The current proposed alignment for an airport rail line. It joins the proposed Melbourne Metro line at the western edge of the city centre (source: PTV - Melbourne Airport Rail Link alternative alignments study)

Victoria’s Andrews Government has knocked it on the head for the time being, but the idea of a rail line from Melbourne CBD to the airport is still alive and kicking. Like the East West Link, it’s one of those notions that seems so patently obvious to its advocates they won’t let go.

Here’s The Age earlier this month manufacturing a reason to remind its readers yet again that Melbourne doesn’t have an airport train: Another freeway to Melbourne Airport set for approval while rail link languishes. (1)

I’ve explained a number of times before that the rationale for building a circa $3 billion rail line to the airport at this time is very weak e.g.see Is it time Melbourne got a rail line to the airport? As conceived, all it would effectively do is transfer passengers from one form of public transport to another i.e. from SkyBus to a train.

The absence of a sensible rationale hasn’t stopped airport rail lines getting built in cities all over the world; they’ve mostly been built for nakedly political reasons. The airport rail lines in Sydney (partly privately funded) and Brisbane (fully privately funded) both experienced severe financial difficulties in their early years.

The only plausible way a train to Melbourne airport would make economic sense at present is if it were somehow set up to win a very large share of all landside airport travel. Not the mere 10% mode share that Brisbane’s Airtrain captures, or even the circa 16% that the operator says Sydney’s Airport Link achieves, but something much bigger. (2)

If a train could win (say) a third to a half of all airport trips, it would necessarily supersede SkyBus because patronage would be too high for a bus system. It would also necessarily replace road trips, thus significantly reducing airport-generated traffic on approach roads.

The revenue produced at current SkyBus fares ($18 one way) would cover operating costs and a large proportion, or perhaps all, of the capital cost. That would in turn make it a more attractive proposition for private investors willing to take on the associated risks.

We already know trains can win high mode share in defined circumstances. The clearest example is the CBD; in the order of 70 -80% of peak period trips to the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne are by public transport, mostly by train.

That’s in large part because high parking costs and severely congested traffic – combined with the availability of good public transport – make driving to the CBD in peak hour uncompetitive for the great majority of travellers.

That suggests the way to dramatically shift the mode share at Melbourne Airport would be to make the option of driving to the airport so difficult that travellers would voluntarily use rail, as they do in the CBD. The available “levers” include higher parking fees, airport access fees, and tolling of major freeways like the Tullamarine and the ring road.

The curious thing though is that Melbourne Airport already experiences the sorts of conditions that should generate high public transport use.

The roads to the airport already suffer severe congestion in the peak; parking fees are already widely regarded as exorbitant; and there’s already a reasonably direct journey by rail/SkyBus from the southern and eastern suburbs to the airport.

Despite all that, airport users overwhelmingly prefer to drive. In fact take out visitors to Melbourne and it’s obvious the public transport option just isn’t attractive to Melbourne residents. So the charges would have to be very high – and politicians extraordinarily courageous – to deter driving to the airport.

There’d be some other ripples under this scenario too. The higher assumed rail use would put strains on the capacity of the rail system. According to the Premier, Daniel Andrews, the $11 billion Melbourne Metro will only boost morning peak hour capacity by 20,000 passengers; there’s not much leeway there for a step change in airport-related demand. (3)

It’s also likely high airport motoring charges would lead to demands for another rail line – or some form of rapid transit – to service the northern suburbs. Residents in the more populous south and east would have a reasonably direct route by train to the airport, but those in the north would object to having to go in the “wrong” direction in order to board the airport train in the CBD. (4)

The airport operator could be another fly in the ointment; whether it would agree would presumably depend largely on how the considerable revenue it earns from parking would be affected. That might depend on how much parking revenue it could extract from premium travellers and whether or not it could get a share of any surplus rail revenue.

Would this proposal, or something like it, be feasible? Travellers who currently elect to drive would feel they’re much worse off; either they pay a lot more to drive or their trips take a lot longer. The custom of “meeting and greeting” by car might prove too expensive for most residents.

Of course the political push back would be horrendous from such a courageous policy. It would be much less painful for a Government to simply spend the required billions and build the politically popular rail line notwithstanding the impact on mode share would be modest. That’s in fact what the former Napthine Government promised to do.

____________________________

  1. The planned freeway reported by The Age runs north of the airport whereas any rail line would run south to the CBD. The timeline is up to 30 years, as its a short connection to the planned Outer Metropolitan Ring Road.
  2. It’s implausible that the cost of construction could be reduced from circa $3 billion to the mere $3o0 million the current operator paid for the Sydney train franchise after the original owner went bankrupt; or the $220 million it cost the private investor to build Brisbane’s AirTrain.
  3. Melbourne Metro has other benefits though; it will increase the reliability and efficiency of the metropolitan rail network.
  4. Alastair Taylor at Urban Melbourne proposes a light rail line running south of Bell St. I’d propose BRT in a dedicated lane on the ring road; or better still, BRT/light rail running north of the ring road, roughly following a Cooper St/McDonalds Rd/Plenty Rd route to Greensborough – it would connect with rail lines and have lots of long-term car parking.