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

  1. Maelor Himbury

    There is considerable capacity to increase local bus services to Melbourne Airport. This would not only assist passengers but also those who work at the Airport.

  2. Dudley Horscroft

    I doubt the “new Melbourne Metro” will open in 2016, there is less than four weeks to go. Perhaps 2026 or 2036? But the proposed $3B cost for the new line is a nonsense. Much of the track is already there. The distance from terminal to Albion Station is approximately 13.9 km. Working back from Albion at MP 13.9, the curve takes up 0.8 km, to MP 13.1, and from there to MP 6.2 the track is virtually dead straight. From there would be an ‘S’ bend with radii about 700 m on and at the southern end of Airport Drive. This would be elevated as it has to cross the M80, the Western Ring Road, access Airport Drive over the latter’s intersection with Tullamarine Ring Road, and cross Sharps Road before descending into the wide median of Airport Drive. From MP 4.75 there is only one very large radius curve before a straight section to MP2.1. A further curve brings it into the median of Melrose Drive, and then a further gentle curve brings the rail line to the southern side of Terminal Drive and the terminus, with the western end against Terminal 3. The station would be parallel to Departure Drive, with a single island platform and tracks either side used alternately for arrival and departure, and reversible travelators along the platform to assist arriving and departing passengers.

    Most of the track would be at ground level, only the sections approaching the terminal and crossing the Western Ring Road would need to be elevated.At an average speed from Airport to Albion of 120 km/h (the more modern trains are capable of speeds in excess of 140 km/h) the time from departure Airport to arrival at Albion would be 7 minutes. Single track, with a loop along the main straight, would enable a 15 minute headway to be operated with ease. No doubt it would be necessary to rebuild the existing line – or perhaps add a second track for airport trains – but effectively it would be 15 km of new single line track. A rule of thumb is that elevated construction costs four times that of at grade, and assuming that the elevated sections amount to 25% of the route, then it is effectively 30 km of new track. Alice Springs-Darwin was brought in 13 years ago for less than $1M /km, which included plenty of large new bridges. Allowing escalation of costs from $1M to $2M per km in the time since that line was opened, the cost of track and structures should be about $60M. Varsity Lakes Station in Queensland was reputed to cost $350M a few years ago, the terminal at the Airport should not cost more than $500M. Total $560M. Add $40M for overhead, substations and connexion to the HV network and there is a total of $600M.
    These are reasonable ball-park figures – probably on the high side. How can any cost for the line of $3B be justified, except on the assumption that the line must be perfect and proof against all possible contingencies. That is a case of letting the perfect prevent the good. Good is all we need!

    1. Alan Davies

      Quite right about 2016; the estimated opening date for Melbourne Metro is 2026. But you’re wrong about costs; figure I’ve used is from the AECOM/PWC costing commissioned by Infrastructure Victoria; the latter say the likely cost is toward the top of the range.

  3. Vincent O'Donnell

    It is 6.30 am on the Tullamarine freeway, on the western side of Essendon Airport. The traffic has just slowed to 15 kph, but I’m not worried, the plane is at 7.30 and I’m a ‘carry-on only’ passenger. Past the western ring road we speed-up to 20 kph, but before the airport exit we are down to a crawl. I suggest to the taxi drive he stays on the right side of the lanes, and drops me at the airport hotel which we reach at 7.05. The average speed of the trip was 18 kph. A walk through the car park and I reach the departure lounge at 7.15 as we start boarding. Just another Monday morning at the airport that doesn’t need at train connection. In Brisbane, two train connections get me to Nambor, almost 100 km north of Brisbane, in little over an hour of landing. QED.

  4. Ben Sandilands

    The Sydney airport rail experience might not translate readily to the Melbourne situation, especially if the funding and fare setting debacle in NSW is taken into consideration.

    Apart from not stuffing up those details it might be useful to keep in mind what the Sydney Airport link link actually does, and does increasingly well, for an airport so close to the main CBD that a dedicated express link would be pointless.
    It means that almost 200 metropolitan, and nearer rural stations as remote as Newcastle, Goulburn and Nowra, can be used to access the separate international and domestic terminals without the costs and frustrations of using Sydney’s roads. Instead airport users can annoy lots of regular commuters whose trains happen to pass under or near the airport by clogging the small door-level compartments at end end of the double decker suburban carriages with luggage that simply doesn’t fit on the upper and lower levels of each car. The airport line also built three non-airport stations in areas where they have driven the development of new high rise or commercial zones, particularly around Green Square, which is aptly named for a state hangman who spent most of public duties in the 19th century botching the executions he performed, causing agonised and contorted deaths for some criminals that lasted longer than some of the commutes that pass through the station that now memorialises him and his atrocities.

    On balance the Sydney airport rail today is a net benefit to the entire public transport system despite its flaws, and it can be easily connected to the Sydney West airport at Badgerys Creek by a surface extension of the newly opened SW Rail Link spur line. I think the main lessons for Melbournians from the Sydney experience is to do a better job at finance, forget about the lure of so called dedicated express routings to Southern Cross, and make sure any Tullamarine rail link can be readily accessed via connections from any existing or planned suburban line.

    1. Alan Davies

      The current thinking for Melbourne airport rail also involves airport travellers sharing carriages with local travellers e.g. commuters. Between the airport and CBD it deviates significantly to the west to take take advantage of an existing corridor; but that means it also offers interchange opportunities at Sunshine and Footscray. At the CBD it joins up with the new Melbourne Metro expected to open in 20162026; that will give airport travellers access to two new CBD stations and the ability to continue on the city’s busiest line south to Dandenong and beyond without changing trains.

      One key difference between Sydney and Melbourne is Melbourne’s airport, like Brisbane’s, isn’t on the way to anywhere i.e. it’s at the end of the line, 22 km from the CBD as the crow flies.

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