Should Melbourne Airport get special treatment in Infrastructure Victoria's 30 year strategy?


In case you missed it, Melbourne's Tullamarine airport has been a story of growth, growth and even more growth for the past decade. A story of growth in passenger numbers using the terminals and a story of projected growth in employment within the entire aviation precinct.

One of the FAQs on the airport's community & partners web page states "the airport's operations directly support 14,300 jobs, which is forecast to grow to 23,000 by 2033". Furthermore the FAQ goes on to state "more than two-thirds of these jobs are held by people living in communities around the airport".

According to official numbers published by the Federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, in 2006 Tullamarine airport saw 21,567,868 passengers through its terminals. In 2015 it was 32,989,094 passengers according to an airport media release published in January; or better represented as 53% growth over a decade.

As they say in the financial world, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future return, however if the next decade's growth is even remotely similar to that of the past then there will be upwards of 45,000,000-50,000,000 passengers using Melbourne airport by the time the Melbourne Metro Rail tunnel is open for business. The airport expects there to be 60,000,000 passengers to be using the airport by 2030.

The airport isn't just about travel: precinct breakdown from Melbourne Airport's master plan

Last year the $1.3 billion Citylink / Tullamarine Freeway widening project was announced which is set to add an extra traffic lane in each direction between the West Gate Freeway / Bolte Bridge interchange and Melbourne Airport.

Judging by the 6-7 year gap between widening projects on the Monash Freeway, it's likely the inducement effect of increased freeway capacity on the Tullamarine Freeway will have the road lobby squealing for another widening project in another decade, especially if the passenger and employment growth numbers projected at Melbourne airport actually come to fruition.

The centre of Melbourne - from a population and economic sense - is shifting westward and all the dry economic and planning commentary asking if a rail link to Melbourne Airport is worth it is moot as sometimes I think participants completely disregard the growth story at the airport and its surrounding employment precincts.

The Airport Drive extension was opened last year and thanks to a recent Google satellite map update over the entire metropolitan area, we can now clearly see the rapid change that's occurring in the 'landside business precinct' on the airport's land.

Of course, we are going to need a rail line to the airport. The relentless growth reported monthly by the Melbourne airport owner continually counters here-and-now static arguments about public transport mode shift and whether or not the skybus service can continue to cope (and current road works are likely to play havoc with reliability, ditto for the next future widening project).

The questions we should be asking:

  • How many stations should the airport rail link have? A station near Sharps Road and Airport Drive? A station near Keilor Park Drive / Avondale Heights?
  • How can we extend the route 59 tram to the airport to provide a high quality public transport service to the areas in the north west which are bypassed by the heavy rail line?
  • Which roads and freeways require widening to cater for bus lanes carrying high frequency smart bus-like routes servicing areas to the west (Watergardens, Hillside, Melton, Caroline Springs) and east (Broadmeadows, Greenvale, Somerton, Epping, Campbellfield) of the airport?

Tullamarine Airport may have been built on the city fringe in the 60s/70s and thanks to the forward planning that has limited suburban growth to the west and north of the region, the airport enjoys a curfew-free status that is a distinct advantage over many other Australian cities. Like the centre of the city, the Tullamarine area is undergoing rapid growth.

The airport rail line has appeared on PTV heavy rail network development maps as a branch line of the larger Sunbury-Pakenham/Cranbourne line that will be created once the Melbourne Metro Rail project comes online since 2012, however beyond it being present on a map, no timeline for its construction has been published and you can be forgiven for thinking we're looking at a typical waterfall scenario of development.

The Melbourne Metro Rail tunnel is penciled in for a 2026 completion date and can we really wait another 4-5 years beyond that date for a heavy rail line to finally service the airport given the huge growth passenger and employment projections for the area?

No, we can't. Infrastructure Victoria needs to treat the Melbourne airport region like another CBD.

The authority needs to give Melbourne airport priority in assessing the ground transport needs so that the Victorian government can start allocating budget money for holistic transport planning and money for kicking off the smaller-scale projects - like bus and tram extensions - that can make a dent in the nauseating car dependency in and around Melbourne airport before a heavy rail line comes online.

Lead image credit: Google Maps.


Alastair Taylor's picture

Interesting reading elsewhere: Jarret Walker's 'Keys to Great Airport Transit':

He posits that one of the fundamental keys to good airport/public transport access is having a diversity of routes and that airport rail lines shouldn't simply go "downtown". He references Toronto's experience with its new service that does just that.

Also in the Toronto Star: the lacklustre patronage on Toronto's new airport rail line could be linked to high fares and that once fares were halved recently, the public transport agency for Toronto anecdotally noticed patronage doubled...

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Adam Ford's picture

Excellent article. So. This isn't stated but it needs to be: Melbourne Airport is one of Melbourne's only TWO successful suburban employment clusters. The other one is Monash.

Facilitating airport rail is actually INTEGRAL to furthering suburban employment clusters , but doing so in a way that will be of use only for Tourists to access - direct from SXS - is mind-numbingly stupid. This needs to be integrated with suburban networks and provide NEW stations along the Albion corridor, which is actually one of Melbourne's biggest public transport blackspots.
Something like this:
Which would also address the point Alastair raises above ...

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johnproctor's picture

I think any reference to Melbourne Airport ground transport should include reference to funding sources.

Melbourne Airport Corporation is sitting on a money making machine out there and any improvements to ground transport paid for by taxpayers only entrench that. In all seriousness Melbourne Airport should be shelling out the funding for an airport rail link to underpin their business not taxpayers - but we keep getting sucked into the fetish that the airport needs a rail link.

If it needs high capacity link to the CBD what is wrong with SkyBus that draws similar % patronage as Sydney and Brisbane rail links (starting to lag behind Sydney now). If it needs suburban style commuter links as has been noted in the two comments above why is the airport more important than giving those links to say Box Hill or Monash Employment Precinct for that specific style of transport link and why is that investment better than any other transport (or other infrastructure) investment?

In answer to your 3 questions mid article.
stations - NONE. stations in the middle of nowhere that will never be of any consequence. They don't add value to even a 'suburban' airport rail link. Sunshine, Footscary, North Melbourne (Parkville), CBD are the key stations not some dinky little backstreet stations in industrial nothingness overlooking a freeway and grasslands.

tram - not possible thanks to CityLink agreement until post 2035. Specifically excludes light rail. so could be wihtin the 30 year infrastructure plan. I believe this is by far the best way to deal with the 'suburban links' proposal. genuine light rail possible to Essendon (change alignment away from Keilor Road through Essendon AIrport to Bulla Road) as a reasonable opportunity by say 2030-2040ish and then later 2050+ run a new 'sky rail' or tunnel east from Essendon through Brunswick, Thornubury, Heidleberg, Doncaster, Box Hill)

road widenings - probably not worth it.

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Adam Ford's picture

IN answer to the above, it's probably of lesser importance to Monash but more than Box Hill.
The emplyment numbers are Monash/Clayton 52,000; Airport 23,000; Box Hill 13,000.

Box Hill has decent rail and bus already, bits of Clayton are accessible, the airport has no public transport network connection. I think combining all that directs your priorities.

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johnproctor's picture

airport 23,000 is a bit of a falsehood though for two reasons.

the number of warehouse workers on airport land way down south in the middle of nowhere who even if there was a train station built on Airport Drive would still be 1km away from it and just drive.

2. the number of shift workers at the airport not just overnight shift workers but staff who have say a 4am-2pm shift and a 2pm-midnight shift who would strongly preference driving to work no matter how convenient the public transport offer was.

I take your point on the brilliant bus links into Box Hill from all directions but I would take that as 'proof of concept' that Box Hill is a place that people choose to use Public Transport to get to. Box Hill's job density would also be higher (I'd expect) than any comparable land area in Monash or the Airport thanks to the HOspital(s), tafe, commercial and retail precincts all being clustered.

Eg. From the Station to the Tafe or Hospital is about 800m. From the new Terminal 4 to Terminal 1 in the airport is 800m!

Then a further point.

Using Box Hill as the hub of a new Metro you could run a 7km north/south metro and link Doncaster, Box Hill and Deakin Burwood. another 7km south you get Holmesglen (and the Glen Waverly line), Chadstone and Oakleigh/Cauflied (and associated train lines). 5km north and you get to Heidelberg.

Airport you run a 7km train and you get Airport, Airport West, Essendon Airport (but still no link to an existing passenger train line). Or Airport to Broadmeadows.

Out at Monash 7km gets you a train line from the Glen Waverley Line to the Pakenham/Cranbourne Line with Monash in the middle. so eg. Mount Waverley, Monash, Clayton or Glen Waverley, Monash, Springvale.

I.e. at the airport you get spend a lot of money not linking destinations to other places. at Monash or Box Hill you get to link lots of good destinations to each other and other strong transport networks.

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Alastair Taylor's picture

Expanding on what you were saying with regards to Box Hill hub/metro idea Heidelberg-Box Hill is approx 10km and Box Hill to Westall via Deakin/Mount Waverley/Notting Hill/Monash is 13km.

The circles are just simple 800m radius around the point of the station - green: existing stations/catchments, blue: new stations/catchments.

The Rowville line (as per PTV heavy network plan) is on there to illustrate it's effect on the larger Monash precinct - just with a twist, in that scenario above it would be an extension of the Werribee/Williamstown/Altona Loop-Alamein/Glen Waverley separate line (therefore de-linking Rowville from the Pakenham/Cranbourne-Sunbury/Melton/Airport line and not requiring that line to have 250m platforms(!)). No interchange with Glen Waverley line as a route 3 tram extension to East Malvern and Chadstone could do that job.

The Heidelberg-Westall metro would be a light/small-scale system like the big manufacturers now pump out - Alstom and its Axonis turn-key solution, Bombardier and its Innovia - something that's only going to require smaller trains and therefore smaller platforms to minimise capital costs as much as possible.

Smaller-scale than Sydney Metro which was 15km of new tunnels, 5 underground stations (which they're building to a longer 170 platform length) and that capital contract is $1.15bil or $76 mil/km.

That Heidelberg-Westall line has 11 stations / 23km - 4-5 potentially interchange (depends if they build a Rowville line at Monash) - stations wouldn't need to be as long as those in Sydney metro, slight capital cost reduction but there are more of them - perhaps a $150mil per km figure would be somewhere near a decent back-of-the-envelope civil works-only cost? - $3.5bil in total.

Sydney Metro north west's biggest contract is the Operations, Trains and Systems contract - $3.7bil. Gives awarded consortium rights to operate for 15 years, includes building a maintenance storage facility (Heidelberg-Westall maintenance could be built near Westall - purchase industrial land if required), and procurement of trains (similar in length to our current ones, but much longer than what I'm thinking for this line) to run on 4 minute frequencies over the entire length of the new line (36km).

^ I'm guessing in total it would be a near $10bil total project for Heidelberg-Westall (capital and operations - if you use the 15 year operations contract like Sydney Metro north west has).

Using Axonis as an example, starting with 3 car trains @ 4 minute frequencies there's capacity to move ~10,000 people pax/per direction/per hour (200 people per car) which has enormous scaling capability up to ~35,000-40,000 passengers per direction per hour (~45 trains an hour/5 car length - Alstom claim their working/signalling system could do 60 second headways).

In terms of the wider-economic benefits - for simplicity's sake, the rezoning of some land and redevelopment opportunities throughout the whole area, I'd rank each of the station precincts as follows:

- Heidelberg, moderate change (commercial/health focus)

- Bulleen, low change (small-scale mixed-use focus)

- Lower Templestowe, low change (limited residential focus)

- Doncaster, major change (mixed use - retail, commercial and residential focus)

- Box Hill, major change (mixed use, same as Doncaster)

- Box Hill South, low change (residential focus)

- Deakin University, moderate-major change (mixed use focus: institutional/commercial)

- Mount Waverley, low-moderate change (mainly residential, some small-scale commercial)

- Notting Hill, major change (rezone mixed use, a lot of major car parks adjacent to factories, ripe for sell off/commercial (or more high-end manufacturing) use).

- Monash university, major change (I don't need to state the obvious here).

- Westall, moderate-major change (Clayton business park directly to its north could very well gradual change from industrial to commercial uses over time).


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johnproctor's picture

^ and from Westall its only a few stops to Dandenong.

If you think about Melbourne Metro its 9km of tunnel 5 stations and 10 billion. each station is 220m platforms thats 1100m of platform so lets say you switch to an Copenhagen style 90m platform version you get 12 stations (1100m/90m). smaller tunnels, simpler systems. throw in a stabling yard and maybe 25 trains to operate the route and I think you'd be looking at $15+ billion but per kilometre still much cheaper than MM or Sydney Metro.

I think both of your lines would be big wins for the eastern suburbs and Melbourne generally. Again the idea there isn't demand for travel along those corridors is copmletely ridiculous - how many cars are there on Warrigal, Huntingdale, Middlebrough, Blackburn, Springvale, Stud, Eastlink ferrying commuters up and down to the various business parks, activity centres, univerities and hospitals in those corridors.

Just a lot of money to pay to get them off the ground!

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Adam Ford's picture

I like that Alastair. You've certainly thought through how to do it at "maximal cost-benefit". So often incremental infrastructure is just conceived of as little more than minimal cost approach.

Also, extending route three is the most obvious addition to the tram network staring everyone in the face for the last decade. Somehow even the Greens with all their silly new routes even managed to miss that.

And I think you're completely right to take us down the path of smaller rolling stock, higher frequency. A because we know that's how transport ecnomics works. Recurrent expenditure is peanuts, the money's all in the up front.

And i will stand on a stack of bibles and shout that the main brake on getting patronage to the next level using the existing network is simply service frequency - particularly ex peak.

I think we're going to regret moving to longer trains as a tactic to improve capacity.

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