Public transport

Sep 26, 2017

Should airport trains also serve metro passengers?

One of the key issues that needs to be worked through in planning mass transit access to airports is integration with the existing rail network

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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.

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12 thoughts on “Should airport trains also serve metro passengers?

  1. Richard Ure

    “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.” Written by a Victorian or someone who actually uses the line? Like me. If there is a problem it is because the sheeple refuse to move along the platform away from the escalators. Someone with a chair and a whip could deal with that. I suspect even Melbourne folk could deal with that if they actually had a train to the airport. The loudest critics of the Sydney Airport line tend to be those who don’t use it. I have heard them airing their ignorance on talkback radio.

  2. Sean Doyle

    If the government want to build a rail connection to the airport, then they should certainly take the opportunity to expand PT for people living by the new line too. Having it as a continuation of the Melbourne Metro is a great idea, I think. Could even build some stations between the end of the Metro and the airport while they’re at it. If people want a premium, non stop, bells and whistles service, then get a taxi.

    I also don’t think a premium airport fare should be charged, especially since this won’t be a premium service. Slapping on an x hundred percent mark up on the airport just has white elephant written all over it. Apart from airport workers, air travel in general is becoming less and less a luxury (as you claimed in your other recent related post) but a common experience with the rise of LCCs. We also don’t try to discriminate based on trip purpose on other fares (e.g. making opera goers pay more than someone going to a hospital).

  3. Robin Sandell

    The disastrous Toronto airport link train follows almost exactly the model you are proposing here. If anyone wants to read an expert opinion on airport trains, I suggest this piece by Jarret Walker

    1. Alan Davies

      Robin Sandell, have you actually read either article? The Melbourne Metro option ticks the boxes on four of the five criteria proposed by Jarret i.e.

      Connect the airport to lots of places, not just downtown, by providing a total network.
      Combine air travelers and airport employees on the same train/bus.
      Don’t interfere with the growth of other services.
      Total travel time matters, not just in-vehicle time.

      It doesn’t score on the “If you can afford it, go via the airport instead of terminating there”, because unlike Sydney, Melbourne Airport is on the metro periphery. That’s why it’s curfew-free and Sydney isn’t.

      The Rail Futures Institute’s option would see diesel trains going via Melbourne Airport to regional centres, but country travellers won’t generate the demand to justify the 10 minute frequencies of the Melbourne Metro option. No option will score really well on this criterion.

      And do keep up; Jarret’s piece was published on 1 March 2016. Patronage improved markedly on the Toronto line when the fare from the airport to downtown was reduced on 9 March 2016 (from $27 to $12).

      1. Robin Sandell

        I confess I started to lose concentration after you said “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.” I was also surprised at the criticism of Sydney’s rail link to the airport. My perception is it works very well, providing good integration with the rest of the city’s public transport network, especially as it continues past the airport to the south west of Sydney.

  4. mook schanker

    Sure, there’s operational dis-benefits from a mixed service operation for the Airport, but the real question is an economic one. I cannot imagine a dedicated Airport rail will give any decent economic return, and would most likely be in the terrible category. Would the taxpayer be happy burdened with the significant cost of dedicated Airport option? – probably a no when they see the huge recurring cost with little wider benefit….

    1. Rail

      It is highly likely the following scenario occurs:

      1. Airport rail is built
      2. Airport rail has a $20-$30 station access fee to cover construction and operation costs. Trains every 10 minutes only during peak. 20 minutes off peak. No service at night.
      3. SkyBus is retained, charges $10 fee to the airport, 10 minutes all day and night
      4. The two modes are now in competition with most people choosing to stay on the bus due to price.

  5. softgrow

    You don’t have to have just one type of train. A lot of airports have premium express all seats trains AND normal commuter trains.

    1. Alan Davies


      Can’t see that you’d run special airport-only trains beyond the CBD or Domain station though, so you’d lose the benefit of one-seat journeys to/from south-east Melbourne. Maybe could work for the Craigieburn line option.

  6. Rail

    I have no problem using Sydney Airtrain. Sure there are stairs, but that is an argument to get different rolling stock, not an argument for direct service. And in any case, if people want exclusivity, they can catch a taxi, shuttle bus or uber.

    Sydney and Brisbane Airport trains are efficient because they serve more areas than just the Airport. Express trains reduce line capacity considerably, and while there may be plenty of capacity initially, over time the pressure will be to de-express the service.

    Indeed, this is what happened to Brisbane’s Airport train. It used to express past a number of stations after leaving the CBD. A few years ago, timetables were altered to make the train stop all stations.

  7. Peter Hill

    Alan, an update to my earlier post.

    I refer to my questions of my blog of 20/9 to your article ‘What are the key issues for Melbourne Airport rail?’ where I said: “Another option could be to provide a rail corridor easement that could provide for a Melbourne CBD – Melbourne Airport link in common with the much touted Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney High Speed Rail. That is, one rail line making those linkages. There could be a major infrastructure saving – but, would either transit service justify itself? ”

    Integrating a Melbourne CBD – Melbourne Airport railway with an inter-capital HSR service requires standard gauge track-work. The benefit of linking these two services would be in the largely-common travel needs and choices of the travellers, i.e. long-distance and carrying personal luggage, thus requiring luggage space and comfortable spacious seating.

    Integrating the CBD-Airport railway with either the Melbourne metropolitan system or the Victorian regional city lines requires broad gauge tracks. The contrasting travel needs of airline and metro commuter passengers would be unsolved.

    A possible solution to the incompatibility of these track gauge requirements would be to design the corridor and track-work of the Melbourne CBD-to-Airport railway sector as dual gauge rail lines, with easement, station platforms and bridge clearances to accommodate trains of both gauges. Thus infrastructure cost synergies, as well as increased patronage levels could be achieved.

    It can be done. O’Hare International Airport is served by a line of the Chicago Transit Authority suburban rail system. These trains stop at several stations between downtown Chicago and O’Hare. Refer to and

    1. Alan Davies

      Peter Hill

      The AECOM HSR study didn’t think an alignment via Melbourne Airport was warranted – it favoured an undergound route to the east in the vicinity of the Upfield line. It favoured a peripheral station at Campbellfield.

      The report goes on to say that an alignment closer to the airport might be justified if the savings from sharing it with a future Melbourne Airport train proved large enough, but the rationale was construction savings, not any inherent advantage in HSR serving Melbourne Airport.

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