$10M Melbourne Airport Rail link study: don't ignore lessons from other cities

$10M Melbourne Airport Rail link study: don't ignore lessons from other cities
$10M Melbourne Airport Rail link study: don't ignore lessons from other cities

On Sunday, the Minister for Public Transport and the Premier were in Warrigal to announce the Victorian Government's regional rail revival program. Soon after, the Victorian Government announced their intention to spend $10 million on figuring out how to deliver the Melbourne Airport Rail link sooner than the timeframe specified in Infrastructure Victoria's 30-year strategy.

This $10 million comes with strings attached, however: it - along with the Regional Rail Revival program - will be financed out of the money that Victoria is entitled to under the Federal Government's asset recycling scheme.

This announcement marks a distinctive shift in Victorian Government rhetoric when it comes to the Melbourne Airport Rail link. To date, the Victorian Government has frequently attempted to shift the focus to its current portfolio of infrastructure projects and likewise, they have repeatedly said that the Melbourne metro project must be built before the Melbourne Airport Rail link.

Various news reports have circulated widely in the past of proposals by private organisations to link the airport and city via monorail or other rail-based technologies and the Victorian Government's response has often been reported that the project proponents should approach the government through the unsolicited proposals process.

In receiving briefings from the proponents, the Victorian Government appears to have made the judgement that there is a large amount of interest in linking the airport and Melbourne's CBD with the rail-based transit solution via a privately funded solution.

What a privately funded rail solution looks like is hard to picture at present but it could involve utilising a completely different rail technology and corridor or it could also involve a Melbourne metro-style private-public partnership extension to our current rail network out to the airport.

In any case, dialing everything back to effectively starting from scratch might frustrate some but on the other hand it also provides far more freedom to develop solutions in relieving pressure on the road network in accessing Melbourne Airport.

At a fundamental level this new business case and study round should revisit all previous Melbourne Airport Rail link studies and update the data contained within them. This would include projected rail passenger statistics, updated aviation passenger projections, and taking a more forensic look at how land is used around the airport and how many people are, and how many people will be employment in non-aviation related jobs in future.

One of the themes from Infrastructure Victoria's 30-year strategy found that, when modeled, if a rail link is much more than just a 'City to Airport' service, it has the tendency to have positive impacts dispersed over a greater area. In the 30-year strategy's case, having Melbourne Airport Rail Link as a branch of the new high capacity metro line would take cars off the Monash because airport services would run through the city and out to the south-east.

There is a good body of commentary and evidence elsewhere around the world which points to Airport Rail solutions should try to serve more than two destinations and the fares should be realistic. Jarrett Walker's article on Keys to Great Airport Transit is an excellent starting point.

Toronto’s new high-fare, elite train between downtown and the airport is a failure in ridership terms, so it’s a good moment to talk about transit to the airport in general.

This critique by Cherise Burda of Ryerson University, one of the Toronto line’s few regular riders, pretty much sums up why the Toronto Union Pearson Express is doing so poorly: Fares too high (CAD $27.50 one way) for a line that just doesn’t connect the airport to enough places.

Jarrett Walker, Keys to Great Airport Transit

Interestingly, since that article was published (and the linked blog post was published), Toronto has dramatically reduced the Union-Pearson Express fares and patronage has subsequently blossomed.

While we should welcome any action on getting rail into Melbourne Airport (the faster, the better), if we're going down the path where there is a greater private sector role in developing the Melbourne Airport Rail solution, we mustn't ignore the experience other cities have had.

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of Urban.com.au. Now a freelance writer, Alastair focuses on the intersection of public transport, public policy and related impacts on medium and high-density development.

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For a bit of history on the Toronto airport link project - and how usage increased by 300+% once the prices were dropped -- see: http://torontoist.com/2016/10/ridership-is-up-on-torontos-airport-rail-link/

In terms of private sector rail, it's worth noting that the Toronto rail link was originally intended to be run by the private sector, but the Ontario gov't eventually built and ran the project itself, when it couldn't identify any private organisations who were willing to build and run it themselves.

So the pricing mistakes, referenced above, were actually made by Metrolinx, an arm of the Ontario gov't, rather than a private sector organisation -- and were eventually corrected by the same gov't agency due to public / political pressure.
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