Airports & aviation

Feb 23, 2015

Is Daniel Andrews right to ignore airport rail?

A train to Melbourne Airport would be more comfortable than SkyBus and one day it'll no doubt be needed, but the Victorian Premier is right; there are much more pressing priorities for the scarce public dollar

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The original 2001 route remains the preferred alignment for a rail line from Melbourne Airport to the CBD (PTV Feasibility Study)

Just when I thought the change of government in Victoria had put the notion of an airport rail line to bed, The Age insists the idea is going to stay up and keep banging loudly on the walls.

Late last week the paper reported a warning from the CEO of Melbourne Airport, Chris Woodruff, that the city risks drowning in traffic if it doesn’t build a rail line between the CBD and the airport. According to Mr Woodruff:

In 10 years time Melbourne Airport will be handling 46 million passengers a year from the current 32 million. There is no other airport in the world at that level that doesn’t have a rail link.

The private owner of the airport is hardly a disinterested player and isn’t offering to foot the bill, so it’s important to look at the key issues related to this proposal. I discussed them at length last year, so this time I’ll just summarise the main points:

  • It would cost a lot to build a line, at least $2-3 billion for the route recommended in the former government’s feasibility study. That money would have to come from taxpayers.
  • It would be a risky project. The two existing Australian airport lines – Brisbane and Sydney – were privately financed but both struggled financially in their early years despite only costing $0.4 billion and $1.2 billion respectively (2012 $$); the initial Sydney operator went broke.
  • It would mostly replace existing public transport services. Most passengers would come from buses and taxis, not from private cars. The environmental benefits would consequently be relatively small (or put another way, it would be an enormously expensive way of reducing emissions and pollution).
  • It would replace a service that costs Victorian taxpayers nothing (SkyBus) with one that doesn’t cover any of its capital costs.
  • Tickets wouldn’t be cheaper than SkyBus. It’s virtually certain the government would insist on charging circa $17 one way as happens with the Sydney and Brisbane airport rail services.
  • The key advantage of rail is capacity but that’s not relevant yet; SkyBus has ample scope to scale up capacity in the near to medium term by increasing frequency.
  • It wouldn’t reduce congestion on the Tullamarine freeway any more than building new roads would; the road space liberated by any motorists who switch to rail would quickly be filled by other drivers.
  • It would provide faster trips than SkyBus during Melbourne’s (landside) peak periods, but it’d be slower in the off-peak (because the recommended route for rail isn’t direct). But SkyBus could be made faster in the peak by giving it a dedicated road lane at considerably lower cost than building a new rail line.
  • It won’t reduce the cost of parking at Melbourne Airport or the airport’s revenue from this source; that’s the result of anti-competitive practices, not the absence of alternatives to driving.

Please read my previous article where I discuss these issues in more detail, Is it time Melbourne got a rail line to the airport?

I suspect much of the enthusiasm for airport rail is based on the positive experience Victorians have with Airport rail lines when they’re visiting other cities; and no doubt most visitors to Melbourne would appreciate the greater comfort of rail compared to SkyBus.

But it’s different for the vast majority of local residents who, after all, would be the ones paying the bill; they mostly drive to the airport because they live and work in the suburbs (over 90% of Melburnians live more than 5 km from the CBD) and live in households with a car (90% of Melbourne households have at least one car). (1)

While there’d be social benefits if they did, residents who currently choose to drive or take a taxi to the airport rather than use SkyBus aren’t likely to switch to rail en masse.

They’ll mostly continue to travel to the airport by car or taxi because it’s faster and more convenient than taking public transport to the CBD and then changing to the airport service (whether train or bus). For many air travel is only occasional; for others the cost of a taxi or airport parking is paid by work. (2)

If airline passenger numbers grow at Melbourne Airport in line with the owner’s forecast, there’ll inevitably come a time when buses can’t cope and some form of mass transit will be required; but that’s not likely to be for some decades yet. When it does, the owner should contribute to the cost. (3)

As I noted last time I discussed this issue, there’s no shortage of competing infrastructure needs like upgrading signalling that make a lot more sense at this time than airport rail. Fortunately Victoria’s new Premier, Daniel Andrews, understands this; he says most Melburnians would only use an airport train once or twice a year:

No one for a moment says that an airport rail link is not a worthy project. But be very clear: the services that people use every single day are my priority.

Of course with the government having to find the funds to meet its existing public transport promises like building Melbourne Metro, extending rail to Mernda, and eliminating 50 level crossings, there’s no way it could contemplate spending at least $2-3 billion on a rail line to the airport even if it regarded it as a priority.

I expect The Age will continue running stories framed in a way that amps up airport rail; its demographic loves the idea. However I’d like to see it put greater effort into giving its readers a more balanced bedtime story.

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  1. 70% of Melbourne’s jobs are more than 5 km from the CBD; only 15% are in the CBD i.e. within a 1.5 km radius of the Town Hall. At airports, a high proportion of “drivers” don’t park but either ‘kiss and ride’ or are driven by ‘meeters and greeters’.
  2. Consider that my wife and I paid $76 to park in the long-term car park for four days last week. We had to pay for fuel too, but it would’ve cost us $74 by public transport (train from home to SXS then SkyBus, return) but taken much longer than driving (the cost of parking could’ve been lower if we’d had the wit to pay for it in advance).
  3. Most existing airport lines in other cities were built for reasons of prestige or political opportunity, not because there was a practical need at the time.
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