Yesterday’s discussion of an airport-CBD rail link prompts me to look further at the idea that airport users have a “right” to public transport priced at the standard Metlink tariff.

My first reaction is that the idea makes sense. After all, everywhere else in Melbourne is provided with public transport subsidised by the Government (no matter how inadequate it might be). Melbourne Airport is also one of the largest suburban activity centres in the metropolitan area, with around 12,000 workers.

If travel to and from the Airport were charged in accordance with the Metlink tariff, the fare to the CBD would be the standard Zone 1-2 fare of $5.80 one-way. But while it might be the equitable solution it doesn’t follow that it’s the sensible one, the necessary one, or the one that’s in the best interests of all Melburnians.

Subsidising all those air travellers would be expensive. Skybus carries two million passengers per annum between the airport and the CBD at $16 per one-way trip and requires no subsidy. No doubt demand would rise if fares fell to $5.80, leading to a higher level of subsidy. There would also be added costs if users demanded that stops be provided at intermediate points.

The vast bulk of those air travellers are made up of either business people or people flying for holidays, visits and personal reasons. Most either charge their fares as a business expense or are prepared to pay more for ground access given the occasional nature of their travel. After all, air travel usually involves a number of significant outlays such as air fares, accommodation, meals, taxis and personal expenses. People who fly don’t generally expect to pay a Zone 1-2 fare – that is one reason why a one-way rail ticket to the CBD costs $15 at both Sydney and Brisbane airports.

Quite frankly, while recognising there is an equity issue here, I’d rather see the money applied to some other purpose – like education, health, fostering renewable energy or actually improving public transport – than used to subsidise fares to the airport. We don’t directly subsidise domestic and international air fares, so I reckon there’s a case for seeing the ground travel component as part of the flight and leaving it unsubsidised as well. And let’s not forget that a large proportion of the people who travel to and from Melbourne Airport are not Victorians, so they’re not paying much in the way of State taxes here!

However I think airport workers should only pay what the rest of us pay to get to work every day. Their travel expense is recurring. But I don’t think that necessarily implies construction of a new rail line. Most residents of Melbourne do not live within walking distance of a rail or tram line – those who use public transport rely on bus services either to travel directly to their destination or to connect with a rail or tram line.

Fortunately, from early next year, the orbital 901 Frankston to Ringwood Smartbus service will be extended to Melbourne Airport via Blackburn, Greensborough, South Morang, Epping, Roxburgh Park and Broadmeadows. It will provide a regular service between the Airport and Broadmeadows station and enable passengers, whether they be airport workers or air travellers, to connect to the CBD for $5.80 (or presumably for less if they are travelling locally).

Smartbus provides a good level of service. On weekdays the 901 operates at 15 minute frequencies between 6.30am and 9pm. It operates every half hour from 9pm to midnight and on weekends. Trains run every 20 minutes to the city from Broadmeadows and take circa 30 minutes for the trip (at midday on a weekday).

A trip to the CBD could be time-consuming. While it might be as short as 50 minutes it could take considerably longer. Trains will need to be well-coordinated with the 901 (not a strength of the public transport system at present).

I think airport workers who travel via the CBD would accordingly be better catered for by a direct subsidy from the Government to Skybus, just as other private bus operators are subsidised to provide a service. I expect there would only be a very small number of airport workers in this category as the majority live within the northern and western regions where cars are a considerably more attractive mode than any form of public transport is ever likely to be. I understand Skybus offers a discount to Airport workers but I think this should be a State responsibility.

However the primary value of the Smartbus connection doesn’t really lie in providing access to the CBD but rather in improving access to other suburban locations. It will connect with stations on all the key northern, eastern and southern rail lines as it journeys across the suburbs from the Airport to Frankston.

These sorts of train-bus connections are the future of public transport in Melbourne. For example, the Public Transport Users Association’s Every 10 Minutes to Everywhere initiative envisages a grid made up, on the one hand, largely of heavy and light rail lines serving the CBD, and concentric rings of orbital Smartbus-type routes, on the other. They describe it as like a spider’s web. The term “10 minutes” refers to the frequency of services – it means that timetables would be unnecessary as the average waiting time would (theoretically) be five minutes.

A particular value of this perspective is it recognises the airport is in many ways like the CBD – it’s a metropolitan scale destination that attracts users from across the entire metropolitan area (and indeed from the whole State). The great bulk of airport users will not from the CBD but from elsewhere in Melbourne, so for those who use public transport the efficiency of transfers at grid nodes is of paramount importance.

(I’ve previously discussed the issue of a Melbourne Airport-CBD rail link hereherehereherehere and here).