Brisbane Airport, view from train

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 governmentโ€™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 infrastructureโ€ฆ 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

Airport rail begins here… well, eventually, maybe

There’s some big news on the East West Link today, with Labor saying that if the Supreme Court agrees with the Cities of Moreland and Yarra that the planning approval was invalid, they will rip up the contracts if elected. Read all about it here in The Age.

But meanwhile… Lots of ads for the Airport rail link have gone up around Southern Cross Station in the last few days.

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

Wonder how much govt is paying PPP station operator to display all these ads. #SpringSt

Dear tourists, sorry, when they say the airport rail link "begins here", they mean in about ten years

Yesterday morning they outdid themselves, including a massive ad on the steps from Bourke Street. Update: Pic below
Airport rail ad, Southern Cross Station

A bewildered tourist (or blissfully unaware local) might wander around the station looking for this train to the airport that departs every ten minutes and “begins here”.

The problem of course is that the link doesn’t exist. It won’t exist for at least a dozen years.

And that’s if it goes ahead. The 2014 Budget Papers show that in the 4 year budget forward estimates period, there’s $850 million of funding, or about 10% of the total cost of Melbourne Rail Link and the Airport Link.

State budget 2014-15: Asset initiatives

This seemed to be confirmed last night by Liberal MP for Caulfield David Southwick at the Glen Eira MTF Transport Forum, who when asked about it said that the current funds would cover extensive planning and preparatory works, with the rest of the money to follow.

(Note in contrast the East-West Link western section, which gets around $3 billion in funding in the next 4 years — well and truly enough to get lots of actual construction underway, and provide the project enough momentum that it can’t be stopped.)

The danger is that with most of the project as yet unfunded, a government of either flavour could easily put it on ice, just as the Coalition has done with the Metro rail tunnel, which has had many millions of dollars already spent on it.

Meanwhile, the ads pile up. In this post I compared the current crop of ads with the Labor ads in 2010. But these have gone a lot further: At least Labor stuck with promoting initiatives that were actually in the delivery phase.

Promoting an unfunded plan that may never happen, just months before an election? That really is just a pitch at re-election.

See also:

3AW 10/9/2014: Did we miss the train?