Proposed Melbourne Airport heavy rail line (source: Infrastructure Victoria)
The favoured plan for the proposed Melbourne Airport heavy rail line connects to Melbourne Metro (source: Infrastructure Victoria)

The Sunday Age can’t get enough of the idea of a rail line to Melbourne Airport. Last week it told us about a “secret” tourism industry report calling for an airport train, but yesterday it went for broke, breathlessly telling its readers a “Melbourne Airport rail link could be on the cards at (the) next election”:

A rail link to Melbourne Airport could end up being built regardless of who wins the next state election, with both major parties declaring they are open to the idea as part of a broader plan to meet the city’s long-term needs.

It’s plausible the Opposition might promise an airport rail line at the 2018 election because it promised last time that if it were returned to office it would build one in conjunction with its version of Melbourne Metro. In the event it lost the election.

It seems unlikely though that the government would make any such promise; its clearly stated position is that while an airport train is a worthwhile project, it isn’t needed yet. It’s already got a swag of huge projects on its plate, including Melbourne Metro ($10 Billion real) and 50 level-crossing removals ($8 Billion). According to Infrastructure Victoria, a rail link from the city centre to the airport would require the government to find another $2.1 – $3.1 Billion for construction.

The Sunday Age, however, reckons it’s detected “a notable strengthening of language” on the part of Premier Daniel Andrews in relation to the idea of an airport train. The key evidence the august journal has unearthed is a statement by Mr Andrews this week that “the proposal has merit”. Wow! But that’s not all; he went on to make this supposedly deeply incriminating comment:

There’ll be a time when an airport rail link stacks up. It’s not an unworthy project … but it’s about the sequence in which you build these things.

Seriously, how could anyone interpret those comments to mean the government could be set to match the opposition in promising an airport rail line at the next election? Their import is the same as what Mr Andrews said shortly after he won in 2014:

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.

Ah, but The Sunday Age has another item of apparently damning evidence. It says a comment by acting Tourism Minister, Philip Dalidakis, that “future projects will be guided by Infrastructure Victoria’s 30-year plan” also supports its contention that the government’s “tone has shifted noticeably in recent weeks”.

That’s ridiculous; Infrastructure Victoria released its 30-year draft strategy last week concluding airport rail won’t be required for at least 15 years. It says the existing bus service should be upgraded with priority road space in the interim. Here’s recommendation 10.9.2:

Deliver a rail line to Melbourne Airport, preferably linking with both central Melbourne and the southeast, within 15-30 years once the additional capacity of the airport bus has been exceeded.

The angle The Sunday Age has fabricated here is just plain embarrassing. It looks like another case of Fairfax management selling out the traditions of its flagship newspapers. Readers will overlook clickbait if the paper continues to provide quality journalism; but they’ll eventually see through this sort of manufactured sensationalism.

If there really were any genuine doubt about the government’s view, the Premier reiterated it yesterday afternoon when he responded to a proposal for a monorail to the airport floated earlier in the day in rival newspaper, the Sunday Herald-Sun:

I’ve always said there will be a time when additional services, public transport, train services of some configuration would be important for Melbourne Airport, a great asset to our state, a big employer, curfew-free.I think the removal of dangerous and congested level crossings, additional rolling stock, Melbourne metro and some other suburban line extensions, they’re more important right now. Infrastructure Victoria makes the point this week that there’s additional capacity for bus services, more of them, faster bus services.

And ‘rival’ is the word; it seems The Sunday Age and the Sunday Herald-Sun are increasingly competing for the same readers.