Government's preferred option for airport rail line

I’ve long been surprised that so far no Victorian government has caved in to the intense public pressure to build a rail line from the CBD to Melbourne Airport. There’s been plenty of posturing but so far no government has ever bitten the bullet.

The idea was back in the media this week with this peremptory command to the Napthine Government from The Age’s editorial writer: Build airport rail, now. If only it were in caps with an exclamation mark!

The Government’s newly released metropolitan strategy, Plan Melbourne, contains a promise to build the line, but there’s a caveat. It’ll be constructed “in the long term” after the Melbourne Metro tunnel is completed “in the medium term”.

The Age doesn’t want to see any shilly-shallying. It’s argued for a long time that airport rail is overdue:

A rail link – ideally direct to the central city along the Tullamarine Freeway corridor, or perhaps less expensively via a connection to one of the existing suburban train lines – would improve the workings of the city for those of us who live here and enhance the experience of the city for those who visit and whose tourism dollar is so vital to the prosperity of Melbourne and Victoria.

The newspaper declares forthrightly that “the status quo is unacceptable”. It insists the Government should simply “get on with it. This great city deserves a better airport”. Judging by the tone of the comments on the article, readers overwhelmingly agree.

Despite suspicion that it’s only interested in parking profits, Melbourne Airport is also calling on the Government to “accelerate building of a rail link to the airport”.

The Government’s preferred option (see exhibit) is to run trains from the airport to Albion East using the existing reservation set aside in 2001. From Albion East trains would use the existing Sydenham line until Kensington, where they would join the Melbourne Metro tunnel into the CBD and continue on via a new station at Domain to the south-eastern suburbs.

There’s no official estimate of the cost, but $2-3 billion seems a reasonable estimate. Other than what’s in Plan Melbourne, there’s no official timetable for construction either.

Apart from reducing the cost of getting into the CBD, a key advantage of using the Metro as part of the airport rail solution is it would bring airport passengers into the heart of the CBD (stations at Melbourne Central and Flinders Street). Moreover, it would provide a one-seat rail journey for travellers to the populous south-east.

The Government’s standard position is that neither the airport line nor other mooted rail lines can be built until the Metro comes on stream and adds extra capacity in the CBD.

But that’s not the case. If the Government thought the benefits justified it (or if it thought the politics warranted it), it could go ahead and build an airport line forthwith.

An alignment along the Tullamarine freeway corridor as proposed by The Age would be a short-sighted and expensive solution, but there’s a more plausible short-term opportunity.

As per the Government’s preferred option, it would involve building a new line from the airport to Albion East via the existing reserve. The difference though is trains would be diesel and would come into Southern Cross station by using spare capacity on the new Regional Rail Link (RRL). The airport station would need to be at-grade or elevated (1).

It could be operational by 2020, possibly a year or two earlier. When Melbourne Metro comes on stream (say 2030), the airport line would be electrified, disconnected from the RRL and connected to the Metro tunnel at Kensington. The final configuration circa 2030 would be the same as the Government’s preferred option.

Since electrification would not be required, the cost of construction should be lower than the Government’s preferred option (although further expenditure would be required around 2030 to electrify the line and connect to the Metro). The initial outlay would still be modest relative to the $6-8 billion needed to build the East-West Link motorway. It probably has more political appeal too.

The key benefit from “going early” would be provision of airport rail 10-15 years earlier than when justified by demand (2), while still providing the preferred solution in the longer term.

The main practical benefit for travellers would be reduced variability in travel times and faster trips in peak traffic periods than SkyBus provides (30 minutes vs 40 minutes). Most would regard a train as more comfortable than a bus too.

On the other hand, the key penalties would include the additional expense of electrifying the airport line in 2030 while it’s operational; the relatively short economic life of the junction with the RRL; and crowding out expenditure in the short term on other projects like improved signalling.

Journeys in the off-peak would take 50% longer by train than by SkyBus (30 minutes vs 20 minutes). It’s unlikely demand in the early years would support the 10 minute frequencies currently offered by SkyBus.

With fares set at a similar level to SkyBus, the train would cover its operating costs, but probably only a small part of capital costs. There’d be little impact on traffic congestion or trip times by car/taxi to the airport because capacity released by car users who switched to train would be taken up by other drivers.

Nevertheless, despite what it says, the Government has the option of building an airport rail line sooner rather than later. It doesn’t have to wait for Melbourne Metro to be built.

But given the high level of service offered by SkyBus and its ability to expand capacity by increasing frequency, the benefits from bringing rail forward by 10-15 years don’t justify the costs (also see Does every city need an airport rail line?).

Replacing one form of public transport (bus) with another (rail) will be appropriate when demand warrants investing in a higher capacity mode. On current projections that’s around 2030 (2). In the meantime, the Government should continue to improve priority for SkyBus in peak traffic periods.


  1. The December 2012 Parsons Brinckerhoff study for Public Transport Victoria on possible alignments for an airport rail line says the Airport stated it wants an underground station. However the draft Airport Master Plan published in August 2013 indicates a more flexible attitude. It proposes “a station in the main terminal precinct” and says “the goal is to preserve the options of above-ground, ground-level and below-ground systems wherever possible”.
  2. According to the Parsons Brinckerhoff study, rail to airports is justified on operational grounds when passenger volumes though the airport reach around 60 million p.a. Melbourne Airport expects to reach that number around 2030.