Is the Opposition's promised airport rail line good policy?
The Age reported today that the Opposition has promised to start planning immediately for a new rail line from the CBD to the airport if elected. The leader of the Opposition, Mr Ted Baillieu, said tickets would be priced the same as current Zone 2 fares.
I’m not at all surprised. This idea has immense popular support from readers of The Age and, I daresay, from Melburnites generally.
There is little doubt that a time will come, given projected passenger numbers through Tullamarine, when passenger volumes will justify replacing the existing privately-owned Skybus service with rail.
But the available evidence indicates that time hasn’t come. Not yet. I’ve previously outlined the case against constructing an airport rail link at this time (here, here, here, here, here, here and here), but in summary the key objections are:
- Various technical studies have indicated that, thus far, rail is not warranted
- Airport rail lines in Brisbane and Sydney, which charge in the region of $17 one way, both experienced financial difficulty
- Brisbane’s Airtrain offers much lower frequencies and span of service (it stops at 8pm) than Tullamarines’ Skybus. Skybus operates 24 hours a day and for most of that time offers 10-15 minute frequencies
- Airport workers are already served by the existing Smartbus 901 service which offers 15 minute frequencies and connects with Broadmeadows station. As it is an orbital service, it also connects with other rail lines on its journey around Melbourne’s outer suburbs and down to Frankston. Further, Skybus offers airport workers a discounted fare.
- A plausible train service would take longer than Skybus to travel from the airport to the CBD in the off-peak and about the same in the peak. A high speed service is possible but would cost much more
- There is scope to improve Skybus’s travel time in peak periods by undertaking further works to give it priority on the freeway and within the city centre and airport. There is also scope to provide additional services in peak periods
There are also other issues – a new rail line would:
- Require an ongoing Government subsidy whereas the existing Skybus service is privately financed and profitable
- Only carry a small proportion of all airport travellers – probably around 10%, at best 15%
- Not provide long-term relief from traffic congestion on the Tullamarine freeway (any more than widening the freeway would)
- Provide only a small benefit in terms of greenhouse savings – it would be a very expensive way of lowering emissions
There are three key questions that should be addressed in thinking through the wisdom of building an airport rail link now. First, what else could the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost be spent on that would provide a better return? Second, what would be the tangible benefits? Third, who would benefit?
I think there are other projects, such as improving outer suburban public transport services, that should rank much more highly than a rail line to the airport. I’m hard pressed to see that there are significant social benefits – which doesn’t surprise me because a rail line would replace one form of public transport with another. The main beneficiaries of the subsidy would be CBD business travellers and tourists who travel occasionally.
The sensible course of action is to build the rail line when it is warranted. In the meantime, Mr Ballieu should indicate what other projects he would sacrifice in order to fund building it and operating it.
Governments don’t often get praise from critics, but I think the Premier and his Ministers deserve to be lauded for holding their ground on this issue. It would be very easy to cave in to populist pressure – isn’t this what governments are supposed to do? – so I think credit should be given where it’s deserved.