Would we use an airport train (as much as we say we would)?
Yesterdayâs 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 Airportâs 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 Iâve 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, thereâs 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 â 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 âis always several orders of magnitude above its actual ridershipâ.
Is there any reason to think that a train to Melbourne airport would increase public transportâs 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 Governmentâs specification for a future airport train was a $16 fare, 20 minute trip time and 15 minute frequency. Thatâs much the same as SkyBus provides at present.
Itâs true trains are generally more appealing than buses, but I canât see thatâs likely to lift public transportâs share significantly â certainly it hasnât been enough in Brisbane and Sydney. Itâs 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 â which offers the best frequencies and span of hours of any public transport service in Melbourne â should be doing much better than it is now (and itâs doing quite well).
Itâs often argued that if an airport train were priced at a Zone 1-2 fare, it would attract higher patronage than SkyBus. Thatâs likely to be true, but itâs totally unrealistic â 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 â 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, itâs 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 (Iâve elaborated on these reasons in previous posts â 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. Theyâre 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 wouldnât.
It seems human beings aren’t very good at predicting how theyâll behave in hypothetical situations. Perhaps supporters of a rail line implicitly assume the example of public transportâs 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. Itâs also much less friendly to cars than an airport owner who earns substantial revenue from parking.
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