Piecing together the Liberal Party's Airport Link announcement

To use railway signaling jargon, unbeknown to the Victorian public we seem to be have been passing Red over Green signals when it comes to Melbourne Airport Rail Link planning and on Sunday we passed a Red over Yellow in anticipation of stopping at Parliament station in early May, whereafter according to the Premier, the public should expect to see a series of Green over Reds ahead*.

Election year pre-budget promise filters to maximum, set phasers to knock-the-gunzel-in-all-of-us-down-with-a-feather.

The set of parameters that make up the Tullamarine Airport rail link project are slowly but surely now becoming less fluid with a fairly well defined direction set in motion. On the weekend at the Liberal Party Victorian State Council the Premier announced the coalition would fund a Melbourne Airport Rail Link with further details to be provided in the State budget to be handed down by the Treasurer Michael O'Brien in early May.

The Premier's media release states:

"This project will see a new service running along dedicated tracks from Melbourne Airport to Albion where it will join the existing rail network and run through to Southern Cross Station.

"This will be an electrified service that utilises the Albion East route which has previously been identified as the preferred option for an airport rail link.

"This service will depart from Southern Cross Station every 10 minutes during peak hours with the total journey to the airport expected to take approximately 25 minutes.

"The new link will consist of a combination of at-grade and viaduct rail lines that will run from Albion, through the Jacana freight corridor and airport land terminating at a new elevated station at Melbourne Airport. A new rail flyover will be constructed at Albion to ensure smooth access to the existing rail network.

Soon after Dr Napthine got the keys to 1 Treasury Place, Public Transport Victoria released its long-term heavy rail network plan which appeared to relegate an airport rail link to stage 3 and a subsequent timeframe for completion in 15 years.

Given the Premier's announcement and an upcoming election it appears Coalition campaign HQ may have just scuppered that plan and brought forward the detailed planning for the link irrespective of the Melbourne Metro tunnel dependency. And that's all we should expect in the budget announcement, a sum - at a guess - anywhere in the region of $10 to $30 million for the detailed planning with an aspirational kick off date sometime in the next election cycle.

Key points and assumptions to draw from the Premier's announcement and the Treasurer's interview on 774:

A stock standard limited express service operated by Metro utilising the new capacity in the Sunbury line once the Regional Rail Link is opened.

The "new" infrastructure will be the works required to expand the Albion corridor and connect it with the airport at the Northern end and a new flyover to connect the new track to the Sunbury line.

In previous Melbourne Airport masterplans, a future rail link has generally appeared with an underground station in the terminal precinct - the announcement confirms (quite rightly) the airport station will be elevated.

The current Ground Transportation Plan in the Melbourne Airport Masterplan 2013 (page 132) furthermore mentions the general rail alignment will arrive at the airport via the median of the mooted Airport Drive extension.

The stopping pattern - Southern Cross - [North Melbourne?] - Footscray - Sunshine - Airport - appears, at least on the surface of it, to be able to work with current services to Watergardens and Sunbury. At present there are only 9 metro trains an hour in peaks which run a mixture of stopping patterns.

Forever curious, here's a list of questions and pondering points:

Putting aside the obvious scalability and capacity benefits afforded to a heavy rail line and assuming reliability is going to be the primary advantage over the Skybus (i.e. that train services will be actually take the time advertised (25 minutes) as opposed to the traffic risk Skybus is subjected to on the Tullamarine Freeway),

  • If airport services are to run direct into Southern Cross, will airport services simply be timetabled to not conflict with Craigieburn/Upfield line services and/or Regional services running into platforms 1-8 or will there be further track work be needed near North Melbourne and Southern Cross?
  • What risk is there of delays at Sunshine station as Bendigo V/Line, Sunbury Metro and Airport Metro services will converge on the station? How will the potential risks be mitigated?

Will commuters not destined for the airport be able to use the services between Southern Cross, Footscray and Sunshine stations? Will the airport services have a dedicated more passenger-with-luggage friendly internal configuration as opposed to the current commuter-focused train configurations? Will fares be lower than current Skybus services?

What of the airport workers and passengers who live directly to the east of Tullamarine? Will there be any subsequent projects to improve equitable ground transportation access for Melbourne's North?

We'd be interested to hear of more questions readers may have - post them in the comments section below.

Further reading from last year, Melbourne, a city of two tales - Skybus versus the Airport Train.

* Refer to VicSig.net's excellent explanation of what line-side signals mean:

  • Red over Green: clear medium speed
  • Red over Yellow: warning the next signal aspect will be Red over Red (stop).
  • Green over Red: clear normal speed.

Lead image credit: flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0


Martin Mankowski's picture

A few things worry me about this proposal:

1 - An elevated/at grade line through the airport land is problematic, and the airport authority are right to be concerned. The at grade sections it will interfere with the road transport logisitcis unless expensive grade separations are added. The authority have also expressed concern about any elevated sections interfering with any future east west runway planned for the southern section of the airport. Having an elevated station will also certainly mean that it will lie outside of the main terminal building and thus lack integration. This will mean people will lack motivation to walk to it when they can get a cab/catch skybus at the terminal front door. Just ask people of what they think of having to walk all the way to the current Tiger terminal 4!

I also suspect this is an excuse to build it on the cheap and actually just have vline trains run there rather than electric. This means they will just use the current RRL infrastructure with no upgrades and throws up potential line capacity problems in the peak when it will be competing with the Ballarat/Bendigo/Geelong lines. The potential 'pinch point' issue near Sunshine station raised last week, whilst currently not a problem, will now become one.

2 - As services now run direct to Southern Cross rather than through the planned Metro tunnel, we lose the capacity to have a 'one seat' journey to the airport from the eastern suburbs. Sure we could retro fit it later, but as we all know, retro fitting is much more costly. And given Napthine has done as much as he can to worm his way out of building the metro, its likely to be many. many years away. This will only heighten calls for a third airport at Tooradin; a ridiculous idea given Tullamarine has more than enough future capacity.

3 - Its slower than Skybus. And its frequency is the same at peak times (10 mins), and will be worse at non peak times (I assume will be 20-30 mins). Skybus has a 20 min journey time in non peak times, and runs 24 hours a day, at 10 min intervals from 5am - Midnight. The peak time journey could also easily be reduced to 20 mins by upgrading the Tullamarine with dedicated bus lanes. Do we really need to spend $3 billion on a service that will be slower than what we currently have?

4 - Its unlikely to be much cheaper than Skybus, if at all. Both Sydney and Brisbane charge around the $16/$17 mark, and both were initial commercial failures. Actually Brisbane still is, and Sydney only now is starting to hit the needed 13/14% mode share to be profitable, and this only after the current owners bought it for a steal after the original operators went bust. Given Skybus is $18 a pop, and the train is meant to be a superior/premium alternative, I'd say we're looking at $20+. After Napthine's ill considered Zone 1 reduction announcement last week, I cant wait to hear people scream about that price tag.

5 - What of High Speed Rail? BZE's report released last week (found here) suggests that any Melbourne - Sydney Link will include a Melbourne airport stop. This would be much faster and deem any current link obsolete.

Both PTV and the government's own feasibility study said that it should run through the planned Metro tunnel. Yet in an ever increasing state of electoral panic, they have gone for the 'good politics. bad policy' option. To think that a service that people will use a few times a year at best should be a priority over a project that will improve the entire network that people use everyday is an appalling error of judgement. Especially when there is already a good alternative in Skybus in place. One that can be upgraded with dedicated bus lanes at a much lower cost.

Airport passenger numbers will one day dictate that a train is needed. By the current estimates, thats at least 15-20 years away - HSR could be under construction by then. Lets get the Metro right first so that when that time does come, we can make a more informed decision about the best option. This current option, by a panicked premier 6 months out from a potential election defeat, is far from that.


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johnproctor's picture

Both the writer and the commenter have deduced a lot from not very much at all and you've still managed to get some of it wrong!

Eg. Martin premier clearly stated it will be electric trains. And the airport recently released info re: airport drive stating it included provision for a railway in its median.

I expect well see more in the budget answering some of the questions that weren't addressed in this teaser announcement (as I heard the lady interviewing Michael obrien call it).

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Melbman's picture

The libs announce their intention to build a airport rail link and people are up in arms about all these other factors, while not long ago people are calling this city a joke for not having one already. You can't have it both ways.

Labor are caught out understating the cost of their rail crossing removal program by billions, yet a couple of days later come out completely against an airport rail link, whilst claiming there are no major projects on the horizon. The ones that are on the table they are completely against anyway. Comical.

The Skybus route is heavily congested by traffic, making it less reliable than its ideal travel time during peak periods of the day today, let alone the future. It is a great service though really, and very much undervalued by many. CityLink has opposed using additional lane space for buses apparently, and any dedicated lanes would still likely be seen as an inferior solution to rail by many anyway.

If Melb airport are against the elevated route, its either because they actually don't want it (it will likely cut their huge parking revenue) or just another way for govt to throw more money at it. If they really do want it underground, they can pay for that part themselves.

At the end of the day its a game of give and take. People either want a train or not. If its built, it needs to be cost effective. If Metro rail is built in the future, potentially the route can be altered then. Lets look at getting it up and running.

I guess Labor will have to do something themselves to solve this one. Having no policy on it is not a solution. Now that will be interesting to see :lol:

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Martin Mankowski's picture

johnproctor - i know he announced it would be electric, i just dont trust him that it will be. i was suggesting that by having an above ground route through the airport, he was hedging his bets and allowing a backflip to save costs later.

melbman - i dont think napthine can take the high moral ground on any alleged underfunding on labors level crossing removals - his airport link is not even costed! its nothing more than a thought bubble at the moment, just like it was 4 years ago. just like southland station.

However i do agree with you that Labor requires an alternative. Part of project 10,000 is to add lanes to the Tullamarine. If they dedicate these to Skybus, rather than cars, they may just have one.

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TheAlmightyM's picture

I find it rather ironic that we taxpayers shelled out million on studies into the Airport, Rowville, and Doncaster lines only to be told that they could only proceed after the Metro tunnel.

Et voilà, now they propose the airport line without metro. What a waste of money that study was.........

Should be a vline service with a future phase 2 and 3 being the diversion of the Bendigo and Northern vline groups via the airport to free up the existing track on the Sunbury and Craigiburn lines for Metro.

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