Is Toronto's airport rail link a model for Melbourne?

The journey will take roughly 25 minutes calling at two intermediate points; the services will operate every 15 minutes for 19 hours a day; and the vehicles will run on - for the most part - existing rail corridors. Sound even remotely familiar?

I'm not referring to a Melbourne Airport Rail Link, I'm in fact referring to Toronto's Union Pearson Express project that is well underway and scheduled to be operating next year.

Over the weekend Urban Toronto published a piece asking "The lanes of Melbourne: could something similar happen here?" and in the spirit of mutual recognition our eerily similar, arguably long-lost Doppelganger located on the other side of the planet, I'd like to take a look at what Toronto's doing with its airport transportation.

The Union Pearson Express project in a nutshell:

  • New terminus platforms at Union Station (Toronto's central station) and Toronto Pearson International Airport.
  • Upgrade and re-use of existing rail corridors between the centre of the city and near the airport.
  • New branch line to allow trains to enter the airport precinct from the nearby existing rail corridor.
  • Upgrade of two existing intermediate stations, one at Bloor which connects with Toronto's subway and one in Weston.
  • Capital expenditure of $456 million CAD ($490million AUD in 2010 dollars), broken down in Canadian dollars: $355million for infrastructure works and approximately $100 million for service development.
    • The Ontario Provincial Government-owned Metrolinx website goes on to state they have awarded contracts worth $128 million for new airport station and branch line connection, $75 million for train procurement and $24 million for the development of the Union station terminus.

This is where comparing the UP Express project with the many ideas that have been floated for Melbourne Airport Rail Link gets really spooky.

Toronto's airport is located in the über-burb of Mississauga to the west of central Toronto with a road distance (as measured by Google Maps) of approximately 25km. Tullamarine is uncannily similar when you measure road distance from Southern Cross: 22km.

The Albion freight and interstate standard gauge rail corridor, the preferred alignment of State governments of both persuasions, passes to within 1km of Tullamarine airport's southern boundary; the Kitchener GO Rail corridor which is to be used for Union Pearson express services, is within spitting distance of the northern corner of Pearson airport's boundary.

If you stick to limited-access roads, the road journey in Melbourne is more direct versus using Toronto's grid of inner city freeways. Conversely the rail journey in Toronto will almost be as direct as is possible versus, should a Melbourne Airport Rail Link use the Albion corridor, the rail journey to Tullamarine which will swing out west via Sunshine then turn north east towards the airport.

Perhaps most importantly in explaining how Toronto's UP Express project has come about so quickly as opposed to the stagnation confronted by the predicament we face in Melbourne, it's wise to look at how differently rail has developed in our respective regions.

Despite many similarities between Melbourne and Toronto - and perhaps Australian and Canadian cities in general - a stark difference lies in the way our respective rail networks have developed over time. Where many of Melbourne's current rail corridors began with private operators, nationalisation was all the rage from the 1870s onwards and it laid bare to the vast metropolitan rail network we now have reaching from the CBD to the suburban fringes in all directions.

With the colonial and post-Federation state government owned and operated rail networks acting as the backbone for suburban expansion throughout Australia well before anyone had even heard of an 'automobile, private companies pushed forward and continue to be a dominant owner and operator of rail corridors in Canadian cities. The Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railway companies have played a part in suburban rail services in Toronto like private companies did in Melbourne a long time ago but it wasn't until (relatively) recently - in the 1960's - that the Ontario Government rolled out the 'GO Transit' services operating over private railways.

According to Wikipedia, GO Transit now owns 80% of the track in which it operates services over and given the relative lack of service frequency compared to most Melbourne Metro lines, Metrolinx (which owns and operates to the GO Transit brand for the Ontario Government) has a lot of flexibility to make projects like UP Express work.

Alignment of new branch line to serve Toronto's Pearson airport

As I wrote last year, half of Melbourne's Airport Rail Link is already under construction through the Regional Rail Link project.

In that piece I argued that the capacity which will be unlocked as part of the RRL project should be used to run rail services utilising an operator and a separate train configuration we already have to and from Tullamarine after expansion of the Albion corridor and a Tullamarine branch has taken place. I'm still very much of this view.

If you watch the current Spring Street Government's pre-campaign advertising about the Melbourne Airport Rail Link, the Government appears fixated on the notion the airport should be serviced with standard metro trains by making the Pakenham/Cranbourne corridor through-route to the Sunbury and a new airport line. The ALP's policy, stretching back to when they were last in government, is similar in that they originally proposed to have Pakenham/Cranbourne services run through the Melbourne Metro tunnel rather than the current Liberal Government's proposal to run it through existing track between South Yarra, Flinders Street, Southern Cross and North Melbourne.

Like the East West Link, this position has not be explained well, if at all.

Passengers heading to or from Tullamarine are going to have different needs than those who use the rest of the Metro network. Even a business day-tripper traveling with hand luggage to Melbourne will take up more space than the average Metro commuter.

In short, the vehicles which operate an airport service must take into account the extra spatial and luggage storage needs of airport passengers.

Any Tullamarine Airport rail link project should be an opportunity to break the "one train size/technology caters for all" mentality we have in Melbourne that so often produces great ideas but ultimately, at best, is severely delayed owing to enormous capital requirements or at worst enters the never-never. We must recognise that an airport rail link will be a premium service and therefore we should plan accordingly, just like Toronto has with the Union Pearson Express.

Image credit:


Marcus W's picture

Note that when comparing GO Transit in Toronto to anything in Melbourne, there isn't really a local equivalent. GO Transit are a North American-style 'commuter rail' operator - they are best described as V/Line's interurban services minus the inter-peak frequencies.

There is the TTC Subway serving the inner suburbs of Toronto, but compared to Melbourne's suburban rail network, it doesn't reach into the suburbs, but it does run a more intense service.

Alastair Taylor's picture

Quite right about there's no real service comparison, but I'd argue the rail infrastructure and corridors are directly comparable. Like Melbourne, Toronto's GO network runs over radial lines emanating from Union Station.

Where previously the corridors were all privately owned, they were expanded with private money to cater for freight demand (CN / CPR's primary businesses), now that the Ontario Government has control or ownership over certain lines, they're benefiting with such a low-cost for access to already-expanded track between the airport and central Toronto.

You contrast this with publicly owned corridors for over a century in Melbourne which have only needed expanding as passenger numbers have grown (Regional Rail Link and all the works through Footscray is a prime example).

Anyhow - my main issue is with services / operations.

Is it -really- such a good idea to have trains which are configured with high-density seating for long commutes from Pakenham/Cranbourne to also run services to the airport?

The needs of passengers who would eventually use both ends of the same line are quite different.

Riccardo's picture

Its worse than that but i won't argue that here. Suffice to say, NSW has bitten the bullet that all jurisdictions in Australia must eventually do, and realise taht our rail legacy systems are a ball and chain we can no longer afford. By building the NWRL now SRT, NSW has broken the 160 year curse and will now run a proper railway.

The airport railway in Melbourne would have been an ideal opportunity to do that to. Given the thing is a waste of money the best way to make it less of a waste is to build and operate the most efficient, internationally best practice line you could, a bit like SRT.

So it would therefore be electric eg 25kvac, driverless, completely independent of the legacy network, Standard gauge if the manufacturers quoted rolling stock cheaper on that basis, off the shelf, imported, medium speed eg 160kmh, fitted for comfort so premium fares could be charged, and ultra reliable fixed headway operation.

The route selected would then be a matter of market sensitive journey time versus route cost. The shortest way is via the Tulla and it could be elevated above it.

Alastair Taylor's picture

I'm still waiting to see details of the monorail proposal which surfaced back in March.

Nicholas Harrison's picture

The Melbourne Airport Rail Link study considered options for an elevated railway above the freeway but ruled out these options due to:

- High cost due to structure and risk of implementation.
- Limited land use integration and connectivity benefits.

Riccardo's picture

None of which makes any sense. 'Integration' why the hell you would want to do that. Given the legacy system has the political equivalent of Ebola, avoiding it would seem to be the best option.

And where you would want land use benefits! The line would only need two sites - the airport, which would continue to be used as an airport, and the city, which would continue to be used as a city. No land use changes. This isn't a mass transit or commuter railway, but a special purpose railway.

As for the sledging of elevated rail, something we have come to expect.

Riccardo's picture

Interestingly the Perth model is very much just another suburban railway, charging the regular (and by Melbourne standards quite reasonable) fare.

Three of four branch stations aren't the airport, so I guess this is logical, but you easily charge a supplement on the current $4 fare of say another $4 for the airport station alone, it would still be the most attractive option for the self-funded traveller travelling alone, and quite reasonable for airport employees against any alternatives.

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