Some of the route options considered over the years for a rail line from Melbourne Airport to the CBD – this one goes back to circa 2000/01!

There’s so much political smoke generated by the debate over a rail line to Melbourne Airport that even the key players can’t see where they’re going.

Last month the Victorian government said it will provide $10 million of Federal Government money to undertake a “detailed assessment” of the best route for an airport rail link, its estimated cost and how best to pay for it. Then last week, the Federal government said it will make $30 million of Victorian Government money (from the Asset Recycling scheme) available for the development of a business case for a rail link.

There’s no fire though. The Andrews government has no intention of starting construction of an airport line in the near future; it’s under political pressure from the Federal Government and wants to be seen to be doing something. The Turnbull government isn’t serious either; it’s playing politics in league with the state Opposition (see What’s Turnbull’s airport rail adventure all about?).

$30 million (it includes the state’s putative $10 million) is a mere wisp compared to a likely cost of $3 – 5 Billion to construct the rail link. But it’s around thirty times more than the former Napthine Government spent on its study of alternative route options for a rail connection (see Trains: should the ‘where’ come before the ‘why’?). It’s more than enough to blow away the smoke but it won’t start a fire.

My view on the airport line is the same as Infrastructure Victoria’s and the Victorian government’s (see Should Melbourne Airport rail be put on the front-burner?). Yes, it will be needed in the medium term (say 15 years); yes, I expect it would have a BCA > 1; and yes, it would be nice to have it now. But it’s not yet a necessity; SkyBus is an acceptable if flawed solution in the short-term.

Critically, there are much higher priorities at present for scarce infrastructure dollars. For example, here’s Gay Alcorn writing in The Guardian on the weekend about Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs:

I’m heading to Epping… (it’s) groaning with growth, desperate for schools and roads and public transport… The big issue here (is) the lack of infrastructure to support a burgeoning population. Its symptom? Grinding, demoralising traffic congestion…

Premier Andrews could do a lot in the outer suburbs with $3 – $5 Billion. He’s right in the short-term to put the everyday interests of Melbourne households above those of interstate and international visitors; above those of Melburnians who holiday once or twice a year; and ahead of business people whose travel is at company expense. He’s right at this time to prioritise projects like Mernda rail and the North East Link over one that, when it’s all boiled down, replaces one form of public transport with another.

As I’ve argued before (e.g. see here and here), it nevertheless makes good sense to start the detailed planning for a mass transit link now. Airport passenger forecasts aren’t fixed; the outcome could be higher or lower and government needs to be ready to respond quickly if necessary. Both the Andrews and Turnbull governments are on the right page there, even if their motivations are suspect.

The business planning process should include an examination of modes and routes, as well as the scope for reforming road pricing and airport parking pricing. But there’s a bigger problem the business case should also address; all those travellers who aren’t going to or from the CBD. While a large proportion of interstate and international visitors to Melbourne are headed for the city centre, most Victorians – including the many meeters and greeters – begin and end their trips from home. That includes residents travelling on business too.

Since over 90% of Melburnians live more than 5 km from the CBD, it’s not surprising that private vehicles dominate airport travel. SkyBus only has around a 9% mode share. It’s unlikely an airport train would change the balance dramatically. Consider that Sydney’s Airport Link has around an 18% mode share (see Is rail on track at Sydney Airport?). Brisbane’s Airtrain, which is a better comparator with Melbourne because it’s also an end-of-line service, wins about 10%.

The ambit of the business case should accordingly be expanded to look at ways of reducing car use by non-CBD airport travellers. Integrating the airport train with Melbourne Metro so that travellers from the South-East can make a single seat journey to the airport will help. But as Sydney and Brisbane show, most will prefer to drive themselves or take a taxi direct to the airport. Business travellers don’t pay their own fares and recreational travellers usually go in pairs or groups where they can share costs.

There’s a range of policy options that should be fully assessed. The fare structure for the train can have a significant impact on demand. But imposing a high tariff on airport parking and/or tolls on access roads, could have a much more substantial effect.

Another potentially far-reaching option would be to decentralise entry to the airport by incentivising parking at two or three satellite locations linked to the terminal by a dedicated airport transit system e.g. in the vicinity of Ballarat Rd, Sydney Rd, or Plenty Rd. It would in effect be a more sophisticated version of the current airport long-term carpark, using light rail or BRT in a dedicated orbital right-of-way (e.g. see What should we do about the airport?).

It could have a significant effect on the demand for road space within a large radius of the airport, as well as reduce total vehicle kilometres of travel. It could make particular sense for travellers from the west and north who might be reluctant to travel “backwards” to the CBD in order to get an airport train. Something similar at a handful of strategic locations on the Dandenong line – priced similarly to the current airport parking tariff – could also make train travel more attractive for south-east residents who would otherwise eschew feeder buses.

No doubt there are other possibilities. It’s important though to avoid the trap of thinking all airport trips must be taken entirely by public transport. That’s just not going to happen within any sort of plausible planning horizon, least of all in a low density city like Melbourne.

While the CBD is the largest single destination by far beyond the airport, it doesn’t account for the majority of airport-related trips. The airport itself, however, must handle all trips, both in and out; it’s a huge generator of traffic concentrated on one very small location. A CBD mass transit link is an important part of the solution but by itself it doesn’t address most of the airport problem in Melbourne or, for that matter, in Brisbane or Sydney.