Airport terminal, Brisbane's Airtrain
Airport terminal, Brisbane’s Airtrain

As part of its transport policy for the 2 July Federal election, the Australian Greens are promising Victorians a “real commitment to Melbourne airport rail”; the party says it will provide $1 Billion in federal funding towards the cost of constructing a rail line from the CBD to the airport if it wins next month’s election.

According to this media release on the promise put out by Greens spokesperson for transport and infrastructure, Senator Janet Rice:

It is unacceptable and frankly embarrassing that in 2016 Melbourne doesn’t have a rail line to the airport… Airport Rail will offer travellers an easier, cleaner, more reliable option, without the risk of missing their flight because of chaos on the roads… Melbourne Airport Rail is part of the Greens commitment taking us towards a clean transport future.

Leaving aside the obvious question of whether or not the Greens would be in a position to deliver on it, this promise smacks loudly of good old fashioned politicking.

For one thing, the current Victorian Government isn’t interested in the project. The former Liberal-National Government led by Denis Napthine promised to build it, but current Premier Daniel Andrews made it clear soon after winning the last election that he doesn’t see it as a priority compared to other projects.

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.

The Greens’ promise is analogous to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s continuing commitment to build Melbourne’s East-West Link motorway. The federal government wants it but the state doesn’t; the Andrews’ Government spent a billion dollars to avoid it!

Another indication of blatant politicking is the absence of hard evidence to support the promise. The party doesn’t have an authoritative estimate of the expected cost of the rail line – in fact the cost isn’t even mentioned! It has no idea of the value of the likely benefits and whether or not they would come within cooee of the cost.

The lack of such basic information contradicts the Greens’ promise to subject all projects to benefit-cost analysis prior to making a decision on funding (see Is the Greens’ transport policy mostly vote-bait?).

Of course it’d be very nice to have a shiny new rail line to Melbourne Airport just like most other big cities around the world have, including Brisbane and Sydney. At the moment, though, it’s not a good idea.

There are much more pressing priorities in the transport portfolio for scarce public dollars e.g. Melbourne Metro, level crossing removals, railway signalling, outer suburban train extensions and bus services, tram priority works, and much more.

Contrary to Mr Andrew’s claim that it’s nevertheless a “worthy project”, it’s doubtful an airport rail line can be justified on economic, social and environmental grounds, at least not at this time.

It would likely cost Victorian and Australian taxpayers in the order of $2 – 3 Billion to build, but would replace the existing privately operated bus service, SkyBus, that costs the State budget nothing.

It’s true SkyBus isn’t as comfortable as a train would be, but it provides a 24-hour, 7 days a week express service from the airport to Southern Cross Station, most of the time at 10 minute frequencies.

There’s ample scope to scale-up SkyBus in line with rising demand from both travellers and airport workers by increasing frequencies. That would cost the State budget nothing.

The airport rail route options analysis undertaken by the former Napthine Government specified a 30 minute Airport-to-CBD journey time by train using the existing 22 km reserved route via Albion. However SkyBus claims an average 20 minute journey time off-peak and 30 minutes during the peak.

SkyBus is more vulnerable to unexpected delay than a train would be, but this could be addressed at much lower cost by giving the bus more priority road space.

As suggested by Ms Rice’s charge that it’s “embarrassing” not to have one, airport rail lines tend to be built for political reasons rather than as the result of a rational calculation of costs and benefits.

The initial operator of Sydney’s Airlink rail service – which was built for the 2000 Olympics – went broke; the current operator is profitable because it purchased the assets from the receiver for possibly the bargain of the century i.e. just $300 million.

Brisbane’s Airtrain struggled financially in its early years and now gets by with a limited service i.e. 30 minute frequencies with the last train departing the airport at 10:04 pm. It’s share of all airport trips is less than 10%. (1)

As is the case with most planned urban rail projects, the great bulk of the patronage for a Melbourne Airport rail line would come from existing public transport services i.e. SkyBus and other bus services. It’s contribution to reducing emissions would hence be small, especially given the high load factors experienced by SkyBus. Put another way, it would be a ludicrously expensive way of reducing emissions.

Similarly, it wouldn’t reduce traffic congestion on motorways; and any space vacated by motorists who did switch to the train would in any event soon be taken up by other drivers. Nor would it do anything to lower the cost of parking at Melbourne Airport; that’s primarily a competition law issue.

Senator Rice doesn’t mention lower ticket prices, but some advocates of rail imagine it would somehow bring the current $19 one-way SkyBus fare into line with the standard metro fare. That’s unlikely, but if the Government wanted to it could do that now without spending an additional $2 – 3 Billion on building a rail line.

Most of the benefits of an airport rail line – essentially more comfort and greater trip time reliability – would accrue to frequent travellers i.e. mostly business travellers. Ironically, they prefer taxis; work pays for the cab and it provides a direct home-airport-home trip. In any event, only 15% of workers in Melbourne are located in the (extended) CBD.

It’s likely a train service will be justified someday on capacity grounds if demand for air travel via Melbourne Airport continues to grow at recent rates; but not for some time yet. There’s still ample scope to increase bus frequencies and provide them with greater on-road priority at much lower cost than building a new rail line.

Even the famously politically cynical major parties recognise that Melbourne Airport rail isn’t good policy at this time. The Greens might instead think about encouraging private investors – rather than taxpayers – to finance and build the line if they can be persuaded the patronage justifies the risk. That’s how the Brisbane and Sydney airport lines got built!

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  1. Brisbane’s Airtrain provides a better basis for comparison because Brisbane airport is at the end of the line, as would be the case with a Melbourne airport train (Sydney airport is served by a suburban passenger line that extends beyond the airport).