Is $20 a reasonable fare for the Melbourne Airport Rail Link?

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Is $20 a reasonable fare for the Melbourne Airport Rail Link?

When governments are willing to commit upwards of $10 billion and the private sector is willing to tip in a further $5 billion, it's safe to say Melbourne Airport's long-awaited airport link will happen.

What shape or form the link will take is another question altogether.

Securing the best corridor for the track, placing an appropriate amount of stations along the line and figuring out an optimal frequency of service are all important tasks, however another is setting the correct fare level and ensuring there's enough connectivity to make the link a success from day one.

Many people would be familiar with how fares are set for Sydney and Brisbane's airport trains - Sydney has an airport access fee ($14.30 on top of the distance-based fare) and Brisbane adds a surcharge on top of its zone-based fare system - but there are also relevant & recent international examples of new airport rail links.

In 2015 Toronto was scratched off the list the PTUA maintains of large airports without a rail link when it opened the Union-Pearson Express; a four station service between Union Station in central Toronto, two suburban stations which connect with various other public transport services and the final station at Toronto's Pearson International airport.

It's a dedicated airport service running on a frequency of four trains an hour - every 15 minutes - and the journey takes 25 minutes.  As I've written before, the similarities between Melbourne & Tullamarine and Toronto & Pearson are uncanny. The service is operated by the Ontario provincial level agency Metrolinx which is similar to PTV.

When it began operating, one-way fares were set to an eye-wateringly high $27.50CAD if you paid with cash or if you used the local smart card, called Presto, the fare was $19.00CAD. The Australian and Canadian dollars for the past decade have ebbed and flowed around parity, the current exchange rate is $1AUD = $0.94CAD.

Local and national Canadian press back in early 2016 reported on the patronage slump after the Pan-American games were held in Toronto (2015) citing fare levels as culprit.  A year after substandard patronage performance, fares were slashed by over 50% to $12.00 CAD if paying by cash or $9.,00CAD if using the local smart card.

Not surprisingly patronage trebled after the fare cuts and more people started using the service between the two intermediate suburban stations and Union in central Toronto.  

The AirRail Melbourne proposal unveiled last weekend came with a projected fare that is likely to be 'under $20'.  The current skybus fare is $18.  Compare with a myki money zone 1 & 2, 2 hour fare: $4.30 (or a daily $8.60).

It's not inconceivable that the overwhelming majority of people who will use the Melbourne Airport Rail Link will use another public transport service to get to an Airport Link station and therefore will either be paying the 2 hour or daily myki fare as well as the fare to the airport - just like how passengers need to pay the myki and skybus fares separately now.

A $20 airport link fare plus $4.30-$8.60 is putting the total cost of getting to the airport via public transport into the mid 20s, almost $30 category, similar to the fares that Toronto started with (for balance, Toronto's TTC subways, trams and buses operate on pay-per journey basis, it costs $3.00CAD for each journey).

Aside from fares, there are other lessons to learn from the Toronto experience, as outlined in this article by Jarrett Walker.  Although the Melbourne Airport Rail Link will likely tick Jarrett's a few boxes on that articles list - namely ensuring the rail line serves more than one destination.

However should the Melbourne Airport Rail Link as we understand it to run from the city to Sunshine and the airport also extend to Broadmeadows to maximise connections from day one?

"Combine air travelers and airport employees on the same train/bus" is one of Jarrett's key points - Sunshine ensures employees living immediately west of the airport will have an easy connection, adding Broadmeadows will ensure airport employees living anywhere between Moonee Ponds and Craigieburn have an easy connection. 

The Suburban Rail Loop would extend that connectivity to both employee and passenger alike to the rest of northern and north-eastern Melbourne.

Lead image credit: Marcus Wong.

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Discussion (10 comments)

Peter Hatley's picture
Why should there be ANY surcharge? Surely the economic benefits of the service, and the "money not spent to widen the freeway", should negate the need to charge extra. If Westfield Southland can get a free railway station, with no surcharge and no funds paid for its construction by the govt, then surely the airport users shouldn't have to pay.

Public transport is meant to get people to where they need to go. The MCG doesn't have a surcharge for its trams, why should the airport? Use the Frankfurt example.
John's picture
It's fairer than most cities around the world charge
Max's picture
It should run via Maribyrnong to serve the new defence suburb as a direct tunnel. Similar the Melbourne Metro 3 proposal by the COM.
Dragon Night's picture
It should only be $10. The amount of people that will be using it, will be alot. We have the only 24h airport and it doesnt have a train station. That if it ever gets built, as I have been hearing it will have a train station at the airport for the last 37years. JFK airport express train is only $5US. Flyway Buses from LAX to a number of places are only $8US and there are a number of other cheap ways for a lot of the US citys. Australia is already to expenses for a lot of travels. Dont make it any more.
Tim Richards's picture
I agree with the previous poster, a figure of $10 seems fair and reasonable if a surcharge must be charged – and is an amount that would make sure it's a success. And surely such a fare would have to be compatible with the Myki card, and include the public transport journey to/from Southern Cross station. I also agree that the airport line should be linked to more stations, it shouldn't be only a special express service – making it useful is an important factor in making it successful.
Mike's picture
In Seattle it costs $2.45 to go from SEATAC airport all the way to the centre of town.


Simply offering a high-priced alternative to road transport is not enough.

And OLA offer a fixed fare of $25 to MEL airport if the trip is under 25 km
Ben Lever's picture
I don't know if you can necessarily assume the $20 fare would be in addition to myki zones. I would have thought it'd be a station access surcharge a la Sydney, so you'd get charged $4.30 for zones 1+2 and then an approx $15 surcharge to bring it up to $20 - so people coming from other lines would pay the same amount. Regional passengers from Ballarat etc would presumably get the airport surcharge but not the zone 1 fare, if they change at Sunshine.

Obviously impossible to know for sure at this early stage, but worth considering
theboynoodle's picture
If there is no surcharge then you have taxpayers paying to build the line which benefits travelers, airlines, and airports (and their commercial tenants). On average, that is a clear transfer from those with less to those with more. I know that's a very Australian thing to do, but here in Melbourne we do, I think, tend to prefer things the other way around.

Money not spent to widen a freeway isn't free. The MCG is a poor comparison because it is part of the existing infrastructure and has been for a very long time. Even if a surcharge was desired or justified, it would be impossible to implement.

Most cities have a surcharge because it's a rare opportunity to take funding for a specific service from those who use that service, and predominantly do so by entirely free choice. The amount should be reasonable so that nobody is priced out of using it.. but that's pretty easy to achieve because there are a number of alternatives it will compete with. I would urge towards the usage-maximising-rate, rather than the revenue-maximising-rate.

Fair play to cities who've chosen not to have one. I don't know their histories or why they made those choices. But where they've built new infrastructure and declined a viable opportunity to raise revenue directly from it, they've not made their lines any cheaper, they've just shifted who's paying for it. I would argue that taxing low-wage workers in Mildura, instead of taking a fair charge from business travelers from Sydney, is not the right choice.
Damian Pearce's picture
If you look at the MARL as part of a network rather than in isolation, and the improvement to that network delivering benefits across the economy, I would argue that everybody benefits, including low-wage workers in Mildura. I've never really understood why airport travelers should be expected to pay more to use public transport as opposed to those who use it to access any other commercial precinct such as a shopping centre. Sydney's surcharge seems opportunistic more than anything.

Improved GDP, valuable infrastructure for apparently Heathrow levels of future air traffic and 3 million more residents means the state government is a massive beneficiary of MARL by way of increased public revenue, therefore the argument that they should pay for it.

Rather than a demand crimping ticket surcharge, if the objective is to recover some of the cost from private beneficiaries, I would suggest value capture if it wasn't such political poison to tax landowners (now that would be un-Australian).
Aggedor's picture
Why should the fare on this new airport extension to our train network be any more than the standard Myki fare? Do we then charge extra for any further edition to train or tram lines? This is not a way to structure fares in a network. You will find that those cities charging an additional fee to access an airport have built lines or stations with private money with high fares to return as profit for an investment. Sydney's two airport terminals were built by a private consortium because the NSW government was too penurious to do it. The high fare they imposed was the reason these stations were poorly used, especially as a taxi fare from Mascot to the city was cheaper even for one passenger.

Airport rail connections in North American cities are similarly usually funded by private money too. As the Vic and Federal governments are putting $10 billion into the project it seems 'fair' that this network extension be considered part of the Myki fare structure. Otherwise we will have the same result result as the Toronto fiasco where it was too expensive for the average person to consider, and their cars will remain on the Tullamarine freeway making the whole project of little purpose.
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