Airports & aviation

Apr 10, 2017

What’s Turnbull’s airport rail adventure all about?

The funding the Turnbull Government says it will provide to Victoria in next month’s budget for a rail line from the CBD to Melbourne Airport is about politics, not good policy

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

New and upgraded transport links recommended by Infrastructure Victoria, including a heavy rail line to Melbourne Airport (source: Infrastructure Victoria)

The Herald-Sun reported on Friday that next month’s Federal budget is expected to provide some funding for a rail line to Melbourne Airport (Melbourne airport rail link boost: Turnbull Government to pour cash into long-awaited project):

The (Turnbull) government is understood to be willing to make a multi-year commitment to kickstart it. The funding would be part of a Victorian infrastructure package worth more than $1 billion, which would also finance upgrades to the Bairnsdale, Wodonga and Warrnambool railway lines. The money is expected to flow from a federal-state agreement to pay Victoria more than $1 billion it is owed from the asset recycling fund for the sale of the Port of Melbourne.

The Prime Minister’s motivation has nothing to do with good policy. The intent is to help State Opposition Leader Matthew Guy scratch the gloss on the suite of transport infrastructure projects Victoria’s Andrews Government is implementing in Victoria. These include Melbourne Metro, level crossing removals, Mernda rail extension, signalling upgrades and additional rolling stock.


Airport rail is an ideal political issue for the State Opposition for at least three reasons.

One, it’s a very popular idea. Although the airport has good public transport (SkyBus), it seems Melburnians are embarrassed by being among the handful of large world cities without a rail line to the airport. The Opposition recognised this long ago; it went to the 2014 election promising to build airport rail as part of its version of Melbourne Metro.

Two, it’s a point of difference with the Andrews Government, which relies on the advice of arms-length adviser, Infrastructure Victoria, that airport rail won’t be necessary until around 2030 at the earliest. The Government also contends that since the airport line is planned to join up with Melbourne Metro, it couldn’t in any case start operation until the latter is completed, expected to be in 2026. Premier Daniel Andrews supports the idea of airport rail but says the other projects his Government is pursuing are higher priorities (see Andrews government talks down Melbourne Airport rail as PM pledges cash).

Three, the “cost” to the Commonwealth for this exercise will be tiny in the context of the budget; probably less than a $100 million out of the 2017-18 budget. But it’s more than enough to put political pressure on Daniel Andrews. In any event, it’ll come from the $1.45 Billion “owed” to Victoria under the Asset Recycling Scheme as a reward for selling the Port of Melbourne.

It would be a bonus for Mr Turnbull and Mr Guy if the manoeuvre also leads to conflict between Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. The Herald Sun reckons there might already be trouble (Opposition leader Bill Shorten says Melbourne Airport rail link is a ‘no brainer’):

The Labor leader has offered to work with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on developing a preferred route for the train to Tullamarine after the Herald Sun revealed funding for the project would be included in the upcoming federal Budget.


There’s little opposition in Victoria to the idea of building a circa $3 – $5 Billion rail line from the CBD to the airport. Most everyone agrees it’s a good thing. The more ardent advocates make exaggerated claims about the costs and benefits, but the key difference is about timing. The Prime Minister’s contrived scheme doesn’t advance serious consideration of this issue, either way; his motivation is to win political advantage.

Timing – whether too early or too late – isn’t the only risk. Another possibility is that the status of Infrastructure Victoria as a source of independent evaluation of proposals could be severely weakened by Mr Turnbull’s political adventure. He’s already shown here he’s prepared to ignore its recommendations when it’s politically useful. Its standing could be weakened further if the Victorian Government caves-in to the political pressure triggered by his intriguing and ends up ignoring the “umpire’s” advice.

I’ve explained before that while it would certainly be a “nice to have”, the case for building airport rail right now isn’t compelling. There are other projects that should have a higher priority in the immediate future. In my view, Infrastructure Victoria has made the right call and the Government should continue to heed its advice (Is it high time Melbourne got a rail line to the airport?).

Nevertheless, it could help to defuse the political dangers if Infrastructure Victoria were to show more clearly how it arrived at its view on airport rail. It’s approach to date had necessarily been “broad brush”, but given the ongoing political machinations it should undertake a more detailed evaluation.

For its part, the Victorian Government needs to be less sanguine. It should show it’s actively investigating and planning for an airport rail line, as I’ve suggested before, so that it’s prepared to move earlier if circumstances change (e.g. see Government warned Melbourne Metro won’t support future airport rail link). It should also show it’s moving quickly to implement the recommendation made by Infrastructure Victoria to improve the existing bus service as an interim measure.

Deliver a high level of onroad priority to bus services linking Melbourne Airport to central Melbourne, including better signalling and managed motorway improvements, over 0-10 years. This will maximise the capacity, efficiency and reliability of these services and defer the need for a more costly investment in a heavy rail line to Melbourne Airport to the 15-30 year period.

It’s important though that further investigations are part of a comprehensive plan to improve access to the airport from all parts of Melbourne and Victoria, not just via the CBD. It should examine all modes, as well as options for reforming airport parking and road-pricing on key access routes (see Should Melbourne Airport rail be put on the front-burner?).

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15 thoughts on “What’s Turnbull’s airport rail adventure all about?

  1. Mark Mulcair

    The problem with the Airport Link is more fundamental. The Albion route just does not go anywhere of usefulness apart from the airport itself. Between Sunshine and the airport, the rail would run mostly through industrial areas, or around the very back end of suburbs…no real major traffic generators at all. So it would be solely dependent on airport passengers. Also, Albion follows a fairly roundabout route compared to the very direct freeway, which limits its advantages over cars/taxis or Skybus.

    To do an airport link “properly” should involve more trip generators and help open up rail to areas that don’t currently have it: Gladstone Park, Airport West, Niddrie, maybe Highpoint. But these routes would be much more expensive and difficult. So instead we are left with a proposal that’s dangerously close to cheap-and-nasty, that runs along a freight line through the back end of nowhere.

    1. Alan Davies

      A bit harsh…Albion route will allow travellers from the west – a key growth area now and in the future – to board the airport train at Sunshine rather than the CBD. Travel times between the airport and CBD will be longer than (say) a route down the freeway but still acceptable; 20-30 minutes. The other thing is the “proper” routes are more expensive and likely to have lower benefit-cost ratios than the Albion option.

      1. Mark Mulcair

        But we’re still left with the problem where there’s “nothing” between Sunshine and the Airport. It would be an Airport-only line, entirely dependent on airport passenger traffic. Do those numbers stack up to justify the cost of the line? Whereas a route through Highpoint or Niddrie/Essendon North would at least have other trip generators.

        It’s kind of a bugbear of mine that this whole issue seems to be backwards thinking. We seem to be trying to find the cheapest, nastiest, easiest way to build an airport line, just to say that we have one (because…”everyone else has one so we need one too”). Not actually because we desperately need it, or because we want to expand rail to new parts of Melbourne, or because we want to get the maximum possible benefit from it even if it costs more.

    2. Jacob HSR

      Look at the Bangkok airport railway. Or the JNB airport railway. Or the DEL airport railway.

      They all terminate in the CBD and they are very few stations between airport and CBD (for a speedy journey).

      The Albion goods line goes right past Westfield Airport West. And any industrial area can very easily be turned into a school/uni + high density housing + offices/shops.

      Port Melbourne was an industrial area – now it is full of apartment blocks (and not enough schools).

      1. Mark Mulcair

        I live in Pascoe Vale. The Airport West shopping centre isn’t Chadstone(!), it’s just a fairly small local shopping centre. Plus as I understand it, the railway wouldn’t go close enough to it to be practical.

        The industrial areas around Tullamarine and Airport West are mostly there to serve the airport (logistics, transport, warehousing, etc) so they’re sure not going to go anytime soon. In fact, the development of industrial sites around there is increasing.

        1. Jacob HSR

          If having warehouses near the airport is very important, DFO Essendon should not exist. Nor should the car dealerships on Wirraway Rd.

          There is an apartment block at Glen Waverley Station – 21 km from the CBD. There are apartment blocks on Bush Blvd, Mill Park – 22 km from the CBD. And of course Doncaster – 16 km from the CBD and there is no railway for miles.

          So basically you could build apartment blocks anywhere and people will live in them. You could build apartment blocks near the airport railway stations and they would get good patronage. Not to mention a school and uni with an oval and cricket nets for kids who live in Docklands/CBD.

          A railway goes right through Swinburne Uni. Is that bad? It makes it bloody convenient to get to.

          Port Melbourne primary school is overcrowded. Kids living in Docklands could enter a train at SXS and get to a spacious school next to an airport railway station in 15 mins!

        2. Cal

          It would seem that intermediate suburban stations could and should be provided, including at Keilor Park Drive and at Airport Drive, with large (commuter) car parks (might need patrolling…) and bus/tram (tram extensions… gee what a good idea Victorian Government) connections to link the stations to the rest of the suburban areas around them. This would provide most of the benefit of rail access to that part of the north-western suburbs, and well as providing excellent local PT links to the airport and Tullamarine industrial area for the many thousands of people who work there (Melbourne Airport is one of the largest employment hubs). You would then have demand for rail services from multiple trip generators at all hours of the day, as well as providing much improved access to the city and wider PT network for people in the north-western suburbs.

          A tunnelled route from somewhere near Flemington might be attractive as it provides better rail penetration into the suburbs, but the same could be achieved by better (feeder) trams and buses in the same suburbs, at a much lower cost. A tunnel versus building new track on an existing mostly at-grade alignment is much more expensive.

  2. Peter Hill

    More temple-building, to impress the masses!
    If governments are serious about building a feasible and useful link between the Melbourne CBD and Melbourne Airport, then it might work if such a link were part of a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney Very Fast Train. But do our politicians think strategically and so far ahead, or is it just headline-grabbing?

  3. John.S

    Just a little extra:
    Sunshine to Airport is 13km
    Airport to Sunbury is 20km (33km total)
    Airport to Main Line (Most direct) but skips Sunbury is 26km. (39km total)
    RRL cost was $75m/km ($3.65B/47.56km)
    So looking at ~$2.475B to ~$2.925B, which is the $2B to $3B figure I see floating around.

    1. Alan Davies

      Interesting idea. Any more detail on how it might work? Map?

      1. John.S

        Phase 1: Sunshine to Melbourne Airport via Jaccana
        Phase 2: Melbourne Airport to Sunbury / Past Sunbury

  4. John.S

    I keep seeing all of this talk about the Airport Rail needing to be connected to the Metro tunnel, when we have a perfectly capable railway with capacity to take trains to the Airport right now. It’s called the Bendigo Line, and it can be re-routed Sunshine to Gisborne via the Airport, utilising it’s already existing paths on the RRL.

    *Separates Bendigo services from Sunbury services (tick), something that will need to be done anyway
    *Provides Airport users with a quick journey into the city
    *Provides Airport users with suitable rolling stock for Luggage
    *Easier to justify higher station access fee (Zone 3 / Special Zone)
    *No need to wait for Metro Tunnel
    *Cheaper Sunshine to Airport section (no need for electrification)

    *Slightly more expensive due to Airport – Gisborne section needing to be built
    *Taking up too many paths on RRL may lead to Geelong Line being pushed via Quad Tunnel (Fishermen’s Bend) through to Newport, then Quad above ground to Werribee South.

    1. Cal

      Interesting concept, does try to kill two birds with one stone, but almost as impractical as the current situation.

      If the airport link is to be useful, it needs to be frequent (that’s much more important that speed, as is reliability). Using diesel trains for a high frequency service would seem to be a false economy, as the price of diesel isn’t particularly cheap and will only ever go up (plus it isn’t clean, and never has the ability to be, both for air quality and for carbon emissions). Electrification is likely easy to justify on many fronts, including total cost of operation over a longer time scale.

      Another point is that is a special train fleet even required? Sydney doesn’t have one, but instead they have double decker trains, which suck when handling large bags. Single deck suburban carriages work fine for the existing airport traveller (who has to change at the worst-designed rail terminal, especially given there’s only one practical lift down to the existing airport bus from the key concourse, and it is hidden). If new “high capacity” carriages (with what will end up being god-awful longitudinal seating for metropolitan use across suburban Melbourne) are used, then there will likely be more room for luggage. But an airport train service shouldn’t be so heavily loaded from the airport that people struggle to get on and can’t find somewhere to put their bags. If that’s the case, it’s too successful (in Melbourne) or the frequency sucks (or it is a one-off bad day).

      Diverting country trains via a new airport line would end up having similar (although not as bad) congestion issues anyway, due to the frequencies the airport service should run at.

      I would think the airport line is best augmented to also include at least two new suburban stops in the north western suburbs, potentially at Keilor Park Drive and near Airport Drive (as close to Airport West Shopping Centre as possible). Then there should be extensions of the existing tram network to meet these new suburban stops, as well as a decent feeder bus network. Thus these suburbs would get better PT access to Melbourne CBD and the rest of the PT system, and local people would also be able to get to Melbourne Airport (and the Tullamarine industrial area) more easily. This would drive more use of the line, at not that much more cost, or much increase in travel time. It would mean that locals could get to work at/near the airport more easily, especially given it is one of the biggest employment hubs in the region.

      However, yes, in the long term it makes more sense for the Geelong service to be kicked off “RRL” and cross the Yarra in a tunnel for “Metro 2” under Fishermans Bend. Electrify Geelong and run it along its old Werribee like route to Newport, and run both the Werribee and Geelong services through to Fishermans Bend and Southern Cross/city. (Williamstown line is probably still best to service stops towards Footscray.) Because diesel trains are a pain to deal with it long tunnels, long distance country trains might be best to still be diverted via Footscray (given their low frequency it wouldn’t matter, no matter the route). This would also allow the RRL tracks through Tarneit to become an electric suburban railway, along with electric suburban trains to Melton (etc). Potentially via Metro 1 tunnel (depending on where trains can fit). Then there would also be enough space for airport trains to run on the existing (Also electrified) RRL tracks between Sunshine and the city.

      I don’t think more than two rail tracks in tunnels would ever be considered any time soon (30 years or more…) under the Yarra from Newport, unless it was also for a rail freight link (and there is some potential for a long rail freight tunnel from Newport, to Webb Dock, and then to connect to the existing Metro 1 tunnel near Domain, because at some point if the Dandenong line is ever to be augmented and/or run freight trains, there will need to be extra tracks built up of Caulfield, and it would be easier to extend Metro 1 further down St Kilda Rd and down Dandenong Rd, providing more stations and more access to the wider rail network, allowing the Caulfield-South Yarra track to be freed up, as well as the South Yarra to Domain tunnel, which could form part of a major but very expensive rail freight diversion tunnel). But electric Geelong and electric Werribee suburban trains could share a Metro 2 link (although the terminus for Geelong trains would be interesting in the city, as I doubt it would be politically palatable to have them operate as a full metro service through to the north of Melbourne, with metro/suburban carriages).

      However, whilst the building blocks of all of these things might exist, and some of them might be sensible ideas or even necessary, I doubt such ideas would ever be adopted, as there is a dearth of good, long term but (realistically) visionary planning in this city. Also, tunnels are very very very expensive!

  5. Jacob HSR

    The JNB airport railway is a standard gauge railway – while all the other railways in South Africa are cape gauge. Same with the DEL airport railway – standard gauge while the rest of the network is broad gauge.

    So the MEL airport railway need not go in the Melbourne Metro tunnels. Would it not be a terribly slow and unreliable service if it does? The airport train should terminate at Southern Cross station.

  6. Jacob HSR

    The 12 submarines will cost $50-80 billion and will only last 30 years each. While the railway will be good for 100 – 200 years. The 12 subs are being built here for the sake of jobs – well they can import the subs for a much cheaper price and the money saved can be used to build steel rails and train stations in AUS instead.

    JNB airport carries 20 million people per year – way less than MEL – yet it got a train station on 8 Jun 2010!

    KUL airport now has 2 train stations! DEL airport will probably get 2 train stations. LHR airport probably has 5 train stations. About time the government built a train station at AVV or MEL.

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