Reflecting on the Melbourne Airport Rail Link

Reflecting on the Melbourne Airport Rail Link
Alastair TaylorOctober 20, 2013

It's that time again; other media outlets are reporting on Melbourne Airport's most up-to-date figures regarding its ever expanding car parking revenues.  And cue the inevitable uproar on the lack of perceived non-car access methods to the airport. 

As we've seen, even on, there's a lot of debate on how to provide alternative access methods to Tullamarine.  Martin Mankowski dished up a thought provoking piece during June on Skybus versus Airport Rail while back in March I wrote that half of the Melbourne Airport Rail Link is already under construction in the form of the Regional Rail Link.

This regular cycle of mainstream reporting and subsequent commentary doesn't appear to be going away and unless norms (read: PTV Melbourne Metro dependencies, notions that the Regional Rail Link should be treated as a sacred cow for regional passengers) are challenged the same cycle will be repeating itself a decade from now.   The East-West freeway tunnel is likely to soak up many years worth of capital which could be redirected into Public Transport projects so the not-so-new question is: how best to get non-road transport out to Tullamarine?

I still form the view V/Line would be the best operator to run trains to and from the Airport mainly because the Regional Rail Link will be injecting additional capacity into and out of the inner city: an asset that could get a higher return - for more Victorians - if it were at least initially used for Airport rail services.  Conjointly the rolling stock V/Line utilise is presently better suited for passengers with bags compared to a standard metro train configuration whilst little thought is given to the fact that auxiliary trains required to operate these services would be built in Dandenong - adding more local jobs to the equation.  

Image credit: Wikipedia

In light of the amount of capital that will be sucked out of Spring Street's budget to facilitate the East-West freeway project, further measures to deliver an Airport rail service need to be looked at.  Australia Pacific Airports (Melbourne) Pty Ltd - the owner of Melbourne Airport - favours an underground station in the Terminal precinct (refer to Ground Transportation Plan, Page 129) - however is this the best option?  

Given the airport is set to receive a large elevated road structure to better interface with the new Terminal development to the South of the existing T3 (Virgin), is an elevated rail line completely out of the question?  An underground station will mean passengers using the trains will need to ascend multiple floors to get to the departures level of the terminals and not to mention underground stations are invariable the most costly to build.

An elevated solution, like that of Brisbane's Airtrain Station seen below, has the advantage of easily traversing the horrific amount of car parks that currently surround the airport.  The station itself isn't overly fancy (we should remove the thought from our minds of building a grand terminal like the proposals we saw recently for Flinders Street), it's pleasant enough and gets the job done - just what  a train station should be.  Not to mention it would have been a darn site less expensive to build than a tunnel and two platforms underground.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Attempts to ask APAM about whether an elevated structure could well be looked at the next iteration of the Airport's master plan were met with an automated message on the phone number listed on Melbourne Airport's site for the Master Plan.  Suffice it to say not much effort thereafter was employed to pursue the matter.

Reflecting on deleting Footscray as a V/Line stop, as mentioned in the March piece, the recent release of Plan Melbourne seems to work with this idea quite well.  Sunshine is highlighted as an emerging employment cluster and having a major transport interchange located within it - especially with traffic going to and from the airport - would go a long way to ensuring this planning initiative is successful.  Should Sunshine be the primary western suburban stop for regional services, the emerging area will be the first port-of-call for all Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo V/Line services; having a regular CBD-Airport rail service stop via a potential Sunshine V/Line hub allows seamless connectivity for regional passengers, removing the need to travel into an already congested city station.

Once the Regional Rail Link is complete, effectively the start of works to build an Airport rail link will be in Sunshine.  A structure to remove potential conflict between Airport bound trains and the Sydenham line would need to be built around Albion and at least initially, a single bi-directional track could be laid alongside the existing Albion corridor (therefore reducing capital expenditure).  Factor in an elevated station at Tullamarine and the comparisons to a dual electrified track with metro services terminating at an underground station are stark, particularly in construction costs.  The newly formed Metropolitan Planning Authority will have two clear choices upon which to advise Government no doubt.

Leap forward 10 years after an airport link is complete, the Melbourne Metro tunnel is operational and the pressure on Regional Rail Link capacity increases; maybe then could the 'norm' be implemented.  

In saying that however, I dare say the faster  V/Line service would be sorely missed if an Airport rail link switched to a stopping all stations slower metro service as outlined in the PTV Heavy Rail plan.

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of 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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