(Apologies in advance for the length of this post. It got away from me a bit, but hopefully it’s interesting.)
The debate around a Melbourne Airport rail link has progressed in the past few months, with all sides broadly agreeing it has to happen – the only question is when.
The Coalition and many others say now; the ALP say (assuming the Albion route) it should only happen after the Metro tunnel opens in 2026. Even Melbourne Airport, which famously makes millions from car parking, wants rail access.
(Some say it’s not viable at present, for instance Alan Davies presents these arguments, and he’s posted no shortage of related articles.)
Tuesday’s Federal Budget threw in $30 million of funding for a business case. Undoubtedly it’s a political move to help force State Labor into backtracking, but it may help things progress a little further.
(Is that a lot of money to write a business case? Presumably it can include some very in-depth investigations.)
What kind of rail link, and why?
Even with the Albion route being the default, it’s worth stepping back and considering why we want it, and what kind of rail link we want to have.
The main reasons for building it are to provide more capacity and consistent travel times as the Airport continues to grow, and the roads around and approaching it get busier. Melbourne is now ranked as the 50th busiest airport in the world, and one of the only ones that big without rail transport.
The capacity advantage of rail is obvious. The current Skybus service, even with 88 seat double-decker buses every ten minutes, is swamped by demand, frequently leaving people behind to catch the next bus. While they can run more buses, given the biggest cost of running an extra service is the driver, there is a limit, and this drives up costs.
Consistency of travel time is the other big problem for Skybus. It frequently gets caught in traffic snarls around the CBD and on the motorway. Longer travel times mean more buses have to be used to maintain the service frequency, preventing higher frequencies.
Congestion could be bypassed by dedicated bus lanes and traffic light priority – in fact this would be the next logical step, before rail. But the government has shown zero indication that it’s interested in providing this – despite the recommendations of its independent umpire on such matters Infrastructure Victoria, which has said that such measures are required.
Melbourne Airport bus. 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. Upgrading airport bus services will make this mode more attractive for use by employees at the airport and surrounding facilities and for travellers, reducing demand and congestion on the Tullamarine Freeway.
(For years, Skybus prominently advertised its twenty minute travel time. This recently disappeared off their web site — they now say 30 to 45 minutes. It’s unclear if this is a temporary omission during Citylink works, or permanent, in recognition that they often don’t meet it due to traffic congestion.)
There are other advantages to rail, such as ride quality and passenger comfort which are difficult to replicate with buses.
The need for speed
What about speed? For rail, this is highly dependent on the route. And while ten years ago I’d have said it has to be 20 minutes from the City, I’m now less sure this is critically important, as the competing modes (private car, taxi) increasingly get caught in a traffic mess of their own making.
This was brought home to me last year when visiting Singapore. To get to the airport, you catch the East-West line to Tanah Merah, and change to a shuttle train the rest of the way. It’s not spectacularly fast, and it’s certainly not faster than driving in uncongested conditions. But it’s incredibly popular, partly because it’s reliable, easy (even with the change of trains; it’s a cross-platform interchange between frequent services) and cheap.
So for Melbourne, I suspect as long as the travel time is consistently 30 minutes or less, it’s probably okay, as long as frequency is high.
Frequency and service span: the 2012 study said departures every 10 minutes, and operations 24 hours a day (presumably frequency reducing overnight, as Skybus does now). I’ve got no argument with that. It’s one of the things Skybus has got right, and the trip much easier than it was when the service was only half-hourly.
Fares: undoubtedly part of what’s holding back public transport mode share (despite Skybus booming, it’s still only 9% percent of airport trips) is the $19 each way price tag, with no discount for return trips, not even same day — so if you want to see somebody off, or meet them, it’s $38 just for your fare. Ka-ching!
For most public transport, the biggest part of the operating cost is the staff. So undoubtedly the bus mode itself, limiting passengers to 88 per bus and driver, is a contributor to the fares.
Even though this is cheaper per kilometre than other Australian airport express public transport, it’s still expensive compared to other local trips – most costing $4.10, including the train plus local bus option to the Airport which takes 3-4 times as long). Some level of premium isn’t unreasonable, but almost five times the price seems excessive, particularly when travelling in a group.
Airport workers can get a discount, rumoured to be in the region of $120 per month.
Sydney’s airport rail link is also quite expensive, but they have a weekly cap roughly equivalent to two trips, so if you’re working there every day, the $13.80 per trip premium for using the airport stations drops to a more reasonable $27.00 per week.
And it seems Sydney’s link patronage is increasing:
So what are some of the options for Melbourne Airport rail?
Suburban trains – some world airport links just use extensions of the regular suburban network. This means carriages not necessarily specially designed for airport travellers, but it may also mean that providing the service is more economically viable, which may result in cheaper fares. (See: Sydney, London Tube, and more recently Dallas and Seattle, and Perth’s link under construction.)
Dedicated trains – often express, and you can have carriages designed for luggage. But very expensive if that’s all the train does, and that can mean limited usefulness for airport workers.
Regional/Interstate trains – some propose diverting the Bendigo line through the airport, or even making it part of an eventual High Speed Rail project. One weakness of these plans (apart from the fact that HSR may never happen) is you could end up with long distance trains serving a busy CBD to Airport route.
It’s the old Sunbury/Swan Hill problem again – before electrification, when Sunbury commuters were served by long distance trains, they packed trains as far as their stop, then left a near-empty train to trundle sometimes halfway across the state to its eventual destination.
Of course it would be possible to run City to Airport-only trains on the same tracks (and would be necessary for a decent frequency), though that might complicate the infrastructure, operations and ticketing.
Then there’s the monorail/light-rail/standalone shuttle train option, which has come up recently. Two main issues with these: firstly the Citylink contract might trigger compensation if the rail line is something other than part of the suburban network (though I’m sure a clever government could figure out a deal).
Secondly it limits the route’s network connections if it only runs to one CBD station… which depends on the route of course. And the beauty of rail options compatible with the existing suburban rail network is it can run as part of an existing line, and/or feed into the City Loop, increasing one-seat trips and providing more connections.
On the pro side, such a link might well be more affordable and built sooner than heavy rail.
(Extending the route 59 tram to the Airport would be useful for local Airport workers, but far too slow for anybody else.)
Even assuming heavy rail, which route?
As far as routes go, four options were considered by the 2012 study initiated by the Baillieu government.
This is the default (base case) design now planned by the State government. It would see the new line branching off the Sunbury line at Albion, travelling northeast along the existing Albion freight railway corridor (presumably on new tracks) into the airport.
Pros: Would link into the rail tunnel, which means trains from Dandenong would run all the way to the Airport, providing a one-seat ride not just from the City, but also much of the southeast, as well as the CBD, the Parkville hospital and university district.
Cons: A little slow, with a possible travel time from Melbourne Central of about 30 minutes. This is because it would share the line from the City to Albion with other trains.
Still, if you allowed say 20 minutes from the City to Albion (as fast as the existing stopping Sunbury trains), then it shot like a rocket to the Airport along a new line (it’s about 15 km), under 30 minutes should be easily doable.
Costs thrown around seem to be in the billions, which seems very high, despite the relatively short section that doesn’t use an existing alignment. But perhaps that’s the cost of the new (double, electrified) line along that alignment.
The State Government maintains it’s not practical before the metro tunnel opens in 2026, because the City Loop is full. To which I say: if Airport rail is dependent on the tunnel, why not build it in parallel, so both can open in 2026?
Mind you, with some clever planning, in the shorter term Airport trains could probably run direct to Southern Cross, or via the City Loop (with Craigieburn or Upfield trains diverted) until the tunnel is built.
Some argue that the Sunshine to CBD track capacity will be eaten up by the Sunbury and Melton lines by the time the tunnel opens. One group proposes a completely separate line to Sunshine/Albion for it. That could be very pricey, and I think falls into the trap of rejecting incremental changes: theoretically one day the line will be too full (for a few hours a day in peak), therefore we must have an impractically expensive workaround.
Broadmeadows or Coolaroo suburban line extension:
Until last decade, the popular view was that you could just extend the Broadmeadows line west to the Airport. A reservation had been put in place in the 60s when the Airport was first built.
Pros: cheap. Good for Airport workers living along the existing line. (Remember, this is a substantial number of people, well over 10,000, and they travel to the Airport every day.)
Cons: apparently out of whack with the current Airport masterplan, which assumes rail would come in from the south, in line with the Albion plan.
Slow. Travel time likely to be around 35 minutes. (City to Broadmeadows is 29 minutes, and there’d be almost no opportunity to overtake unless extra tracks were built).
Congestion could be an issue on the existing line; patronage is growing fast.
Finally, the Craigieburn extension (opened in 2007) has put this option in doubt, because if there was a branch off the line, frequencies to the Airport (and Craigieburn) would be halved.
One variation involves diverting the Upfield line through Coolaroo to the Airport.
Via Highpoint and/or Flemington – the study grouped these separately, but they have similarities. This concept sees a line running more-or-less direct from the Airport, with long tunnels connecting via Highpoint, then either to the existing line at Flemington, or connecting near Footscray.
Pros: quick travel time, assessed by the 2012 study as around 20 minutes, possibly a little slower if there are several stops along the way.
Could provide stations to serve existing destinations such as the very busy Highpoint shopping centre, and proposed housing at Flemington around the racecourse. Perhaps also Airport West shopping centre, and even the new suburb to be built on ex-military land at Maribyrnong, just announced.
Cons: very expensive as it’d need a lot of tunnelling. Track capacity might be an issue at the City end. You could build more tracks, but where would they go in the CBD?
Lots of options
There are numerous options, and variations of each. They all have their pros and cons.
Personally I lean towards conventional suburban heavy rail, linked to the current network, either via Albion or (if we decide to solve north-western suburban issues as well, at additional cost of course) one of the direct tunnelled routes connecting Highpoint.
But ultimately, given widespread agreement that we need an Airport rail link, we as a city need to work out what we want it to do, and how we want it to work.