airport rail

Jun 28, 2017

Melbourne Airport rail, and the case for a simple solution

Melbourne has a wonderful chance to do a sensible airport rail link, if it doesn't get 'gold plated'

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Melbourne Airport as you would see it from a seriously off course approach on a scheduled flight

Opinion The Prime Minister’s sudden enthusiasm for a Melbourne Airport rail link begs the question as to whether it should be a ‘trophy’ project costing squillions of dollars, or something more practicable in its appeal by providing easy connections to the wider suburban train and tram networks.

And it could, of course, do both. But if Sydney’s experience with its airport rail link, opened in May 2000, offers any relevant learnings, making it useful to people who have a need to reach their flights without passing through the main CBD is the number one priority.

Sydney has only somewhat painfully discovered this, and its airport rail link is prospering despite some pricing and design issues that at times seemed close to killing it stone dead.

In fact Sydney has been so slow to learn from its infrastructure follies that even now there are starry eyed proponents of serving its distantly impending second airport at Badgerys Creek with a high speed link to its main CBD that would serve close to zero corporate customers for something like five to six times the projected $6 billion currently officially quoted for building its single long runway and passenger terminals.

All that Sydney’s existing airport and the new one in far western Sydney needs from rail is to be easy to use for anyone who can reach almost 200 suburban, CBD and closer regional stations bounded by Goulburn, Gosford and Lithgow, on the far side of the Blue Mountains.

Not that ‘easy’ should be confused with ‘pleasant’ or ‘amenable.’ Rail in greater Sydney is a pain-in-the-everything, but not as much, or at as great a cost, as driving.

Even at the all important level of the demands of inbound tourist, the success of the Airbnb model means that the days of visitors demanding overpriced hotels with iconic harbour views are ending. Visitors, and even self employed multi-career path business people, are dispersing themselves all over Sydney and Melbourne, meaning whatever focus might have existed on traditional hotel precincts is being lost.

With demographic greatness being thrust on Mega-Melbourne by its being more naturally suited to population growth, and governed by and large, by a higher or more far sighted intelligence when it comes to such things, widely cast connectivity for its citizens and visitors makes so much more sense than something that might put Tullamarine’s inherently superior terminal layout a mere five minutes at warp speed from Southern Cross station or upper Collins Street.

There is no doubt Melbourne can actually have both, if such common sense persists. A 15-20 minute journey time between its main airport and its CBD via a few attractive and well connected intermediate stations will cost around 3-5 percent whatever a trans galactic high speed nonstop between both ends would end up extracting from its stakeholders, public or private.

The trick for Sydney and Melbourne is to ensure that new investments in road and rail, but mainly the latter, deliver cargo cult like manna from the skies so to speak for general non-flying commuters who at the moment are getting hammered by rapacious tolls, or overpriced public private funding deals, or worse still, no deals and thus no action at all.


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15 thoughts on “Melbourne Airport rail, and the case for a simple solution

  1. Redgum

    The trick to building an appropriate airport link is to make sure the user can get across Melbourne easily-and that means an orbital rail route. There was one from Essendon to Clifton Hill, but it was taken out. For the air traveller, getting across Melbourne quickly is as important as getting into the CBD quickly.

    1. Dan Dair

      Has that orbital rail route been built on, or could it be re-instated.?

      1. Sean Doyle

        It could possibly be rebuilt but it’s pretty unlikely it ever will. Currently the sites of the old Inner Circle Line (Royal Park to Rushall) and Outer Circle Line (Fairfield to Oakleigh) are mostly bike trails and parks, although part of the OCL survives as the Alamein line. Apart from losing the parkland, much of it now has housing very near where the line would be, so noise/amenity would be a major issue. I think the only possible way for them to bring it back as heavy rail would be to tunnel it.

        That said, if they decided to reopen the lines with trams (a la the former St Kilda and Port Melbourne heavy rail lines) it could have a better chance. Still has the park issue though, along with some buildings and/or route adjustments.

  2. Jacob HSR

    1 train station at MEL airport? 3rd world airports now have 2 train stations each!

    Platforms 15 and 16 at Southern Cross Station were built for an airport railway but are now used for the Regional Rail Link.

    Maybe the corrupt idiots can make Wurundjeri Way narrower to allow 2 more platforms to be built and connect all the platforms via a travelator. Or have they sold off the land between platform 16 and the road to corrupt real estate barons?

  3. Letterboxfrog

    Don’t resume land – just go over the top like the Tokyo Monorail, not just from the CBD, but all over Melbourne. Some of the new fixed-rail technologies are far cheaper than building heavy or light rail, faster to install, and less disruptive.

  4. Sean Doyle

    I’m not too concerned about the form of the line as long as it:
    a) is fully separated from other traffic; and
    b) uses the same fare structure as the rest of Melbourne’s public transport network (i.e. no special (aka “rip off”) airport fare).

    I think that the new line is a good opportunity to build new stations along the way to improve PT for a larger part of Melbourne, not just airport users.

  5. chris turnbull

    Let’s hope that the *rumoured* underground space set aside for the station in the terminal is actually there, and still accessible/ useable. Five bucks on something built since that’s in the way .

  6. Mark Skinner

    A big problem I see is the ability of the airport to charge for the privilege of having a station at the airport.

    Add a big airport charge, passengers are discouraged, and rail becomes a white elephant.

    It’s not remotely feasible until the airport agrees on limiting its own charges to something sub $5. Otherwise it’s the taxpayer footing the bill, and the airport making the profit. For no risk and no effort. As a taxpayer, that should never be contemplated. Ever.

  7. reeves35

    Building heavy rail to the airport is a pretty useless solution. Were we serious and looking at world’s best practice, we would be looking at a driverless monorail built over the top of the Tullamarine Freeway all the way to the airport. This is highly unlikely to be even considered by the Andrews Government however as the union pressure to maintain a heavy rail with a unionised workforce would be overwhelming for a government as weak as the current Victorian incumbents.

    1. Letterboxfrog

      Agree. See what’s happening at Flinders University ( to see a future technology that could be useful. It’s a shame that our thoughts about rail as a society became stuck with technologies that existed at the end of the 19th Century, and we’re stuck with a rail network that hasn’t changed much since then beyond signalling and switching improvements.

      1. Ben Sandilands


        The money on the table isn’t for some highly desirable but initially gold plated new technology, but for connecting the existing airport to the existing rail system. It’s clearly not about an investment that if rendered applicable to greater Melbourne would involve writing off a massive sunk investment in existing technology, probably exceeding the value of the airport.

        Melbourne, like Sydney, needs to connect its airports efficiently to an existing and largely paid for investment in trains and trams. It can be ready ‘light years’ before the property resumptions and technical issues with new surface transport technologies are ironed out, it will have much faster benefits for the state economy, and it will possibly pose less vulnerability to automated personal vehicle carrier developments we already see coming to market in then ext 20 years, with unknown consequences for state owned public transport infrastructure anyhow.

      2. Mark Skinner


        According to their own website, their technology has been in development for thirty years.

        They are still only planning their first project in Australia.

        That first project is a pilot project.

        That project is for half a kilometre.

        In other words, this is nothing more than an idea and some computer graphics.

        That’s not to say that it might not work in the future, However, if the present project gets off the ground, it might take 5-6 years to complete. Then, another 5-6 years to assess. ( It is a pilot project, after all. Assessment being the major purpose of pilot projects). Then, another 5-10 years to plan and construct in full scale IF the pilot project were successful.

        Best case scenario: 15 years. Worst case: the pilot scheme fails, and is revealed to be the latest in a long line of Gadget-bahns eagerly advanced by someone with an impractical idea and a graphics package.

        By all means, let’s keep an open mind, but this is something that MAY be ok in 15 years. Let’s look at it then if Melbourne is still looking for better CBD connections.

  8. Giant Bird

    I think a good cost effective solution to capacity constraints at Melbourne airport and delays due to weather increasing separation is to build a high speed elevated link for passengers and baggage the 8 km between Essendon airport and Melbourne airport over the freeway. At peak times and times of congestion send domestic flights to Essendon from where passengers can either go to the city by tram (all the way or to Essendon station and then on train network) or taxi or take the 10 minute overhead link to Melbourne airport for connecting flights. At peak times some flights would be scheduled for Essendon and at other times flights would be diverted to Essendon to avoid holding for Melbourne airport. By the way I live under the final approach path for runway 35 at Essendon, but I knew that when I bought more than 30 years ago.

    1. Dan Dair

      IMO making Essendon into Melbournes ‘Domestic’ airport would be a brilliant idea,
      there were exceptionally efficient & inexpensive/free passenger & luggage transport links between the two.

      IMPO I have no problems with separate international & domestic airports, providing the access between them is sensible.
      Were I designing a brand new mega-Cities airport,
      I’d be creating two offset-adjacent airports, each with two parallel runways & each with a possible third runway on parallel diagonals, plus taxiways linking the two airports.
      I’d be including a dual track underground rail service which connected all the terminal buildings in opposite directions, as well as making airside road access between them sensible & efficient.

      But, who’s building new mega-City airports these days……….?

  9. jon t

    It would seem the model for PPP infrastructure is to get the mug punter to pay for it then sell it when its realized that the debt can never be serviced from the revenue stream. The financing by government from increased land values along the route is a logical solution to getting a decent transport system.

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