An airport train like this (driverless) one in Dubai would be nice to have in Melbourne…but there are higher priorities for scarce public funds


Last month the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) revived calls for the Victorian Government to get behind the idea of an airport rail link.

Melbourne Airport is going to keep growing – it’s time to get moving on providing a mass transit heavy rail connection…It’s high time our world city had trains to its airports.

The key new piece of evidence is a spreadsheet compiled by the PTUA showing that 83 of the world’s busiest 100 airports are expected to have heavy or light rail services by 2021. (1)

The irony is if the PTUA had run this survey at the same time last year, Melbourne would’ve been on the list as one of the “going to” cities because the Government of the day went to the 2014 election with a specific plan to build an airport rail link.

But like the promised East West Link motorway, the idea went down the plug hole when the electorate threw the Napthine Government out of office.

The new Premier, Daniel Andrews, made it clear soon after taking office that airport rail is not a priority for his Government. (2)

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.

I’ve discussed the issues with the airport train idea before and it’s worth reiterating the main points (see also Is it time Melbourne got a rail line to the airport? for more detail).

I think Mr Andrews is right. Most Melburnians travel by air only once or twice a year at best and get there by car or taxi. That’s not surprising given over 90% live more than 5 km from the CBD and 90% live in households with at least one car.

Residents who use the airport frequently tend to be business travellers who take taxis or drive to or from home; they don’t pay for parking or taxis out of their own pocket.

The main public transport options (particularly important for visitors) are taxis or the privately operated SkyBus at $18 one-way between the airport and Southern Cross rail station.

SkyBus offers a 24 hour, seven days a week service, mostly at 10 minute frequencies, with interchange to the metropolitan rail system at Southern Cross.

While a mass transit system will be required one day if airport passenger numbers continue to grow, SkyBus has ample scope to scale up capacity in the near to medium term by increasing frequency.

There are other much higher public transport priorities at this time for scarce public funds; they include the Melbourne Metro tunnel, elimination of level crossings, extension of rail to Mernda, duplications/quadruplications of existing track, improved maintenance, and upgraded signalling.

A train would offer a more comfortable ride than the existing SkyBus service, but it would cost circa $2-3 billion for the lowest-cost route recommended in the former government’s feasibility study.

Something else would have to be foregone or delayed so the money could be found.

A train would replace a public transport service that costs Victorian taxpayers nothing (i.e. SkyBus) with one that wouldn’t cover any of its capital costs.

A train 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.

Nor would it 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.

The environmental benefits from building a train would be very small because most passengers would come from other forms of public transport. Put another way, it would be an enormously expensive way of reducing emissions and pollution.

The two existing Australian airport lines – Brisbane and Sydney – were privately financed but both struggled financially in their early years despite costing much less than a rail line to Melbourne Airport would i.e. just $0.4 billion and $1.2 billion respectively (3)

Tickets wouldn’t be cheaper than SkyBus either. It’s virtually certain the government would insist on charging circa $18 one-way as is the case with the Sydney and Brisbane airport rail services.

Building airport rail because other cities do is a poor argument. Many cities built them for reasons of prestige and politics, not because mass transit was justified by demand or operational considerations.

It’s the sort of logic that partly explains why so many cities built inner city freeways in the 1960s and 1970s.

The key advantage of a rail line at this time is that it would provide a faster trip than SkyBus during Melbourne’s (landside) peak periods i.e. 30 minutes on average vs up to 40 minutes for SkyBus. (4)

But because it would follow an indirect route, a train would be slower in the (landside) off-peak i.e. 30 minutes on average vs 20 minutes for SkyBus. (5)

SkyBus could be made faster in the peak by giving it a dedicated road lane at considerably lower capital and operating cost to taxpayers than building an airport train.

In fact, the current widening of the Tullamarine-City Link motorway offers an opportunity to provide a High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lane from the airport to the city centre.

A HOT lane gives vehicles with (say) three or more passengers, as well as motorists willing to pay a higher toll (the amount varies with demand), the right to a dedicated lane so they enjoy a faster and more predictable journey time. (6)

If the (private) owner of the airport wants to build an airport rail line now, it should pay for it. Meanwhile, the Government should investigate how it can improve the operations of SkyBus (no, it’s not perfect).

The rail projects already on the Government’s plate will collectively account for a generation of funding even on optimistic assumptions. On top of that the Government needs to deal with a host of operational problems as well as increase the quality of bus services, particularly in the outer suburbs.

Costly rail projects that largely replace one form of public transport with another – and I include proposals for rail lines to Doncaster and Rowville in that category – should be given a low priority.

The appropriate action for the Government to take at this time is to reserve the alignment for a future airport rail line (already done a decade ago) and get on with implementing projects that really make a difference.


  1. Includes 7 airports with bus shuttles that connect to nearby rail lines.
  2. Mr Andrews also argues that there won’t be sufficient capacity to accommodate an airport rail line until the Melbourne Metro line is up and running, expected to be circa 2026 at the earliest.
  3. Costs inflated to 2012 $$. The initial Sydney operator went broke. Not surprisingly, the current operator is doing very well; it purchased the asset from the receiver for circa $300 million.
  4. Although note Skybus claims the average journey time in (landside) peak periods is only 30 minutes on average
  5. Peak landside congestion periods don’t necessarily coincide perfectly with peak flight periods (airplane passenger arrivals and departures)
  6. HOT lanes are also a way of introducing motorists to the idea of congestion charging.