Airports & aviation

May 14, 2018

Is Melbourne Airport’s SkyBus up to the job?

A rail line from Melbourne airport to the CBD will very likely be necessary one day, but an upgraded SkyBus can do the job in the short-to-medium term at vastly lower cost

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Where Melbourne Airport workers commute from and what mode they use. Note this shows just the airport; it doesn’t include jobs in the surrounding industrial areas that are part of the airport jobs cluster (source: Charting Transport)

A rail line between Melbourne Airport and the CBD is front and centre in the news thanks to the Prime Minister’s offer to contribute up to $5 Billion on a matching basis toward the cost of construction.

The default route via Sunshine is indirect but there’s a reserved at-grade alignment for much of it. The likely cost is circa $3 Billion. However, Mr Turnbull’s promise is for a connection that costs up to $10 Billion, suggesting the Commonwealth favours a more direct, faster route requiring considerable tunnelling.

There’s little substance to the offer though. It’s mostly about politics. The Prime Minister’s key agenda is to counter the charge that his government is short-changing Victoria on infrastructure funding. His main interest is in removing a political liability.

Airport rail is the perfect ‘vapourware’ issue for Mr Turnbull, because he knows he won’t be called on to stump up significant funding until the business planning, design, contracting and early works are completed. That’s likely to be well beyond the plausible life of his government, even if it wins the next election.

He’s made his promise without a business plan. He doesn’t know what it will cost to build, much less if the benefits are expected to exceed the cost. Naturally, there’s no evaluation of whether there might be better ways to spend the money, for example on outer suburban public transport services.

He’s given his undertaking even though the State’s independent adviser, Infrastructure Victoria, determined the rail line won’t be required for between fifteen and thirty years. It says the existing service, SkyBus, can be upgraded at much lower cost to handle projected growth in the short to medium term, perhaps for as little as 0.15 Billion. This is an order-of-magnitude difference!

Of course, politics is politics, so the promise is now on the table. And Mr Turnbull is hardly alone when it comes to unsubstantiated promises; Victoria’s Andrews Government didn’t have a business plan either when it promised at the last state election to eliminate 50 of Melbourne’s level crossings over eight years.

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So, is airport rail such a good idea that Melbourne should get it sooner rather than later? I’ve discussed before the many reasons why the case for bringing forward construction of an airport rail link is very weak (see Is it high time Melbourne got a rail line to the airport?).

For now, I’ll look at the claims made in this opinion piece by former Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) President, Daniel Bowen, published in The Age last week, Ever wondered why we need airport rail? Catch Skybus in peak hour). He reckons SkyBus isn’t up to the job:

(SkyBus) is often crowded, and the buses get delayed in the notorious Tullamarine traffic. It’s also expensive – the trip costs four times a regular public transport fare. While that’s cheaper than a taxi, the advantage disappears if you’re not travelling alone… The big buses will often depart leaving a queue of people who wait for the next one.

Mr Bowen acknowledges Melbourne already has a high quality public transport system connecting the airport to the CBD. SkyBus operates a 24-hour service, most of it at 10-minute frequencies. It provides a fast service in off-peak periods, but trip times blow out when roads are congested.

If SkyBus were given a higher level of priority on roads as Infrastructure Victoria proposes, it could provide quick and predictable travel times in all periods. There’ll very likely eventually come a time when a mass transit system will be necessary, but there’s ample scope in the medium term to expand the number of passengers SkyBus can carry e.g. by increasing frequency to every five-minutes in peak periods.

Mr Bowen rejects this option because “state governments of both stripes have been sadly reluctant to give road space over to buses and trams, no matter what the gains in efficiency”. True, but it’s an unconvincing argument because none of them have gotten around to building the vastly more costly airport rail line either!

A one-way ticket on SkyBus currently costs a hefty $18, but that’s not an argument for a rail line. If it wanted to, the Victorian Government could choose to subsidise SkyBus fares just like it subsidises the rest of the metro public transport system. In any event, it’s almost certain fares on a rail line would be in line with those on SkyBus, just as the one-way fares on the Brisbane ($18.50) and Sydney ($18.50) airport rail lines are (see Is subsidising airport rail fares the way to go?).

Mr Bowen also argues that a rail line is a necessary part of a suite of measures required to shift airport workers on to public transport:

And it’s not just passengers. There are at least 24,000 workers in the airport precinct, making it one of the busiest employment centres in Melbourne. A staggering 96 per cent of them drive to work. No wonder the traffic is bad.

The potential of a single rail line to shift workers in the airport precinct from cars to public transport is very limited. The airport and the surrounding industrial areas together comprise the second largest job cluster in the suburbs, but they only account for 1.5% of all jobs in the metropolitan area and are spread over a large area (circa 5 sq. km) at relatively low density

In common with their counterparts in other middle and outer suburban jobs, these workers overwhelmingly favour driving. They mostly live locally and many commute to the precinct in non-peak periods. They come by car because parking is cheap (mostly free) and most of the time driving is quick and convenient; a single rail line from the CBD to the airport – even one that goes via Sunshine or stops at intermediate stations – won’t change that calculation significantly.

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Politicians and advocates should understand that the primary warrant for spending $3 to $10 Billion of public funds on a rail line between the CBD and the airport is capacity i.e. it’ll be justified when (much) lower-cost options like SkyBus have run their course and can no longer be economically scaled-up to deal with the demand. Ancillary arguments, like serving the regions or the urban redevelopment area in Maribyrnong, might bolster the business case but they’re not a substitute for the primary rationale.

Mr Turnbull should understand that this isn’t about providing public transport where none exists. He’s essentially promising to replace one form of public transport with another. That’s not a decision that should be taken lightly. SkyBus costs the State and Federal budgets nothing; a rail line would cost them a bomb. A train would be nice to have, but there are much more pressing needs that should get priority for public funds at this time.

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