviation in Categories list in the sidepane).

Again, I won’t go into detail on the reasons why it’s unlikely a rail link 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 bus service which costs taxpayers nothing and can be improved at low cost; a train won’t reduce congestion on freeways; and the key challenge with airport traffic is travel to non city centre destinations, almost all of which is currently made by car. It’s not that rail should be ruled out forever at Tullamarine, it’s just that the case isn’t strong enough at the moment.

All of us will hopefully have better information available when the Government completes the current feasibility study on the Melbourne Airport-CBD rail link.

The feasibility study will now need to take account of the Federal Government’s new High Speed Rail Study – Phase One report. This is not positive for airport rail – it signals  clearly that HSR could not serve both inter-city trips and airport-CBD travel. The latter has operational patterns – large volumes of passengers without reservations, high frequencies and multiple stops – that are incompatible with an efficient inter-city HSR service. There’re potentially some synergies with shared use of stations and corridors, but that’s about it.

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5 Comments on “Is Avalon side-tracking Tullamarine rail?”

  1. Johnyboy says:

    I agree with the fact the there are better uses for the money. Sadly it will go ahead anyway. I want more rail in the city and id like to see planning where we have satellite cities around CBD and a rail link to by pass the city loop in the center. We need get the planning to fix the city first. Oh well. The congestion is because of bad planning. I can see the streets that could be linked together to move traffic along. Its the stupid tunnels instead.

  2. Andrew says:

    Assuming it is a spur line from the Geelong line, construction won’t cost much. Slot a train to Avalon in between Geelong services, perhaps stopping at Werribee, it will help with overcrowding on the Geelong line. A few extra trains would be needed and extra staff but really, it won’t cost very much. I guess that is where the government is coming from. Having said that, a rail line to Melbourne Airport is desperately needed. It is unbelievable that a city this size does not have one. Forget the Sydney and Brisbane models, make ours part of public transport system with normal fares. Tullamarine Motorway congestion would disappear. We would need less taxis and possibly get better service.

    I can’t help but think vested interests are preventing it from happening.

  3. Alan Davies says:

    I should’ve added that the HSR Phase 1 report gives some indication of what a genuinely fast train connecting Melbourne Airport to the CBD would cost. The study assumes the “average upper bound” construction cost for the last 18 km into Melbourne (in two tube tunnel) would be $180 million/km, plus $2 billion for station redevelopment. Although assumed to operated at up to 350 kph in rural areas, HSR trains are assumed to run at 200 kph in metro areas.

  4. Sean Deany says:

    Indeed a rail link to Melbourne Airport is much more important to focus feasibility money towards at this moment. Avalon Airport would need a hell of a lot more flights per day than currently is the case, infact it would have to become the new Melbourne Airport! Is Linfox putting dollars into Big Teds back pocket to roll out a White Elephant? And once the HSR is built, then Avalon Airport looks even more of a back water. Better even still in the medium term future to perhaps redevelop the existing Avalon Airport site for low cost but sustainable housing and mixed use where a regular rail service would be useful. For instance a cross Geelong suburban Rapid Rail service running from Avalon “activity centre” to the Armstrong Creek “activity centre” makes better sense.

  5. PRT Fan says:

    Alan Davies, do you realize that a rail link to Tullamarine Airport would have more than just 2 stations?

    Unlike the SkyBus which only allows people to get on at Southern Cross or Tullamarine.

    There would be 4-6 stations in total and a stop at Essendon or Bell St would be a boon for those commuting to the CBD daily.

    Moreover, it could be extended beyond Southern Cross to the eastern suburbs, providing a rapid and reliable service linking the north with the east via the CBD.

    Look at the new 80km long Gautrain in South Africa. 4 stations from CBD to Marlboro and then one branch goes to the airport and another goes to Pretoria.

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