Airports & aviation

Dec 7, 2016

Should Melbourne airport rail be put on the front-burner?

Melbourne Airport is "begging" for a rail line to the airport asap; Infrastructure Victoria says not just yet. More effort needs to be put into being ready to go when necessary

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Annual boardings Melbourne Airport, 1985-2015, with linear trend extrapolated to 2033 (source data: BITRE)
Annual boardings Melbourne Airport, 1985-2015 (source data: BITRE)

The owner of Melbourne Airport reckons traffic congestion on the Tullamarine Freeway is set to become so bad over the next 10 years there’s an urgent need for the state government to accelerate construction of a rail line from the airport to the CBD. The Age reports that in a submission it’s made to Infrastructure Victoria, Australia Pacific Airports Corporation:

Warns that even after factoring in the current project to widen the road, the Tullamarine Freeway will hit maximum peak-hour capacity in the late 2020s – about a decade earlier than Infrastructure Victoria’s prediction…The airport predicts it will handle 64 million passengers a year by 2033 – about 30 per cent more than the official Infrastructure Victoria prediction.

I haven’t been able to lay my hands on a copy of the company’s submission (it’s not public apparently found it!), but I think there’s some relevant points that can still be made:

  • It’s no surprise the Airport is agitating for the government to build and pay for a rail line. It’s never offered to pay for one – likely to cost circa $3 Billion for the lowest cost option – so it’s all potential upside from the company’s point of view.
  • Infrastructure Victoria, the body established by the Andrews government to provide an independent, arms-length analysis of infrastructure projects, reckons the rail line won’t be needed (as distinct from “nice to have”) for 15-30 years.
  • Projections of future patronage must be treated with care. The long-term trend in boardings since 1985 gives a considerably lower future figure than the airport forecasts. The company’s probably choosing to emphasise the very strong recent increases in international patronage, but these are subject to risks e.g. exchange rate variations, the economic health of countries that generate a lot of visitors to Melbourne.
  • An airport rail line won’t stop traffic congestion on the Tullamarine Freeway any more than widening the latter will. The process is the same; any spare capacity “created” by motorists shifting to rail will be taken up by other motorists. The only way to reduce congestion is pricing road and/or parking space.
  • The Airport already has good public transport services, most obviously Skybus. The key issue is when demand will exceed the ability to expand the capacity and speed of Skybus. Infrastructure Victoria thinks that with relatively low-cost improvements to road priority it’s still got at least 15 years.
  • The government made a number of public transport promises at the 2014 state election but it didn’t promise to build an airport rail line; in fact it avoided the issue. Nevertheless it won even though the then (Napthine) government promised it would build one if re-elected.

The Premier, Daniel Andrews, says airport rail is “a not an unworthy project” but there are higher priorities at this time, like Melbourne Metro and level crossing removals. Seven News reports Mr Andrews said yesterday:

That doesn’t mean an airport rail link won’t happen at some point in the future but the order in which you get it done is the really important thing. It’s not an unworthy project – let’s be clear about this.

I’ve set out before the reasons why I think airport rail shouldn’t be built just yet (e.g. see Is it high time Melbourne got a rail line to the airport?). I expect they still hold, but I think the Andrews government should be working harder than it seems to be doing on developing a scheme for improving metropolitan-wide access to Melbourne Airport in the medium term. The Airport corporation might be motivated by self-interest, but it’s also possible Infrastructure Victoria might be wrong. Forecasting is a very tricky game and the government needs to be ready in case the numbers it’s relying on prove to be out.

The previous government’s airport rail study was purposely limited in scope to meet a political agenda; it assumed an airport rail line was a good idea and confined its work to route options. What we need now is a sophisticated technical and economic analysis of the options, including all modes and the scope for reforming road and parking pricing. It should be public and undertaken expeditiously. It should lead to a preferred option and ultimately to a detailed plan that can be implemented when required.

***

As an aside, it’s regrettable that The Age continues to be a willing participant in writing up stories based on information that isn’t available at the time for readers to review and assess. These sorts of stories are usually based on media releases or reports that promote the interests of private and public organisations. The Age should refuse to run them unless the relevant supporting information is made available publicly at the same time. A principled approach might help it to enhance its reputation and maybe even offset some of the loss of credibility from Fairfax’s reliance on clickbait.

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