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). Read the rest of this entry »


Is the Avalon rail link Baillieu’s folly?

In her famous book, The march of folly: from Troy to Vietnam, multiple Pulitzer Prize winning author Barbara Tuchman describes how governments sometimes persist, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, with policies that are against their own interests.

Ted Baillieu’s folly might be his Government’s unconditional election commitment to build a rail line to Avalon Airport. Handed the perfect opportunity to begin stepping backwards from the project by reports of Tiger Airway’s imminent withdrawal of all services from Avalon in favour of Tullamarine, the Premier was steadfast in his support for the Avalon link.

Although Tiger accounts for half of all Avalon’s airline business, the Premier is reported as saying that he doesn’t think a pull-out by Tiger would have any longer term implications for the airport. In another report, the Premier told The Age planning for the rail line would continue irrespective of what Tiger does:

The rail link is part of the development of Avalon and if you look at the numbers around Melbourne airport, there is going to be a need for a second international airport

No doubt there’ll come a day when Melbourne does need a second major airport, but as I’ve explained before, we’re a long, long way from that now. In fact spare airport capacity is one of the city’s great competitive strengths compared to arch-rival Sydney. If the Federal Government’s current investigations conclude that High Speed Rail between Sydney and Melbourne is viable, the warrant for a second major airport in this city would recede even further into the future. In any event, given the majority of Melbourne’s population lives south of the Yarra and will be for many years yet, it’s not obvious that locating an airport near Geelong would be the most sensible course to pursue.

Now is the time to be planning long-term for a future airport, not to be building the associated infrastructure – yet the Government has committed to starting construction of the Avalon rail link in its first term. Read the rest of this entry »


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’s a new rail line worth?

This is hilarious! (click) Men in Suits choir - Metro Trains Melbourne Regrets...

One way to answer this question is to consider what else the money could be spent on.

One possibility is the 1,235 people with disabilities in Victoria who, according to this article, are registered with the Department of Human Services for supported accommodation.

One of them is David Graham, a 44 year old who is legally blind, has an intellectual disability and suffers from epilepsy. Last month his 70 year old mother died of cancer. She had looked after him all his life since he was born premature at 24 weeks. Now Mr Graham is on the waiting list for supported accommodation.

Mr Graham’s plight illustrates the importance of opportunity cost, something I’ve banged on about here at length. In plain terms, when you spend money it refers to what else you could have spent the money on i.e. the opportunities you’re foregoing.

The writer of the article, Carol Nader, refers specifically to the $50 million that Ted Baillieu promised he would spend in his first term to commence building a rail line from the CBD to Avalon Airport. The full cost would be $250 million.

She implies that $50 million could instead be spent on something else, like supported accommodation for people with disabilities. It costs $1.5 million on average she says to provide a unit for five residents and an average annual cost of $125,000 to support each resident. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Melburnians mad about trains?

Sir Ken Robinson - animation on changing paradigms in education (click)

Yesterday’s promise by the Victorian Opposition to build a $250 million rail line to Avalon Airport – with an unambiguous commitment to spend $50 million over the first term if elected – confirms how powerful the idea of rail is in this year’s election.

A new line is such a potent idea that Ted Baillieu didn’t even feel the need to lay out the warrant for the line. While the Greens are promising vapourware and the Government is close to mute on transport, the Coalition has put a real rail line on the table.

The Minister for Transport, Martin Pakula, made some lame criticisms of the accuracy of Mr Baillieu’s costing, but there are larger failings with this idea.

The most obvious one is it’s simply not warranted by patronage.  Given that the numbers don’t make sense (yet) for a rail line from the CBD to Tullamarine, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to add up for a small operation like Avalon. Geelong’s population of 175,000 offers growth potential for Avalon, but Tullamarine is always going to overshadow it because it’s much closer to the centre of gravity of Melbourne’s 4 million population.

Today’s listed flights (18 November) show only 13 scheduled departures from Avalon between 6.45am and 9.55pm. Avalon’s owner, Linfox, claims 1.5 million passengers use Avalon each year. This compares with 26 million p.a. using Tullamarine. Read the rest of this entry »