What can Sydney teach us about airport rail lines?

Mode share (prepared by ACCC)

There is little doubt that Melbourne Airport needs action to improve land-side access for passengers arriving and departing from the airport.

Many observers argue the solution is a rail line from the CBD to the airport. I think there’s a much bigger picture they’re missing. They would be well advised to look at the Airport Monitoring Report 2009-10, just released by the ACCC (see chart).

It shows that only 39% of trips to Sydney Airport are made by private car (on-airport parking, rentals and kerbside drop-off), compared to 69% for Melbourne Airport. Since Sydney has a train and Melbourne doesn’t, it’s tempting to conclude that a train is the answer to Melbourne’s woes.

However the ACCC’s report says that more people travel to Melbourne Airport by public transport (14% – all by bus) than is the case for Sydney Airport (12% – train and bus).

A key difference between the two airports is that taxis (incl ‘mini buses’) are far more popular in Sydney, where they account for 49% of all airport trips. The comparable figure for Melbourne is just 17%.

Part of the reason for this difference is taxis are more competitive in Sydney against cars and against the train – Kingsford Smith is 8 km from the CBD and hence is relatively central.  In contrast, Melbourne is 22 km from the CBD so taxis are not as competitive with either buses or cars (other reasons for the difference include more tourists at Sydney, as well as higher parking charges).

As I discussed last week, Brisbane’s airport – like Melbourne’s – is also located a considerable distance from the city centre. It might be that the location of both airports on the edge of their respective metropolitan areas – well away from the centre of gravity of population in both cities – is a key reason for their high private car use (and low taxi use).

Yet distance can’t be the whole explanation. The Brisbane airport train only captures 5% of trips and all up, public transport carries 8% of airport journeys. That’s considerably less than either Sydney or train-free Melbourne.

Given the experience of Sydney and Brisbane, it cannot simply be assumed that constructing a rail line from the CBD to Melbourne Airport will inevitably lead to a significant increase in public transport use – at the expense of cars – over and above the already substantial mode share enjoyed by buses. Read the rest of this entry »


Do the numbers support the Very Fast Train?

I’ve run some numbers on how a Very Fast Train in the Sydney-Melbourne corridor would stack up against planes in order to flesh out the questions I posed last week (Is the VFT all huff and no puff?).  I used a simple “back of the envelope” methodology adapted from that used by Harvard’s Edward Glaeser to evaluate high speed rail projects in the US (here).

I estimate the economic and environmental benefits of carrying all current Sydney-Melbourne air traffic by VFT rather than plane at around $840 million p.a. (although this does not include the cost of GHG emissions from construction of a rail line  – this would be large).

Table by Booz Allen

At first glance a VFT looks unpromising, since I estimate the capital cost of constructing and maintaining a VFT line from Sydney to Melbourne at about $1.5 billion per year. This is well in excess of the benefits.

However this assumes Sydney can accommodate passenger growth by using larger planes. It quite possibly can, but if it can’t and a second Sydney airport has to be built, a VFT starts to look viable if the cost of the airport were to come in at around $15 billion.

Let me emphasise that this is a simple analysis. I’ve left out many complications, including Canberra passengers and car traffic on the Hume.

The only environmental issue I’ve included is (operating) GHG. And of course I’ve made assumptions on things like construction costs and future interest rates.

Starting with capital costs, estimates of the cost to acquire land and construct a VFT line range from $14 to $82 million per km in Europe and the US (Japan is much higher because of earthquake risks). I assume a middling cost of $30 million per km, giving a total cost of $27 billion to build a 900 km line (the existing Sydney-Melbourne rail line is 950 km). I’ve assumed an interest rate of 5% p.a. and annual track maintenance cost of $124,000 per km. These assumptions give a total capital cost for the line of $1.5 billion per annum. Read the rest of this entry »