Passengers for the Airport, change trains at Sunshine

Trouble afoot for the Melbourne Airport rail link?

Age: The new proposal would see airport trains use existing rail lines between Southern Cross and Sunshine, and add a new line between Sunshine and the airport, sources close to the project have said.

Herald Sun: …while most prefer an express route with only one stop, the state government’s plan to include the airport rail project in its $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop means travellers may have to change trains at Sunshine to get to the CBD.

This casts light on some of the thinking inside the State Government: that the airport trains might share tracks into the City, or that they might not reach the City at all!

I think we perhaps could live with the former, but the latter would be problematic.

There also seems to be talk of a bog-standard service frequency of every 20 minutes, which is half that of the Skybus and the busiest off-peak suburban lines.

Sydney Airport - bag claim

The goal of an airport rail link

Step back for a sec: It’s important to think about service outcomes, not infrastructure… and we should also not assume that everything needs to be resolved in one hit at enormous cost – with most people talking about a premium fare of some kind, super-expensive infrastructure is likely to drive up fare prices.

Let’s take it as read that the route is via Sunshine, with a stop there for interchange purposes.

My view is the goals are we need a travel time of 20-25 mins or so from the City to the Airport, and a service frequency of 10 mins. That’s what’s going to ensure the train is competitive with car travel, or taxi, and that it’s at least as fast as the existing Skybus, including ensuring interchange (whether in the CBD or at Sunshine) is quick and easy.

Bear in mind those two aims.

Sharing tracks

There are two sets of tracks from the City to Sunshine: the Sunbury line (which by 2025 will connect into the Metro tunnel) and the Regional Rail Link tracks, carrying V/Line services to Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.

The Sunbury line only carries 3 trains per hour at present at off-peak times, but hopefully will be 6 before too long. And those off-peak trains stop at every station, so Airport trains wouldn’t be fast enough if they shared those tracks.

By my count, the RRL tracks carry 6-7 trains per hour off-peak at present. So with some tweaking (and assuming electrification), you should be able to get another 6 airport trains per hour onto that line without too much trouble, and all running pretty fast from the City to Sunshine – typically they take 12 minutes at present.

It’s peak that is the problem. Between 5pm and 6pm there are currently 16 outbound trains on the RRL lines, so it’s getting close to full, particularly with the current situation of numerous flat junctions (yeah, fix those for a start).

Melton and Wyndham Vale trains are likely to run as electric services on the suburban tracks in the future, which might help, though you’d expect some of those paths to be needed by additional longer distance trains, to further relieve crowding.

But peak is only a few hours a day, and the competition (the Tulla Fwy) is also congested then, so as an interim measure, while they figure out/fund/build more track capacity, you could probably live with slightly longer running times or slightly lower frequencies to the Airport.

If the freeway clogs up every day in peak, does it matter much if the train travel time goes a bit over 25 minutes at the same time? It would still be quicker, and as long as the travel time is predictable and consistent, it would still be time-competitive.

This would not be a unique situation. London’s Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express trains both run 4 trains per hour, and share tracks with other services. Gatwick Express in particular has running times that vary a bit according to other traffic on the line.

And this is of course no different to many other public transport routes, including street-based trams and buses.

Sure, eventually you’d need more capacity. That could mean extra tracks between Sunshine and the City. But it could also be the Metro 2 tunnel – latest thinking includes it providing a route for (electrified) Geelong trains direct into the City, taking them off the Sunshine route, freeing up yet more RRL paths. This would have a number of other benefits too.

But if we’re going to demand dedicated tracks all the way from day one (really, a multi-billion dollar tunnel for a measly six trains per hour?) it’ll just mean it takes longer to build, and will help push up the fares.

Dear tourists, don't go looking for the airport train. First departure not expected for about a decade.

Changing trains

Forcing people to change at Sunshine however, I think would be far more problematic.

It’s not unreasonable to expect an airport train would provide a one seat journey from the CBD, attracting a significant business market.

Also worth remembering that passengers from the suburbs (or in fact anywhere in the CBD that isn’t walking distance to the terminus, presumably Southern Cross) would have already changed service at least once.

The Metro 1 tunnel will provide better access to Sunshine for people along the Sunbury to Cranbourne/Pakenham line, including from Parkville and ANZAC (Domain) stations. Sunshine is also readily accessible from the Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo lines (assuming the latter is altered to actually to stop at Sunshine – for some reason it doesn’t at the moment).

But from other lines, it’s problematic. Doubly so for Alamein and Stony Point passengers, who may have already changed trains to reach the City… and not forgetting people who had to catch a bus or tram to the station at the start of their trip. Plus a lot of people would have luggage to wrangle.

There are some cities where you need to change trains between the CBD and the Airport. Singapore is one of them, with a cross-platform interchange and reasonably frequent service at most times of day.

But it’s slow. A random check of Google Maps reckoned around 49 minutes from Changi Airport MRT station to City Hall MRT, not helped by stopping all stations – but the change of trains alone was 7 minutes. Driving can be as fast as 20 minutes. That might be okay in Singapore where car ownership is restricted, but would it fly in Melbourne? I doubt it.

Singapore: Tanah Merah station, interchange for Changi Airport

And one more thing: It’s a hard enough sell at the best of times convincing Melburnians to change trains. I reckon an airport rail link that doesn’t serve the CBD would be political suicide.

Competitive travel times

Ultimately, the airport rail link needs to be price and time-competitive with taxis and driving from a variety of locations around Melbourne, including the CBD which is the hub of the existing public transport network. It must also be convenient for people, especially those with luggage.

It’s understandable with lots of infrastructure projects underway that the government is looking to see if it can cut costs – but they will need to take care that the airport link meets these goals.

Let’s hope they carefully consider the options.

More reading: Ben Lever (PTUA Ballarat) highlights the other upgrades needed, whether or not a new tunnel is built

22 thoughts on “Passengers for the Airport, change trains at Sunshine

  1. Access to Changi airport from the City Core for 7:30am is pretty slow by public transport. The trains are at low frequency if running, buses start early but are pretty slow. I gave up and took a taxi (25 minutes) vs rail (60 minutes). Same exercise a little west of the CBD and its taxi (30 minutes) vs rail (80 minutes). Going the other way in the afternoon, the service is “reasonably” frequent but not great. Once you enter the MTR station at the airport it’s hot, then again hot waiting inexplicably long for the transfer at Tanah Merah. So in Melbourne’s case it needs to be competitive across the day, not just during the middle of the day.

  2. Jimbob

    I reckon that Airport Rail, and Melton and Wyndham Vale electrification, ought to be treated as one project. Surely it’s cheaper to quad to WV and Melton over vacant land than to tunnel between the City and Sunshine.
    Then you’d be able to use the existing Sunbury tracks to run to Sunbury, Melton and WV every 10 minutes at 3:20 headways; and the RRL tracks to run to the Airport and Geelong every 10 minutes, plus Bendigo and Ballarat every 20. Even at peak times, that should hold up for quite a few years.
    There would still be infrastructure to build; for instance, a flyover between Tottenham and Sunshine to get the airport trains into the right alignment, and extra platforms at Sunshine, but in all, it should be fairly straightforward.
    The other option to explore is a “St Albans bypass” for Bendigo trains; a pair of tracks between the Ballarat and Bendigo lines mostly utilising an existing power line alignment through Plumpton; this would drastically reduce the amount of shared Sunbury/Bendigo track, as well as conflicts at Sunshine, thus making the whole setup much more reliable.

  3. John.S

    As soon as the SRL plan was announced it was painfully obvious the government wanted the airport link to be that.

    The unsolicited bid by the airport, southern cross management and the feds threw a big spanner in the works.

    I agree that the focus should be on connecting the RRL to the airport. Stage 2, connecting Airport to Gisborne (a new metro terminus where Bendigo VlLine can interchange north of airport). Stage 3 would be new electrified tracks to melton/WV. Stage 4, Geelong via Werribee with 4 tracks.

  4. Arfman

    I wonder.. if the point is to get regional passengers to change at Sunshine, will Bendigo trains stop at Sunshine when the ARL comes along? They currently don’t.

    And while I think the new rail will easily take less than 25 minutes for the journey, I think passengers will tolerate 30-40 minutes as it takes some time to walk from the bus terminal to the trains in the city. That being said, ARL to the city is definitely better considering passengers just arriving might not want to wait 20 to 30 minutes for a connecting train when there’s not much to do at Sunshine Station.

  5. Mikey

    “Changing trains is obviously the worst thing in the world. Train stops, I take 7 steps out to the platform, wait 5 minutes, take 7 steps back in to the train.

    Let’s spend billions of dollars to rectify this issue instead of on schools, hospitals, regional level crossings or a Clyde or Baxter extension.”

    In all seriousness, I have simplified it for the sake of discussion. A change of train is better than no train at all. Start with a change in Sunshine while the rest is built. No point waiting for it all to be done before hitting the ON switch.

  6. Steve

    The blog’s had an overhaul!

    Definitely needs to be one train from the City to the airport. Assuming an airport train would stop at Footscray and Sunshine, would that increase suburban capacity between the city and those stations, or could you have airport trains like V/Line – i.e. pick-up/drop-off only? Or would airport trains only stop at Sunshine? I agree that initially you wouldn’t need extra capacity, given the number of V/Line services (and I’ve never understood why Bendigo trains don’t stop at Sunshine). Fast trains to Geelong of themselves won’t need their own capacity, but if the 12 minutes to Sunshine is going to be shaved substantially I can’t see them stopping at both Footscray. Will other V/Line trains and airport trains then follow the same pattern?

  7. ann odyne

    big opportunity for someone to create a Sunbury pickup service.
    many from the airport would be having to travel back through there to get to homes anyhow, not all are headed for city hotels

  8. Rossco T

    There is nothing in the Age or Herald Sun article to suggest that the Government is seriously considering a shuttle service between the Airport and Sunshine requiring “All Change at Sunshine”. The main source of the articles appears to be propaganda from the AirRail consortium to try to get the Government to sign onto their plan.

    There is merit in the suggestion to make use of existing tracks between Sunshine to Southern Cross to keep initial costs down as part of a staged implementation so that rail services to the airport can commence faster. Once Melton and Wyndhamvale services are electrified there should be more slots available on the RRL tracks as these services can move across to the suburban lines.

    Whilst a significant number of airport passengers will want to travel into the CBD, there will also be many who will change at Sunshine including people heading to/from the western suburbs, people transferring to/from regional services and also people from the Cranbourne/Pakenham lines that will no longer go through Southern Cross after the opening of the Metro Tunnel.

    The northern and western sections of the Suburban Rail Loop is so far into the future that it should have no bearing on the planning of the Airport Rail Link which is a fully funded project that is needed now.

  9. Adam

    Rail between the airport and sunshine with a change of trains should be stage one of the Suburban Rail Loop. In time, some people will access to airport from the other SRL direction.

    Ultimately, the airport needs to be served by new line that would travel a more direct path to the CBD to speed up travel time and also serve as and expanded local line for suburbs like high point niddre and Keillor,.

    Perhaps even spur off from Essendon in a tunnel to Essendon fields, airport west and Gladstone park, who knows…. would probably be easier to run a specific airport express.

    The Sunshine option is not long term in my opinion.

    Perhaps airport load could be lowered if we had a Melbourne to Sydney HSR!

  10. Shayne

    The most annoying thing in Melbourne is the long platform waits, not the Journey time, changing trains to the airport wouldn’t be a problem – if Melbourne had a metro that ran like a metro with off-peak trains turning up every 2-3 minutes. But Melburnians have developed a horror of changing trains because they know it could be 20 minutes (30 minutes at night) before the connection comes along.
    Most of the cities I frequently travel to have metros that take 30-45 minutes to the city centre often including a couple changes between metro lines before arriving at the hotel, and people are fine with that, again because a train will arrive in minute or two even late at night, the appalling frequency is the problem with Melbournes system.
    But even at every 10 minutes peak, off-peak and night there’s ample capacity in metro tunnel 1 to run through to Caulfield or beyond and have an integrated crosstown to airport metro service like other cities.

  11. Arfman

    @ann odyne

    There is currently a couple of suburban buses that goes between the airport and Sunbury station but they’re not very frequent and only runs from 6 am to 7 pm.

    And in looking this up, I also found 2 V/Line coaches that connect the airport to some regional towns but there’s only two services a day.

  12. TranzitJim

    Having Airport trains stop at Sunshine on its way through, is a smart idea. But, making people change trains there, is another matter.

    Why would it be, that an airport train would not go all the way into the CDB.

    Perhaps if they had two different routes from the airport, where one of those routes are direct to Southern Cross, while the other is to Sunshine only, that can make a bit of sense. That is the only way that you can justify having airport trains terminate at Sunshine.

    I dont mind them making use of the existing ARTC track as a stage one matter.

    Rail Futures Institute, with their team of experts would be outraged by the idea of an all change at Sunshine.

  13. Darren S

    Am I the only one who thinks the Airport train should run across town to terminate in the East or Southeast?

    If you live on the peripheral opposite side of town, taking a stops all to the City and then changing is a non-starter. Car is faster.

    If Airport rail were treated more like a V/Line service (high speed, long distance between stops, capacity for luggage) then I think it would be vastly more competitive.

    Consider this route: Airport > Sunshine > Southern Cross > Flinders Street > Richmond > Caulfield

    It would require additional tracks City-Sunshine and Richmond-Caulfield, but it is doable. The latter by demolishing platforms 3 and 4 for the MATHS stations. Would also open up capacity for Bairnsdale trains.

    Potentially you could look at extending the Airport end to Sunbury and filtering Bendigo services through the new corridor. Think it could ultimately end up: Bendigo > Airport > City > Caulfield > Bairnsdale, with short shunting services where appropriate.

    Anyway, what I’m saying is that even if there is a direct nonstop service City-Airport, that’s only going to be attractive for people living in inner Melbourne and the West. The PT options for getting to Melbourne from the outer East/Southeast are too slow to be competitive with driving. They are BARELY competitive if the CBD is your destination, let alone traveling onwards. Airport rail (as designed) will be even less competitive when North-East link opens.

  14. enno

    another reason to keep the bus, is that the bus stops at 3 or 4 locations right outside all the terminals. ( except the 901 but that is a different rant)

    its very unlikely that the train station will be so close to the terminals, and even if it is, it cant be close to all of them.

  15. Adam

    @enno

    I just assumed they would build an underground station right below the airport terminal, so there should be no issues getting to the terminal, or perhaps a skyrail solution right at the front of the terminals. Surely no one is dumb enough to build it 1km walk from the terminals!

  16. Expat

    FWIW – I gather this proposal (changing at Sunshine) was just one of numerous thought bubbles inside PTV, and is not actually the preferred option. They’re just doing what they have to do, and consider all potential options.

    The newspapers jumped on it like it was a done deal, which is not the case.

  17. Expat

    @Enno

    The airport station will be underground below the terminals. The foundations etc were built during the initial construction of the terminal building, as far as I know.

  18. Mikey

    @Expat

    Definitely, this would need to be done to ensure that they didn’t just go with the first option. As crazy as all ideas must sound, investigate it all so you can prove once and for all that yes, it may be the $2 option but won’t work for the community so it can discounted.

    In saying that, no harm in getting that up and running first. If people wish to make their own way to Sunshine (train, bus, walk, whatever) to get the Sunshine-Airport train, run it once every 20/30mins, that works. Provides an option for them while the Skybus still runs and the rest of the track is built to the city.

  19. Hisashi

    And while we are at it, would it be worth modifying Skybus to branch a route from Essendon Station to Coburg (or even do a Airport-Essendon-Coburg-Preston-Heidelberg-Doncaster (Bus Terminal)-Box Hill run), with or without a CBD route? Consider that I think Essendon and Coburg has V/Line services stopping, and the rail lines through the former four stations are such that you’ll kind of end up double-backing into the Airport via the CBD anyway.

  20. enno

    How is a train running twice an hour to Sunshine a solution ?

    Who wants to wait half an hour for a train to Sunshine, and then another long wait for a train downtown ?

    If I wanted to do that, I’d take the 901 to Broadmeadows, instead. Actually, I often do. There’s usually about 3 people travelling from the airport to Broadmeadows station.

    From the time of actually getting onto the 901, the whole trip downtown takes on average 20 minutes longer than the Skybus. You can add to that the random 5-35 minute delay waiting for the 901, compared to 10 minutes max for the Skybus.

    This whole project is a multibillion dollar waste of money. Spend it on something else. Add more bus services to the airport. If you want to travel east from the airport, double the frequency of the 901 and rationalise some of its more pointless and timewasting deviations.

  21. Robbie

    I just don’t buy PTV/Metro/Government arguments about limited capacity. There’s got to be something about how they draft timetables that cripples the network. My go-to reference for competent timetabling and operations is Switzerland, and they seem to be able to get much better performance out of severely constrained infrastructure. The Swiss also take their planning very seriously, and don’t throw out ideas every few years because the government changes.

    The timetable network graphic (https://www.zvv.ch/zvv-assets/ueber-uns/projekte/4te/zvv-netzgrafik-2019.pdf) shows all the train services that run in any given hour in Zürich. Here’s a few examples of how the Swiss do it better:

    1) There are 13 services to Zürich Airport, 6 of which are S-Bahn services and the other 7 are IC or IR services. All of these share a single track pair to the city, with a mostly-flat junction at Zürich Oerlikon where they join with other services from the north- and north-east of Zürich. There are three pairs of tracks between Oerlikon and Zürich HB, one which is predominantly used for S-Bahn services, one for long-distance services, and the third shared.

    2) The tunnel between Zürich HB and Zürich Stadelhofen has only two tracks, but sees 22 S-Bahn services an hour, plus the occasional non-revenue movement. The junction on the down side of Stadelhofen is a flat junction, in a tunnel, and one branch has only a single track (due to be duplicated sometime in the next 5 years). Eight of the 22 S-Bahn services that run through Stadelhofen somehow manage to fit on a line with long single-track sections, and four of them are limited expresses that skip a bunch of stations.

    3) The SZU routes that serve Uetliberg mountain and the Sihltal valley have twelve trains per hour during peak hour on the inner-city tunnel. It’s a double-track tunnel with a flat junction at Zürich Giesshübel, but it effectively functions as two interleaved single-track lines with passing loops because S10 and S4 use different overhead voltages (!).

    4) The line from Thalwil to Zug has seven trains per direction per hour, two of which are S-Bahn services. This is the main line from Zürich to Luzern and Ticino (via the Gotthard pass), and has two rather long single-track tunnels. Duplication of this line has been proposed in one way or another for over 20 years.

    So what are we doing wrong, and what can we learn from them?

    We could easily fit six Sunbury, six Melton, and six Airport services on a single track pair, and the Airport services could skip all stations between Sunshine and Footscray too. Sunshine to Footscray takes eleven minutes all-stops and nine minutes express. If the Airport service departed at HH:M1 and the other two at HH:M3 / HH:M5, arrivals at Footscray would occur at HH:M0, HH:M4, HH:M6, and they would all flow nicely into the Metro Tunnel. Changing from a ten-minute clock face interval to a fifteen-minute one gives us a bit more flexibility to add Wyndham Vale services.

  22. Jacob

    There is plenty of land available between Sunshine Station and Southern Cross Station to build an elevated railway for the airport link.

    Why is it ok to build skyrail in the eastern suburbs but not in the industrial suburbs in the west?

    Given that Dan Andrews has won the election, perhaps the voters are not opposed to elevated railways any more.

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