Short-listed route options for a Melbourne Airport rail link. The Victorian government has endorsed the Albion East base case (purple)

Melburnians are desperate to have a rail line to their airport like residents of Sydney and Brisbane have.

Never mind that the airport lines in both those cities had severe financial problems in their early years, or that the Brisbane airport line operates on limited hours and low frequencies.

And never mind that Melbourne Airport currently has a bus service operating 24×7 at mostly 10 minute frequencies and in the off-peak provides a 20 minute trip over 22 km (40 minutes in the peak).

So during the last election the government (from opposition) promised to look again at the feasibility of providing a rail line between the airport and the CBD. That report, prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff, was released last week.

As it turns out, the report’s not a feasibility study. The desirability of an airport rail line is not in question – the sole purpose of the report is to say what route it should take to get to the CBD.

The route preferred by the consultants (and formally endorsed by the government) requires new dedicated tracks from the airport to Albion. From there, it would share the Sydenham line to the city centre with metropolitan trains from Sunbury and (soon) from Melton.

On the approach to the CBD, the airport train would dive into the proposed new Melbourne Metro tunnel, enabling airport trains to run through the CBD and on to Dandenong (see exhibit).

Services would operate at 10 minute frequencies and travel time from the airport to the CBD would be 30 minutes. While that’s longer than SkyBus in the off-peak, it would offer greater predictability.

A large number of other route options were examined, including a dedicated underground line connecting with the city loop.

A dedicated airport tunnel would give a 20 minute trip time, however it was rejected because it would cost 2.4 times as much as the preferred option and would be constrained by capacity issues in the city loop.

What the study doesn’t do, though, is address whether or not a rail line is a good idea. It doesn’t ask if it’s needed, what level of patronage it’s likely to attract, or what effect it would have on traffic congestion.

Nor does it say what it would cost to build, operate and finance (although it compares the cost of the various options relative to the preferred option).

As with the Rowville and Doncaster rail studies, non-rail solutions haven’t been considered. It doesn’t even say when, in operational terms, an airport rail line will be needed.

That’s doubtless because the government recognises that asking these sorts of basic questions would be bad politics. It prefers to send the message that it’s already committed to building an airport rail link, so the study effort has gone into design and operational issues.

Whatever its political merits, the big problem with this approach is finding the money to deliver on the apparent commitment while keeping faith with the electorate (and there’re also new lines to Doncaster and Rowville the government doesn’t want to be seen denying).

The report doesn’t tell us what the recommended route would cost, but I expect it would be serious money, perhaps around $2 billion (there’s tunnelling at the airport, a new underground station and some major road crossings).

Dealing with that issue, the government no doubt hopes, is the genius of the preferred option. The version of the airport link the government’s proposing can’t be built until Melbourne Metro is close to finished and that’s a very big project – it’s ten years away, at least.

What the government is unlikely to admit though is that there appears to be no operational need for the airport line for some years yet.

According to its own report, high-capacity modes like rail should be in place before the number of airport users reaches around 60 million. The primary reason is congestion on roads.

However the number of airport users at Tullamarine is currently around half this level. It isn’t expected to hit 60 million until circa 2030.

In the interim, SkyBus has scope to expand its capacity by increasing frequencies. There’s also the opportunity to give it greater priority on the road system in peak periods.

Irrespective of its political value, the idea of running an airport line via Melbourne Metro rather than direct to Southern Cross has merit.

It would improve connectivity by giving travellers direct access to multiple CBD and inner city stations, as happens with the Sydney and Brisbane airport trains.

It would also enable airport services to run on to Dandenong, giving a lot of residents and businesses in the populous South-East readier access to rail.

On the other hand, mixing tourists’ baggage with commuters isn’t ideal. More importantly, it would take up six of the precious rail paths provided by the proposed Metro.

In fact the report seems equivocal about the life-span of its own recommendation. It says urban growth in the west could possibly mean there won’t be adequate spare capacity on the Sydenham line in the (unspecified) “future” to fully accommodate airport trains e.g. the scope for express airport services might be “limited”.

It goes on to suggest the Commonwealth’s proposed High Speed Rail (HSR) line could provide an alternative dedicated alignment to the CBD  (fn 1). That seems like grasping at straws – the outlook for HSR between Melbourne and Canberra looks very dim.

But the biggest disappointment with the study in my view is the failure to look at the bigger questions, especially the economic, social and environmental warrant for an airport rail line.

Improved public transport services will definitely be necessary given the projected growth at Melbourne Airport, but the timing and form that would best take should be evaluated carefully, not determined by political expediency.

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(fn 1) What’s curious is the report says an airport train could “use the same tunnel and track” as HSR, but the Commonwealth’s phase one report emphasised HSR and airport rail could only share a right-of-way, not a track.