PTV Network Development Plan, Stage 3, showing the airport line connecting via the Melbourne Metro tunnel to the Cranbourne/Pakenham line (source: PTV)

A dedicated line that only serves airport travellers is usually regarded as best practice, since it can be purpose-designed to accommodate their peculiar demands. A hybrid system like Sydney’s that serves both airport and metropolitan travel can present problems:

  • Passengers wielding suitcases lengthen dwell time i.e. the time trains are stopped while passengers board and disembark. There’s also the likelihood baggage will block corridors or be placed on seats sought by commuters.
  • Airport passengers usually pay a premium fare but might have to stand for much of the trip. Some inbound passengers will be especially tired after a long flight.
  • There might be operational compromises. For example, a reduction in frequency or span of hours at certain times that’s acceptable to the higher-paying airport market might be prioritised over the interests of metropolitan travellers.

Of course some hybrid systems are better than others. Sydney’s is about as bad as it gets – it’s got double-deck carriages with narrow stairways, limited internal staging room near the doors, and narrow entrances. Other systems make a better fist of mixing passenger types because they’re single level, have more standing room, sometimes custom storage areas for baggage, and multiple and/or wide doorways.

My particular interest concerns proposals to build a rail line from Melbourne Airport to the CBD (see What are the key issues for Melbourne Airport rail?). Although I expect it would change its mind in a heart-beat if it got the right offer, the Victorian Government has indicated its presumption is the airport rail line will connect to the new Melbourne Metro tunnel currently under construction. This is in line with Stage 3 of Public Transport Victoria’s Network Development Plan. As Melbourne Metro is not expected to commence operation until 2026, the Government has said the airport line couldn’t be commissioned until after that date.

Under the PTV’s plan, trains leaving the airport terminus would use the reserved Albion East alignment to the CBD; stop at the five new Melbourne Metro underground stations; and continue south to Pakenham and/or Cranbourne. The airport service would thus use the same high capacity trains and metro-style rolling stock as other services on the upgraded Sunbury/Melton – Pakenham/Cranbourne line.

The advantage of piggy-backing on Melbourne Metro is passengers from the South East – and this is the busiest line in Melbourne – would get a single seat trip direct to the airport i.e. they wouldn’t have to change to a dedicated airport train at Southern Cross as they would under other options, or as they do at present to catch SkyBus.

This is a significant benefit. With enhanced feeder bus services to stations and possibly provision of long-term parking at some, it potentially offers an attractive alternative to driving to the airport or taking a taxi. As well as providing direct entry to the centre of the CBD (CBD Nth and CBD Sth) the Melbourne Metro option also gives direct access to key commercial activities, including St Kilda Rd and Dandenong. It also brings travellers to the edge of Clayton, which is by far the largest concentration of commercial activity outside the inner city.

There’s ample capacity on the Sunbury/Melton – Pakenham/Cranbourne line to take airport trains. Whether it’s attractive enough to win substantial mode share will depend on a range of factors like journey time/reliability and cost relative to other modes, as well as whether sharing with metropolitan travellers using the train for everyday purposes like going to work and school is a major disincentive.

An alternative option would be to build a short link from the airport to connect into the Craigieburn line south of Coolaroo. This would give airport users access to the CBD and the stations on the Craigieburn line. There are various issues with this option but for the purposes of this discussion, the key one is it wouldn’t have the high-capacity trains and metro-style rolling stock that come with the Melbourne Metro option.

These carriages will provide more standing room and larger doors. They’ll be far more accommodating of baggage (and student backpacks!) than the existing rolling stock used in Melbourne, and vastly better than the cramped double-deck carriages used by Sydney Airport Link trains.

The Rail Futures Institute has proposed another option that re-routes regional trains from Albury, Shepparton and Bendigo via the airport and thence to Southern Cross Station on a dedicated line using the reserved Albion East alignment. It would separate regional trains from metropolitan trains, as well as address the “end of the line” problem faced by Melbourne Airport (and Brisbane Airport) by making it “on the way” to somewhere else.

It too would mix users; airport travellers would share with country travellers. I expect the latter would be more sympathetic in their requirements than metropolitan travellers. The Government’s policy of sending a substantial share of Melbourne’s future growth to regional dormitory centres, however, would increase commuter demand on regional rail lines.

Other options have been touted – even a monorail – that also terminate at Southern Cross. Some are dedicated lines and some serve both airport and metropolitan demand e.g. a route via the surplus defence land at Footscray and/or a redeveloped Essendon Airport.

All these options have pluses and minuses in terms of key variables like cost of construction and total journey time. The advantage of the Melbourne Metro option is that it would use the reserved Albion East route from the Airport to the CBD, so it scores well on cost, provides an acceptable travel time, and improves accessibility to the airport from the growing western suburbs via stations at Footscray and Sunshine.

It also brings other advantages to airport rail – effectively at zero additional cost – that options terminating in the CBD don’t offer. First, it would enhance accessibility between the airport and Melbourne’s populous South-East. Second, the metro-style rolling stock would ameliorate much of the difference in the requirements of airport and metropolitan users. It’s just the starting point though; further analysis might reveal a better option.