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The idea of a high-speed Melbourne Airport-to-CBD rail line is in the news yet again, this time advocated by the RACV.

You’ve got to give the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria its due. While simultaneously calling for roadworks to reduce congestion and improvements to traffic flow in Hoddle Street, it’s morphing into a general transport lobby group that “advocates improved transport services for all its members, including those who use public transport”.

This story on the RACV’s call for an airport train has attracted over 100 comments, most of them favouring a rail line. There’re the same themes that come up every time The Age runs pro-airport rail stories – it’s embarrassing that Melbourne doesn’t have a dedicated rail line; car parking prices at the airport are extortionary; Skybus fares cost an arm and a leg; the contract with Citylink won’t allow competition; and the airport and taxi industry won’t let anyone kill their golden goose.

Even while they approvingly cite the example of Sydney’s and Brisbane’s airport trains, commenters nevertheless generally assume an airport train would be high speed, would solve congestion on Melbourne’s freeways and would cost no more than a Zone 1-2 fare.

I’ve explained before why an airport rail line is unlikely to make sense for a while yet, but it’s a good idea to take another more considered view of its prospects than those advanced by unabashed boosters. Here’re twelve reasons why a rail line to Melbourne Airport is unlikely to make sense for a while yet.

First, Skybus already provides a dedicated public transport service from the airport to the CBD with higher frequencies and longer span of hours than any train service in Melbourne. Most times trips to Southern Cross station take 20 minutes. While they blow out to over 40 minutes in peak hour, that could be addressed for a fraction of the cost of a new rail line by extending the existing dedicated on-road lane to other sections of the route that are prone to congestion.

Second, there’s little to be gained from spending more than a billion dollars to replace a high quality public transport service (Skybus) with another one (train), when the money could be spent on providing better public transport to areas that don’t currently have adequate service.

Third, every study undertaken to date has concluded that a rail service isn’t warranted. It might be in the future but not yet. In the meantime, there is considerable potential to increase the capacity and speed of Skybus. As pointed out here, Brisbane’s south-east busway already carries 15,000 passengers per hour.

Fourth, the only two airport train systems in Australia, in Brisbane and Sydney, both experienced severe financial difficulties. Both now make money, Sydney’s after going into receivership and being sold at a loss, and Brisbane’s by cutting back services. Brisbane’s trains operate on a 30 minute frequency and stop operation after 8 pm on a weekday. Melbourne’s Skybus runs every ten minutes for most of the day and operates 24/7. Buses already carry a higher proportion of travellers to Melbourne Airport than trains do at either Sydney or Brisbane.

Fifth, the 901 orbital SmartBus now provides a Zone 1-2 fare to the airport. It runs on a 15 minute frequency for most of the day and operates until midnight. Travellers can transfer to a CBD train at Broadmeadows station or take the SmartBus as far as Frankston via Epping, Greensborough, Ringwood and Dandenong. Skybus also offers concession fares to airport workers.

Sixth, it is extremely unlikely that any dedicated train service would be offered at a Zone 1-2 fare because that would incur an operating loss, whereas Skybus is profitable and hence costs the State nothing. Both the Sydney and Brisbane trains charge $15 one-way from the domestic terminal to the CBD. Skybus charges $16 (for a longer trip). There are sound arguments for charging a different (higher) price for airport travel rather than incurring a substantial ongoing cost to subsidise air travellers, many of whom don’t live in Victoria.

Seventh, it’s also highly unlikely that any new train line would be high-speed. That would be very expensive as it would require a dedicated line and rolling stock and higher engineering standards. Those who hold out hope that it could be part of a Sydney–Melbourne High Speed Rail (HSR) project ignore the fact that numerous studies have found HSR is not viable on this route (the Commonwealth is undertaking another study at the moment). Even if political considerations were to drive a start on HSR, it is far more likely the first stages would be constructed around Sydney, probably in the Newcastle-Sydney corridor.

Eighth, a train would not reduce congestion on Melbourne’s freeway system. Most users live in the suburbs and will continue to drive – a rail line to the CBD won’t change that. In any event, any space liberated by drivers switching to train would be consumed by induced demand.

Ninth, even if a train were to win an unprecedented share of all airport ground travel (say 20% – which would put it way ahead of Brisbane and Sydney), this would be an extraordinarily expensive way of reducing GHG emissions.

Tenth, a train would have no impact on the price of airport parking, which is one of the key gripes of those who support the rail line. High prices are the result of monopoly pricing and would best be addressed in other ways.

Eleventh, there are other transport projects with a higher economic and social warrant for the expenditure of scare government funds than an airport rail link. Indeed, there are projects in other portfolios, like health and education, that would have a much higher return.

Twelfth, an airport rail line would be the wrong project. With airport use projected to grow strongly, the key ground transport challenge is to move Melburnians from dispersed home and work locations to the airport and back again. That can’t possibly all be done by car due to congestion, but neither can it be done by rail from the CBD. Something like this, which recognises rather than ignores the suburban location of most Melburnians, is a more plausible solution.

So, there are many reasons to be sceptical about the need for an airport rail line at this time. If the RACV wants to strengthen its public transport credentials, there are plenty of other more deserving projects it should advocate ahead of this one. The Government has indicated that it is undertaking another feasibility study of a rail line to the airport. It would be best for the RACV to sit tight and wait to see what that brings.

Even so, I’m impressed by the RACV’s general sophistication. The “A” in RACV seems to be changing from “Auto” to something more general like “Accessibility”. The Public Transport Users Association, which still has a vaguely undergraduate vibe about it (exemplified by the supercilious tone of its web site), could learn a lot about political effectiveness from the RACV.