The Urbanist: does every city need an airport rail line?
An “anagram” map of the London Underground. How’s this? An anagram of Parliament (a station in Melbourne’s CBD) is “Rampant Lie”. An anagram of Town Hall (in Sydney) is “Wont Hall”.
The CEO of Melbourne Airport, Chris Woodruff, has a gripe. The Victorian government is pressing ahead with construction of a $250 million rail line to support his competitor — Avalon Airport — but is spending a mere $6.5 million to study the warrant for rail to Melbourne Airport.
Yet as I noted once before, while both airports have enormous scope for expansion, Avalon is 55 kilometres from the CBD and has just six scheduled flights a day. Melbourne Airport is 22 kilometres away and is the second busiest airport in the country. It currently processes 28 million passengers a year, expected to rise to 40 million by 2020 — its annual growth is more than Avalon’s total annual patronage.
Woodruff says Melbourne Airport needs a rail line because of traffic congestion at the terminal and on the freeway access roads. “We need rail,” he says, “sooner rather than later. A rail link has always been in the airport master plan. When the government presses the green button on this one, we are ready to go.”
Cities without airport rail often think they need it. And yet as others have observed, the political popularity of airport rail “is always several orders of magnitude above its actual ridership”. Because there’s so much focus on airport rail in Melbourne, it provides an interesting case study to explore some of the issues.
There are several problems with a rail line that help explain the cautious approach of successive governments in Victoria. One is the cost. The Herald Sun reckons an airport line from the CBD to Melbourne Airport would cost as much as $1 billion to construct, but I think they’re dreaming.
My admittedly rough-and-ready estimate based on current project costs is a lot higher. Assuming the same 20-minute travel time (off-peak) and 10-minute frequency offered by SkyBus, I think a more realistic estimate of the cost of a service along the reservation set aside by the previous government would be in the order of $3 billion to $4 billion, maybe even $5 billion. Start thinking about a high-speed service and the cost could easily escalate to $10 billion.
There might be a lower-cost option. If Melbourne Metro goes ahead it would provide increased capacity to run more trains between the CBD and Sunshine. A new line could be run from Sunshine to the airport at a probable cost in the region of $1 billion to $2 billion.
Travel time would be closer to a still-reasonable 30 minutes but that’s the least of the issues. This option’s premised on funding being found for Melbourne Metro — the former government estimated the cost with eight kilometres of tunnel at circa $5 billion but I expect that’s too low by a considerable margin.
Capital cost isn’t the only consideration. The Victorian government will also be wary of the poor initial financial performance of the airport train services in Sydney and Brisbane. As Sir Rod Eddington says, “Airport railway links are notoriously bad investments and there are plenty of examples of that around the world.”
The government would also note that Melbourne Airport already has arguably the best public transport service in Australia. Buses have a 14% mode share, compared to 5% for Brisbane’s Airtrain and 10% for Sydney’s Airport Link. The main bus operator, SkyBus, operates at 10-minute frequencies for close to 24/7, whereas Airtrain offers 30 minute frequencies and ceases operation at 10pm (Sydney has a curfew).