The key transport challenge at Melbourne Airport isn’t to build a rail line to the CBD. Rather, it’s how to move growing numbers of travellers from dispersed suburban locations to the airport and back again. Here’s a (speculative) idea about how that might be done.
This is a pressing issue because passenger movements through the airport are projected to increase from 26 million in 2009/10 to between 44 and 55 million by 2027/28. That’s potentially a doubling of demand within twenty years. On current settings, with 69% of trips to the airport made by private car and 17% by taxi, the outcome could either be gridlock or massive expansion of the freeway network.
Providing a high capacity connection between the airport and CBD is an important part of the answer but it won’t work for all those travellers whose journey starts or ends in homes and workplaces in the suburbs. Theoretically, they could take a train to Southern Cross and transfer there to the airport service, but they’d be unlikely to do that for a number of reasons.
First, the journey would take too long – travellers would have to walk, drive or bus to their nearest station, transfer to a train or tram, and transfer again at Southern Cross station. Second, parking is inadequate – many would seek to drive to their nearest station, but there’re severe constraints on expanding parking in built-up areas. Limited economies of scale mean it would also be hard to provide an acceptable level of security for cars parked overnight at Melbourne’s 200+ rail stations. In addition, baggage would be problematic on peak hour public transport, which wasn’t designed with this purpose in mind. There would be delays in loading and unloading trains, trams and buses at rush hour and suitcases in aisles would reduce capacity.
Trying to leverage the existing suburban rail system would, in short, be too hard. Most Melburnians would simply continue to drive to the airport, leading to worse congestion. They would apply intense political pressure to have the freeway network expanded.
I’d like to offer a different solution. I think two key actions will be needed over the next twenty or so years. The first is to restrict access by car to the airport – unless there is a positive disincentive to driving (something less damaging than congestion!), alternative modes will not be viable. The second is to move the effective entry to the airport to multiple locations in the suburbs. Here’s a broad schematic of how I think it might work:
- Set charges that are high enough to discourage the great bulk of motorists from entering the airport or using the short term and long term car parks
- Provide an orbital transit service running from the airport to the west and to the south east along (mostly) existing freeways – see map
- Construct a small number of car parks with transit stations along this route, near freeway interchanges
- Aim to operate at a frequency and span of hours at least comparable to that currently provided by Skybus.
Under this scenario, Melburnians could drive to the ring road, park in a secure facility, and board the airport transit service. It would be little different from using the current long term car park and shuttle bus – the only real difference is the car leg would be shorter and the transit leg longer (although the overall time should be faster!). I also envision that ‘farewellers and greeters’ and taxi users would mostly go no further than the nearest transit station. The idea is the stations would be the effective ‘entry’ to the airport.
Some form of rail in the median or in an appropriated freeway lane might be possible, but articulated buses operating in a dedicated freeway lane (liberated by the reduced traffic!) would be a much lower cost solution. Buses would accordingly need to be comfortable. Since they would operate exclusively on freeways, it is possible they could be larger than conventional articulated buses, giving scope for a higher level of comfort and greater capacity. They should have the feel inside of trams.
A couple of issues warrant special mention. First, the attitude of the airport owner is crucial and there are doubtless all sorts of existing contractual complexities. However I envision that the owner could be compensated for the net cost of foregone parking revenue, if required. Alternatively, the owner might tender for the rights to manage the new car parks.
Second, the proposal assumes that a high-standard connection would be made between the Metropolitan Ring Road and EastLink sometime around 2020. That’s a contentious issue that muddies the waters. It does not follow, however, that the connection would have to cater for all forms of traffic – it could be dedicated solely for public transport and emergency vehicle use.
Third, assuming the proposal were funded commercially, those who currently drive to the airport would have to pay more than at present because of the combined costs of parking, transit and ancillary freeway works. On the other hand, their out-of-pocket motoring costs would be lower and, crucially, they would save time when travelling in peak periods. As the proposal would have broader economic benefits and save money on road building, the Government could subsidise fares if it wished.
Fourth, there would be scope to use the spare capacity in the transit lane for a HOT (High Occupancy Tolled) lane for cars. This would be an important step toward the wider introduction of road pricing.
This is a conceptual proposal that might fall over on closer scrutiny. But even if it did, its value would lie in drawing attention to two key issues. The first is the need to recognise where the main challenge with land transport to the airport lies. To date, attention has been side-tracked by the debate over a CBD rail line while the much bigger looming problem has been ignored. The second issue is the need to use existing resources more efficiently. Rather than expensive new rail lines, this proposal aims to use the freeway system more efficiently by creating ‘new’ road space for Bus Rapid Transit.