Ratio of domestic and international passengers using Airport Link to total Sydney Airport air passengers

It looks like something quite extraordinary has happened at Sydney Airport over the last five or six years. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention.

According to Airport Link, the company that manages train operations at the domestic and international terminals, rail patronage grew 32% over 08/09-11/12 while the total number of air travellers passing though the airport grew by just 11%.

Almost 16% of air travellers now use rail to get to and from the airport. That’s a huge increase compared to 2006, when the Productivity Commission estimated rail’s share at around 10%.

Estimating mode share is a tricky business – it depends on what’s included and what’s not. Airport Link simply divides its total patronage by the number of airline passengers passing through the terminal (see exhibit). Melbourne’s SkyBus does the same.

It seems to work. The company’s estimate for 2006 is reasonably close to the Productivity Commission’s figure.

Airport Link attributes the upturn to better marketing and management. For example, it has improved foot traffic flows through the airport stations, offers an average 7.5 minute frequency in peak periods, and emphasises the benefits of the train in its marketing.

I think good old-fashioned management smarts has a lot to do with it, but there’re other possible explanations too. For example, the airline discount war might’ve increased the share of cost-sensitive travellers who prefer the cheaper train service to a taxi.

Or it might be that taxis are getting increasingly unattractive due to traffic congestion and airport queues. The train is more predictable, goes to all city loop stations, and takes only ten minutes to get from the domestic terminal to Central (18 minutes to Circular Quay). Most importantly, it’s frequent and, compared to a taxi or parking your own car, it’s cheap.

The growth in patronage is being achieved with a one-way fare of $15.40 between the CBD and the domestic terminal. The fare includes a $12.00 airport access fee which goes to Airport Link (although there are various concessions).

The company is hopeful it will increase its mode share to 18% – 20% over the next 3 to 5 years. This would place it close to the best performing rail services at major airports worldwide.

The Airport Link is a good offer. Exogenous forces like traffic congestion increasingly make it the rational choice for many travellers. Management seems to be effective at ensuring travellers are aware of the benefits and have a satisfactory experience.

Of course the success of Airport Link begs the question of whether or not there should be a train service to other major Australian airports. Brisbane already has Airtrain and Perth and Adelaide are probably too small to seriously contemplate investing in a rail line at this time. Essentially the question is whether Melbourne Airport could, or should, be served by rail.

There are a number of matters to bear in mind in extrapolating from Sydney’s situation to Melbourne’s. Sydney’s domestic and international terminals process many more passengers than Melbourne’s joint terminal – in other words the markets bigger – and they’re much closer to the city centre. It‘s also doubtful it would be feasible to route an airport train via Melbourne’s city loop.

Perhaps most important though is Sydney got a lucky break with its airport train. Airport Link picked up the assets for around $300 million in 2008. The original company spent about $1 billion to build the infrastructure in time for the Sydney Olympics, but miscalculated patronage and went into receivership. Although Brisbane’s Airtrain narrowly avoided receivership, it only cost $220 million to construct.

A competitive train between Melbourne Airport and the CBD is going to cost billions to build – at least $2 billion but very likely much more. Melbourne also has the profitable SkyBus service which has considerable scope to expand capacity through frequencies as high as every two to three minutes. It’s also likely speeds could be increased at much lower cost than a rail link.

The key lesson for Melbourne from Airport Link is that public transport – whatever form it takes – has scope to significantly increase its share of travel to the airport. Of course those who’re prepared to look already know that from SkyBus, but what’s missing is more concerted support for improvements.

The frequency and span of hours of public transport to Melbourne Airport is already very good. The focus of further improvement should be on improving journey times, trip time predictability, connections with other modes, and the quality of the travel experience. The choice of mode will depend on which can deliver on those objectives most cost-effectively.

The key story here though is the increasing role of public transport at Sydney Airport. It doesn’t come within cooee of the CBD, but sixteen percent is a big number for an Australian airport.