Would we use an airport train (as much as we say we would)?

Ground transport mode share for Melbourne Airport passengers (%) - data from Melbourne Airport

Yesterday’s post on the unreliability of predictions fits nicely with the latest round of calls for a rail line to the airport. The stimulus this time is a report in The Age last week on Melbourne Airport’s plans to upgrade freeway access and build a new terminal.

It set off a predictable and familiar landslide of calls for a train line. There were 141 comments on the article, virtually all of them advocating an airport train. I must say that I’ve hardly met a Melburnian who doesn’t think an airport train should be a high priority of any and all governments.

Some doubtless think others would use a train and thus, they imagine, reduce congestion on roads leading to the airport. But I expect most see themselves avoiding gridlock, punitive airport parking fees, or high taxi fares by using the train for most of their airport travel.

And yet if the train were built, there’s no doubt their prediction would prove to be enormously over-optimistic. Brisbane has a train from the CBD to the airport that carries just 5% of all travellers (another 3% come by bus). Sydney has a train too – it only carries 10% of all travellers (and a further 2% access the airport by bus). As Jarrett Walker observes, the political popularity of airport rail “is always several orders of magnitude above its actual ridership”.

Is there any reason to think that a train to Melbourne airport would increase public transport’s existing share of travel by a significantly greater amount than the trains have in these other cities?

Even without a train, Melbourne Airport already has a higher public transport mode share than either Sydney or Brisbane, with 14% of travellers accessing the terminal by bus. The former Government’s specification for a future airport train was a $16 fare, 20 minute trip time and 15 minute frequency. That’s much the same as SkyBus provides at present.

It’s true trains are generally more appealing than buses, but I can’t see that’s likely to lift public transport’s share significantly – certainly it hasn’t been enough in Brisbane and Sydney. It’s more likely it would cannibalise SkyBus and perhaps gain one or two additional percentage points of mode share.

If the latent demand for better public transport service between the airport and the CBD was as strong as readers of The Age think, then SkyBus – which offers the best frequencies and span of hours of any public transport service in Melbourne – should be doing much better than it is now (and it’s doing quite well).

It’s often argued that if an airport train were priced at a Zone 1-2 fare, it would attract higher patronage than SkyBus. That’s likely to be true, but it’s totally unrealistic – no Government is going to spend billions on an airport rail line and then subsidise its operations. And nor should it.

In any event, I doubt the increase in patronage would be anywhere near as dramatic as some assume. There is a host of reasons why the great majority of travellers would still prefer to drive or take a taxi than pay even a Zone 1-2 fare.

For example, most airport trips are to or from homes and workplaces in the suburbs – a taxi or a car is usually going to be more convenient than going to the local station and transferring to the airport service at Southern Cross. For many regular travellers, taxis and parking are cheap because they’re a business cost.

For tourists, it’s easy to justify a taxi for an occasional and important trip. Most tourists also travel with at least one other person, so in many cases that will improve the competitiveness of a taxi, or the long term car park, relative to public transport (I’ve elaborated on these reasons in previous posts – see Airports & aviation category in sidebar).

These are much the same sorts of reasons why Melburnians drive for the great majority of work and non-work trips. They’re also the same reasons why all those readers of The Age who imagine they, or others, would use a train instead of a car if they had the choice, in fact wouldn’t.

It seems human beings aren’t very good at predicting how they’ll behave in hypothetical situations. Perhaps supporters of a rail line implicitly assume the example of public transport’s success in the CBD can be transferred to the airport.

If so, they fail to account for some important differences. For example, the CBD is served not by one but by many radial tram and train lines. It’s also much less friendly to cars than an airport owner who earns substantial revenue from parking.


Book giveaway: follow this link to be in the running for one of two copies of Jarrett’s Walker’s new book, Human Transit

48 Comments on “Would we use an airport train (as much as we say we would)?”

  1. Daniel Bowen says:

    Who’s the demographic for PT to the airport? Passengers might travel to/from the airport a couple of times a year, but what about the thousands of workers who travel there daily? How are they best served?

    • Alan Davies says:

      According to the Melbourne Airport Ground Transport Plan (I linked to it in the post), 81% of all airport staff live in the western and northern suburbs. Only 12% live in the south-east, with most of those in Boroondara and Manningham. 97% currently drive.

      They’re best served by driving, buses and cycling (they’re currently eligible for a discount on SkyBus). It would surely be in the Airport’s interest to free-up some of those staff parking spaces for other uses, by promoting a shift to buses. The Plan reflects conditions in 2009 – at that time bus services were pretty poor. Don’t know if they’ve improved (of course there’s been the Orbital since then).

      • One other minor point, perhaps part of the reason that almost all of the employees of the airport live in that area is that it is the only area where it is easy to get a job at the airport? I know travel is one of the first things I look at before deciding on where to apply for jobs.

    • mdonnellan63 says:

      a very good point Daniel.

      are we not better off building decent public transport infrastructure now, rather than wait for the next crisis. people will use it, and even if patronage is small at the outset, it will continue to grow if the service is reasonable and inexpensive – it should be integrated into existing train network and include stops along the way.

      i reckon skybus is a great service, but i am politically biased towards governments that acknowledge the importance of PT to civil society and act accordingly.

  2. Tim Marks says:

    I’ve caught the SkyBus only once from the airport. It was pretty good, and then I caught the train home from SC. But to me, the problem with SkyBus is that it’s a bus. Less comfort, less room, more noise, annoyingly narrow if it’s busy and you have big bags, start stop of traffic and lights etc. Wahhh? I guess so. But I argue for a train for the comfort, and the reliability in terms of not getting stuck on the freeway due to an accident. That always makes me nervous when going to the airport. A train wouldn’t have these worries for me.

    I think when many people envisage an airport train for Melbourne, they think of Hong Kong et. al. with one or two stops, high speed and reliability. It’s a pipe dream for Melbourne isn’t it.

    By the way, can I use Myki on skybus? Now that would be handy. Having to line up at the booth for a Skybus ticket is so 1994.

  3. Matthew says:

    Melbourne trains have 200 million plus annual ridership. Any well thought out project (i.e. not Avalon) will have enough riders to justify itself with ridership like that. I think all your objections are based on an “airport express” type service, and I wouldn’t disagree that ridership would be below projections in such a case, but if the airport station was a stop on a normal suburban line (created from either a spur off the Craigieburn line, or used that Sunshine to Airport West freight line), and had normal prices, and not a rip-off “airport express” type price then it would fit naturally into the existing network, would be a great success, and would be greatly used. Ridership would have a 5 million annual trip boost.

    I think it would also be a success if either or both of the V-line services (the Seymour line, and the Bendigo line) were routed via the airport on new lines. A lot more expensive to build.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I don’t think there’s any doubt it would get riders – if it drives SkyBus to the wall, as I expect it would, there’re around 2 million passengers p.a. straight off. The issue is whether a multi-billion dollar hit to the budget to build and operate it is worth it if all it will achieve is shifting passengers from one form of public transport to another.

      • T says:

        I agree, especially since Melbourne can’t seem to cope with demand on its existing network let alone adding a new line! That money could be much better spent improving the current system as a priority rather than trying to build more train lines that will operate just as poorly as the current lines operate… and really only replace an already decent bus service. I took Skybus several times when I was stuck at the airport hotel during that whole ash cloud incident. I was really surprised at how good it was. It was almost just as fast as the tram I normally take to the city from Hawthorn with even better frequencies. If only all PT in Melbourne were so good! I also doubt a train will meet Skybus’ frequency and hours of operation. Current train lines run services every 20-30 minutes during non-peak hours which is so much worse than skybus. If this airport train line were integrated into the system for the same fare, that is the sort of frequency you would expect to see… certainly not good enough to be a feasible alternative even to skybus let alone driving/taxis.

    • RED says:

      The problem with making the airport one stop on the suburban line is that you would create conflict between the regular commuters and the travellers. Can you imagine dozens of travellers with all of their luggage filling up the aisles on a suburban train at peak hour?! I can just imagine how well that would go down.
      If I were going to spend money on the route to the airport, I would invest it on widening the Tullamarine freeway to incorporate dedicated bus lanes, and in improving the inner city connection from SC to the Freeway for the Sky bus.
      The orbital bus certainly won’t help – I have one route not far from my home, but it takes about four hours to get to the airport!

  4. Matthew says:

    Why Alan do you think the airport is the only part of the city, and a large employment node at that, that should not be provisioned with high quality public transport? Why do you think that putting an airport station in Zone 1 or 2 is a subsidy, yet the widening of the freeway, or the freeway itself is not a subsidy? What have you got against airport workers and travellers?

    Why do you think that getting a taxi to or from the airport is a good solution, because it’s a business expense or it’s a one-off trip? Maybe once the $100 fare ticks up on the meter they really resent the taxi ride. Maybe such poor connections induce demand for flights. Why buy a $70 fare to Sydney if the taxi ride to the airport is more than that?

    If transiting through Tullamarine for a few hours presently you’re pretty much stuck in the airport. Doing the same in Changi you can hop on the MRT find a bit of Singapore to explore and get back to the airport in time. If going through Singapore I make sure I have a few Singapore dollars on me. If going through Melbourne I make sure I have a good book.

    • Alan Davies says:

      My understanding is SkyBus takes airport workers at the equivalent of a Zone 1-2 fare (which from 1 January 2012will be $11.90 return on a Metcard; the standard SkyBus fare is $26 return). Thus those workers will be no better off with a train – they might be worse off if the train can’t match SkyBus’s span of hours or frequency.

      • Matt says:

        And how do you get on the SkyBus at Moonee Ponds or Essendon or Kensington?

        And as Chris G points out SkyBus is expensive, uncomfortable and it gets caught in appalling freeway congestion. I’d add they have shouty advertising onboard, and you have to line up in a place at the airport where it is not smoke free (and I’ve had to give up my place in the line because of it).

        The SkyBus is rubbish public transport. Advocating for it over decent heavy suburban rail is thinking so small that it could possibly be discovered only at the Large Hadron Collider.

        Me I’d do both; having an airport service via Sunshine and Keilor and Airport West on the extant freight line, and I’d have a spur off the Craigieburn Line and run suburban services on both. Then I’d also leave the option open of having future high speed/V-Line service on the same corridor as the Sunshine-Jacana freight line and link to the Seymour and Bendigo lines, leaving the Sunbury line for suburban services and electrifying it.

      • Daniel says:

        I’m not sure what the case is now, but 4 years ago airport staff could buy a monthly Skybus ticket for $60. It worked out to about $3 a day definitely the cheapest way to get to the airport if you could get to Southern Cross. And the service is pretty frequent, although personally I think it could be even more frequent given how full some services are.

        Some tinkering around the edges to speed up the Skybus travel time will certainly make a difference, and reducing the ticket price might also remove the excuse for some people. So far as an airport rail-link goes, I think there are many other higher priorities that would cause a greater increase in public transport uptake (for a lower cost), but now is certainly the right time to decide on a route, and start acquiring land.

  5. Matthew says:

    reduce not induce

  6. Chris G says:

    Caught the SkyBus, It was expensive, but cheaper than a taxi. First bus was full. Got the next one. I didn’t get a seat, which is worse on a bus than on a train.

    The bus got stuck in the CityLink peak hour traffic.
    I asked why they don’t have a bus lane, and learned that CityLink won’t allow it because it would upset their toll paying motorists. Took more than 40 minutes to crawl to the airport.

    Whole system seems to be catering to the powerful owners of the toll roads, the airport car parks, and even the skybus is a very profitable monopoly.

    The transport minister told PTUA meeting that the rational for Avalon rail was to make that airport competitive with Tulla. Interesting way to reduce car parking costs.

    • Alan Davies says:

      The lower cost solution appears to be upgrading SkyBus access so it’s not vulnerable to freeway congestion.

      Good thing you don’t live near me Chris, because you rarely get a seat on a train in peak hours! And don’t even think about famous transit-oriented cities.

      • Matt says:

        “upgrading SkyBus so it’s not vulnerable to freeway congestion.”


        By making it invisible? By making it a Chinese tunnel bus?

        By asking everyone to leave their cars at home?

        By widening the freeway to 10 lanes?

        The Skybus is all about protecting the toll revenue of the freeway company, and the airport, and the taxi drivers. It is hugely inefficient. It is an affront to human dignity.

  7. Ash says:

    Why not extend the Upfield line to the airport? Upfield station could be closed/used as stabling.
    The rail link could head west just north of Camp road, along the old goods rail alignment, and then a tunnel underneath Pascoe Vale road, the shopping centre and some houses, and then travel above ground or on a viaduct through the Attwood green wedge. It would mean that the Upfield line could have an improved service and improved patronage.
    A few stations along the line would have to be closed to provide higher average speeds and several grade separations would need to be undertaken, but it would be the start to utilising the Upfield corridor to its full capacity. (As we know, a spur off the Craigieburn line is also possible but it is pretty much full already in peak hours)

    The idea of an airport express train assumes that at one certain point in time there are 300 people going to the airport from Southern Cross, and that idea is why many airport trains are so underutilised (it is just a point to point service)

    Furthermore, the Hume bus reviews suggested several more bus routes serving Melbourne Airport, including:
    Sunshine/St Albans – Airport,
    Frequent Sunbury – Airport service
    Footscray – Airport

    The local bus routes needs to be fixed as the most immediate priority, the rail link options should be studied further, as I think the government is doing now. We will see in a year or two years about the results of the government’s Tullamarine rail link study.

  8. Andrew says:

    The airport is a place in greater Melbourne where people want a train service. It should just be part of our public transport system. For such a short trip, Sydney’s airport train is very expensive and uncompetitive. I am not surprised so few use it. Mind, it is a very pleasant experience, unlike our awful Skybus. I just cannot see why a train to airport should be viewed as different to other public transport. If there are insufficient funds in the budget to fund it and other transport projects, then slow the other projects and fund them as the budget allows. New rail projects can be progressively funded, whereas the airport train has to be built as a whole.

    • RED says:

      I’m confused – why can other new rail projects be funded progressively but not the airport train?
      Would not any new train line investment require several billion dollars of up-front investment, years of construction and serious disruption from construction before any possible visible benefit for the public? All of which means that in a single political cycle you would get all of the pain and none of the gain … and that, dear readers, is why politicians won’t fund them.

  9. In this argument I think you’ve made some good points and bad points Alan.

    Firstly, I agree that setting up a train that operates at the same frequencies as the Skybus, at the same cost will not likely attract more passengers. Nor do I think the airport rail line is the most pressing nor urgent public transport upgrade our city needs (that priority definitely lies in relatively cheap job of fixing the bus network!).

    On the other hand, I agree with some of the commentators above, I see no reason why we should subsidise the the construction of the freeway, and the airport, then encourage both the toll operators and the (already subsidised) airport to make a mint on the proceeds of encouraging everyone to drive to the airport. Public transport should be subsidised because of the positive externalities it provides. If the freeway is being widened, it shouldn’t be to allow encourage yet another lane of cars to drive to the airport, it should be to allow the Skybus and other bus services to have a dedicated lane.

    You’ve stated that a lot of regular airport travellers are travelling for business purposes. It is also fair to assume that many of these people are employees in the CBD. If the airport link was faster and cheaper than taxis I’d imagine plenty of businesses would encourage employees to take that option. Again the best way to test if this is true would be to dedicate a lane of traffic along the freeway as a bus lane, and additionally, drop the fare to a Zone 1+2 fare. I imagine the result would be that Skybus’ numbers would increase dramatically, whether its enough to warrant a rail link I’m not sure. The more I’ve thought about this issue, the less I’ve been convinced a rail link is a good idea at the moment (your blog has heavily influenced my re-think on this). What I am certain of is that widening the freeway for more private vehicles is a bad idea. Every time the freeway is widened for this purpose it only makes public transport the less attractive option and creates more negative externalities.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Julian, you’ve pointed to some “bads” but not all of them are points I’m making. I’m not arguing for widening the airport freeway for cars or for prioritising cars over public transport as a means of accessing the airport. That’s a misunderstanding.

      But yes, I don’t think SkyBus fares should be subsidised (other than for airport workers). I’ve made my case here (perhaps I’ll revisit that issue shortly – there’re some new points). I think cheaper fares would increase SkyBus’s mode share, but I don’t think it would be as dramatic as you do. And that’s because I think the car/taxi option is decidedly more attractive than SkyBus for the great majority of travellers (but bang up airport parking fees dramatically, or start tolling the Tulla, and that could change things dramatically)

      • Sorry that’s a result of my poor editing. Started a paragraph about things I disagreed with you on, then it got converted into a more general “things that are wrong with the status quo” paragraph without that first sentence being reworded.

        I’ve read the other post before (and had a quick re-read now). I’m still not convinced by the argument. The reason I believe we should subsidise public transport has little to do with other expenses incurred, who is paying what taxes (the part about out of state visitors), etc and has much more to do with encouraging people to use the mode with the least negative externalities. Hence why I think both the trip should be made faster and cheaper to encourage everyone to take the bus/train instead of the private car (including taxis). Finally for the record, I think it would be the faster travel time (through a dedicated lane) that would have the greater impact on the number of people that choose to take the bus.

        • Dave says:

          I would argue travel time reliability trumps speeed as the priority for airport access at this point. Saving 5 minutes from 20 on every trip isn’t a big deal, but losing 15 on every 3rd trip can be – especially with strict check-in policies.
          Providing dedicated lanes improves travel times, but most importantly, also removes variability, a big problem with Skybus at certain times of day (and that isn’t made clear on their website/advertising).

        • RED says:

          Didn’t someone do an analysis that proved that heavy rail actually has the highest GHG impact on average? Something to do with the fact that most of the trains are running mostly empty and also because they are powered by coal based electricity. Same analysis proved that buses have the lowest GHG impact. Presumably you have more scope for using alternative fuels with buses too, to further reduce their impact.
          So claiming that trains have the lowest negative externality is contestable. They are also noisy, require dedicated land and infrastructure, all of which has GHG implications.
          I agree with you about the impact that travel time has on mode choice.

  10. BrisUrbane says:

    I’ve used both Melbourne SkyBus and Brisbane Airtrain.

    Brisbane Airtrain recently announced increased profit and have now put on extended services until 10 pm every night.

    Interestingly it seems that in absolute numbers, Brisbane Airtrain is carrying just as many passengers as SkyBus is, despite the frequency and the operating hours. I’ve used the SkyBus and although the frequency is great, the interior is overcrowded and uncomfortable.

    If Melbourne wants a connection to the Airport, I would suggest considering a rapid light rail service to be placed into the median of the Tullamarine Freeway (LR55 track perhaps) and it to be run Perth-style (a la Mandurah / Joondalup lines which are also in the Freeway medians).

    This way you can cheaply increase capacity and comfort without having to build a Class A ROW busway.

  11. Jac says:

    I live in the western suburbs, approx 15-30 minute drive to the airport depending on traffic. Due to my location, I will always be offered a lift to the airport from someone nearby. If a train were to be built, I’m sure my journey would involve me backtracking to the city, or somehow getting across town to the right line and would take far longer. I can’t imagine never having someone offer me a lift to the airport and therefore finding the train as my only option.

    In all other aspects of my life (work, uni, shopping) I primarily use public transport. I will always look at how to get to my destination with PT prior to considering using a car. But for the airport, considering my proximity to it, and the mass amounts of luggage I will return with, I doubt I’d ever want to use PT. (Which is funny because once I’m overseas I will use the local PT before a taxi!)

  12. Alec says:

    What about extending the existing Upfield railway west through Broadmeadows to the Airport? Depending on the tunneling techniques used it may be a good compromise with all those people demanding a rail link to the Airport and those that want to limit public transport spending. Regardless, extending the Upfield line west to the Airport would involve the laying of only 10km of new rails compared to an entirely new CBD-Airport line of 20-30kms of new rails.

  13. Luke says:

    We have a spur line to a racecourse & showgrounds that is only used on “special event” days, surely we can extend an existing metro train line to the airport. Melbournians seem happy to catch P/T to the city, and then to the racecourse…

    Using the Upfield line, increase the frequency of the existing trains to 10 mins, with them stopping all stations. Reliable timetables and high frequency would trump absolute speed in this case.

  14. rohan says:

    I would use an airport train, but then I live in the inner city – if it went through the loop I would be on it in 10 minutes, or at least at Parliament Station. But then it does seem like a lot of $$ to basically replace an OK bus service, but then that’s why people like the idea, whether they would use it or not – people like trains more than buses. I am happy with the idea of extending an existing suburban line, though going sort of backwards from Broadmeadows creates a spur line, not that sensible unless volumes really high.

    A cheaper fixed rail option is extending the Airport West tram – just up Melrose Drive and then Mickelham and then along the freeway median. Has advantage of being part of system, and providing a few new stops along the way, but the big disadvantage that on cuurent timetabling it would take maybe an hr, and that depends on traffic congestion on the few stretches where the tram is not in a median – Keilor Rd and lower Mt Alexander Road. Perhaps major reconstruction in those sections (superstops and fewer stops, signaling etc) could speed it up enough to be 50 or 45 mins. Then with nice big new low floor trams with room for luggage, and good platform at Flinders Street (or redirect via St Kilda Road so can go all the way from some southern suburb), you would have a convenient if slower PT access. Not the bees knees I admit, but a tram – how very Melbourne ! Stoopid I know but had to try it out.

  15. Dudley Horscroft says:

    ” no Government is going to spend billions on an airport rail line and then subsidise its operations. And nor should it.” There is a massive assumption here – that a rail line to Tullamarine Airport (TA) would cost billions. There is a suitable route – [Flinders St], Southern Cross, North Melbourne, Footscray, Sunshine, Keilor East, Airport West, TA. Rather roundabout, but fast. And except for the last half km or so into the Airport, and possibly the curve from the freight line into the Tullamarine Freeway median, all at ground level. The cost should be more like a hundred million, not billions. The track to Sunshine is already electrified, and thence to Airport West requires electrification. The only new track is the aforementioned curve and then the line in the median to TA and the station there. (The old tracks may need upgrading with concrete sleepers and long-welded rail, but that is normal maintenance.)

    The State Government already subsidizes operations on the rest of the Melbourne rail network, why not subsidize this line? It also subsidizes roads in Melbourne, provided free of cost to the user (courtesy taxpayers), except of course the very few toll roads.

    And what would it cost to create a congestion free route for Skybus? Either you take away existing traffic lanes, or you build new ones. The first won’t happen, the second will indeed cost billions.

    Sydney is not a good example – the line was tunnelled and cost far too much, there is a massive additional charge for airport passengers and patronage is very poor. Brisbane is better, the line is single track, elevated instead of tunnelled, and after a shaky start is no doing fairly well. London, Heathrow and Gatwick, relies on rail for the workers and passengers, Frankfurt and Zurich have excellent rail services to their airports. Even small towns like Cleveland in the USA built rail lines to their airports.

    A rail line costs, but it is an INVESTMENT which will return benefits for 100 years. Widening a Freeway is a no-hoper.

    • Alan Davies says:

      If it only cost $100 million or therabouts then previous governments would’ve committed to it long ago. There’s no doubt it has immense political appeal.

      Instead, you have statements like this from the Melbourne Airport Ground Transport Plan: “The Victorian Department of Transport has investigated the feasibility of introducing a dedicated rail service to Melbourne Airport and found that the market imperative is: $16 fare, 20 minute travel time and no more than 15 minutes between train departures, which make the construction of a branch line to the airport and operation of the train service both unfinancial and uneconomic with the current airport passenger and staff numbers”. Maybe in the future (although SkyBus says it can get down to 2-3 minute frequencies).

      I reckon the airport station alone is probably $500 million (note the HSR feasiblity study estimated the cost of a new station at SXS at $1 billion).

      Brisbane’s Airtrain is not a good example either. It runs on half hour frequencies (when they’re not cancelled) and up until this month only ran to 8 pm (now 10 pm). Skybus is a 24/7 operation and runs at 10 minute frequencies for the great bulk of the day.

      • The Victorian DOT shouldn’t be let anywhere near station costing. I’ve brought it up a few times on this blog Alan and I’m yet to have had any reply on the matter.

        How is Western Australia (where Labor costs are higher than Victoria) able to continuously build stations and rail projects at a fraction of the cost of Victoria?

        The ‘New MetroRail’ project is a shining example here. Look at what Perth was able to get for $1.66billion and imagine how much it might cost in Victoria considering individual, above ground stations are now being built for $110mllion. I can’t find article at the moment but I remember reading an article on a new railway station for Western Australia that seemed to have similar functionality (ramps, an overpass, etc) off the top of my head I believe it cost $17million.

        • Alan Davies says:

          It’s not just Victoria. There’s lots of discussion in the US re how Spain can build rail tunnels so much cheaper than they can be done in the US (see links here).

        • RED says:

          I was in Perth just recently and saw some of the stations set out in the middle of the Freeway. It’s easy to see the cost discrepancy – DoT is costing to the gold standard and WA was happy to settle for cheap and cheerful, like so much of their transport infrastructure.

  16. I must say, I quite like the Skybus service as it is. When I have to go to or from the city to the Airport, Skybus is my first choice, as it is fast, frequent and convenient. The price is vastly cheaper than the taxi alternative. The free CBD hotel pickup service is also useful as me and my luggage aren’t taking up space on a train or tram going to and from Southern Cross. When going to the airport from my home in the northern suburbs, taxi is the better mode as it is also fast and direct, takes my luggage and also means I’m not gouged for long-term parking. The main taxi issue is drivers grumbling about the ‘short trip’ (i.e. a $35.00 fare) from the airport to home.

    I think there’s a number of issues behind the call for an airport rail line in Melbourne. Firstly, the aspirational logical fallacy that seems to make up a lot of the argument goes a bit like this:
    “Melbourne is a global city. Global cities have airport rail links. Therefore Melbourne should have an airport rail link.”

    Whether or not you believe in the whole system of ranking and assessment of global cities, Melbourne still seems to rate quite well on a number of indices without a railway to the airport. Sydney and Brisbane fell for the ‘global cities need an airport railway’ trick in the 1990s and the taxpayers of those States are still dealing with the aftermath of those decisions with sub-standard rail services and ticket prices that are still the equivalent of Skybus for an arguably lower level of service.

    There’s also some technological bias against buses and in favour of rail going on, with many of the anti-bus/pro-rail arguments stated in the comments above. The fact is that Skybus can get higher frequencies still (I’ve also heard the 2-3 minute headways being bandied about) and that the fleet are not all 3-axle artics means it is not yet at saturation capacity. The main issues inhibiting Skybus are road space allocation (the need for a permanent Bus Lane is important), off-motorway priority for Skybus in West/North Melbourne and the CBD edge, dedicated access to Southern Cross Station and terminal capacity in the Airport and at Southern Cross. These treatments are relatively cheap (transponders to change traffic signals, pre-paid ticketing for all-door boarding, fare gates at Southern Cross bus terminal) There’s still a lot of slack to be pulled up before people can realistically say that a rail line is justified on capacity grounds alone.

    In an ideal world, the airport rail link from Southern Cross to Tullamarine would be the ‘down payment’ on a Sydney – Melbourne high speed rail corridor, but operated with dedicated medium-speed (160-200km/h) rolling stock optimised for airport travel. It should be constructed on a wholly new alignment separated from the suburban and ARTC freight networks and engineered to HSR standards enabling quick retrofitting for HSR operations. It would cost a lot of money, but as the Federal Government report into HSR outlined, the access to the cores of Sydney and Melbourne (and Brisbane) would be the largest cost element.

  17. Chris Sager says:

    a train (or ideally a light rail) to the airport should be created in the manner of the brisbane or singapore airport line – it should be a tourist-focussed premium service, an idealised version of our main public system. ie, timely, clean, quiet, efficient and comfortable.

    after all, is not Melbourne the city of trams? so why not sell that fact to any visitor to our city?

    taking that view, the line would be essentially an ambassador of Melbourne, and as such provides an opportunity to sell our features (tourism brochures) and our lifestyle (back to the ‘quiet, efficient and comfortable’ as opposed to the SkyBus with its slow, noisy, bumpy and smelly service).

    thus, if any such service was functioning as a loss-leader it would be acceptible, in the ambassador context.
    i know i would gladly take it and even pay a premium for the service rather than parking at the airport (or god-forbid taking the SkyBus!)

    am i biased against th SkyBus? YOU BET – why would i pay to be stuck in the traffic snarl when i could take my own car and at least stay in my microcosm a little longer. . .

    • Chris,
      With respect, I’m not sure how you think Singapore and Brisbane’s airport lines are ‘premium’ or ‘tourist focused’. Both lines use standard rolling stock and in Brisbane’s case form part of the larger network.

      In Singapore’s case the terminal station at Changi’s great and the cross-platform interchange to East-West line services at Tanah Merah’s a good example of what can be achieved on a dedicated airport shuttle line. However, I can get downtown with my luggage in a taxi faster (albeit at greater cost) than on the MRT and not inconvenience other, non-tourist MRT users.

      As for Brisbane, the 1/2 hourly service frequency’s a killer. While transferring at Brisbane to an international flight in 2010, we were given vouchers by the airline to use the Airtrain between terminals. Having just missed a service by about a minute and not wanting to wait 29 minutes for the next train, the taxi won the day. Yes, it cost my $4.50 instead of being free, but the frequency was ‘right now’ and I had a stress-free connection.

      I don’t think the airport railway is viable (yet) for Melbourne. Public transport is already enough of a loss leader that it doesn’t need to be saddled with the white elephant of an airport line. There’s many, many other projects that are more deserving of the limited pool of PT funding than a line to the airport from the CBD. If you’re biased against Skybus, don’t want to park at the airport and are prepared pay for a premium service, take a taxi. That ticks all the boxes except dealing with the traffic.

  18. Adrian says:

    According to the 2009 Sydney Airport Master Plan the mode share of public transport access to Sydney Airport is actually 15% (actually 1% more than Melbourne – still very pathetic). Your argument is valid and perhaps a bus lane from the airport along the freeway with a dedicated off ramp to Southern Cross would be sufficient. I find the bus completely fine. As for those who advocate for the tram to be extended consider how Sydney airport’s rail link is part of the Cityrail network and those with luggage must share the train with regular commuters on regular trains. The tram would fill with airport passengers before it got anywhere near the city and would be slow as it would need to wait for regular commuters to board / traffic etc on the way. Bus lane is the most simple cost effective option that no one seems to talk about.

    • Dudley Horscroft says:

      Those who have found the bus “completely fine” must have been very lucky. When I have used the service the bus was full, so much luggage that the aisle was jammed, people had to climb over the bags to get to a suitable standing spot, it was noisy and uncomfortable.
      There are only two decent options. One is to extend the existing Airport West tram – yes, it will take a long time to get to the City, but more frequently than Skybus, and cheaper as the fare will be usable for transfers to other tram lines (not with Skybus). The other is to run a branch off the Keilor Line direct to the Airport. The killer in that MAGTP Report was “with the current airport passenger and staff numbers”. But there will be greater patronage, and, providing that the track and station is provided at reasonable cost, the line will be economically sound. Given the additional passengers for a very short line, possibly even financially sound.
      Yes, Brisbane’s Airport line only runs every 30 min – based on the QR refusal to recognize that the suburban services are a Metropolitan Railway and should be operating at no more than 15 minute service intervals on all lines. But unless you have a car load of people going there, it is a better bet than taking a hire car. And it is pretty well reliable and on time.
      Railway lines do not need to be gold plated. Start with “What is the absolute minimum we need, and how can it be done at what cost.” And then look to improvements which will bring in greater revenue than their cost.

      • Dave says:

        I recently used to catch Skybus at minimum twice weekly at peak times. A full bus is the sign of a popular service and usually means a frequency upgrade is on the way, or the service encountered an unexpected jump in demand. It happens, and to railed vehicles also. A cuople of flights arriving all at once (such as after a storm) usually does this and you couldn’t get around it unless always operating with a large reserve margin (expensive).

        I’ve encountered the crowding at times and other times, a quiet bus. All with a 10 minute or better frequency – better than pretty much any route in Melbourne, and usually with the dispatcher adding extra services if required.

        I’d still prefer a railed vehicle and dedicated right of way but simple economics says the current setup is close to the right one (not saying we shouldn’t be mindful of future needs). If you extend the Airport West tram you would lose, not gain frequency, and other tram users would suffer crowding. Extending or branching the Craigieburn line, well, it’s already got capacity issues. The Upfield could do it if you dealt with city junction issues and removed a bunch of level crossings, eg as per http://melbpt.wordpress.com/2008/01/19/an-affordable-airport-rail-link-is-it-possible/

        Incremental improvements like further dedicated lane sections or priority measures, along with frequency upgrades, are likely to see Skybus continue for a while yet.

    • Dudley Horscroft says:

      To provide peak hour reliability you will have to provide a bus lane almost the whole length from your dedicated off-ramp to the Airport. Out in the boondocks the cost would be low, but in the built up area you will almost certain need massive land resumption to widen the road. Horrible cost, far more than a new rail branch.
      And consider the viewpoint of car travellers stuck in peak hour traffic watching not a string of buses going by, but an empty bus lane with a bus every ten minutes (two minutes if you see any pigs flying!) How long will it be before the voting public DEMAND that the additional lane be turned over to motorists, “To reduce congestion”! You will quickly be back to square one, with several billion dollars of taxpayer money down the drain.

      • Adrian says:

        I guess then a more publicly palatable alternative might be a T2 lane. I had not actually considered that at the airport the freeway was only two lanes in each direction though so it would require widening there. For some reason I thought it was wider. As for the land acquisition cost for the access from the freeway to Southern Cross it would be very little. There are currently very wide roads (including a large grass median on Footscray Rd) with current airport buses accessing Southern Cross via Dudly Street. Have a look on Nearmap.com. It is possible (with probably no acquisition costs) and would be much cheaper than a train. I do agree that people may complain if they lose a lane in some parts of the freeway but a T2 lane may work (I actually think there already me be one though I doubt it because I have sat in traffic on the airport bus before). I feel the only problem with the bus is it gets stuck in traffic. Other than that it does a good job moving people to the airport. The T2 or Bus Lane would solve the buses one main problem.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Measuring mode share is always a fraught issue because there’re so many ways of estimating it. I used the figures from the ACCC’s Airport Monitoring Report because they looked at all major airports in Australia and thus provided figures for Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Hopefully, this ensured there was a reasonable degree of consistency. As a matter of principle, I’d also prefer to rely on an independent agency.

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