We need to start planning for a rail link to Melbourne Airport

Wednesday 5 July 2017

This opinion piece was provided to and published in The Age on 5 July 2017

Michel Masson, Infrastructure Victoria CEO

News that the Federal Government has confirmed funding to develop a business case for a Melbourne Airport rail link is a welcome development. With the State Government also having provided funding for the project in this year's budget, it is good to see consensus that planning for this important long term project needs to start. While we don't think the rail link will be required for some time – our 30-year infrastructure strategy for Victoria recommends it be operational in 15 to 30 years – the planning work needs to begin now. A good project doesn't happen without good planning, and good planning takes time.

The best airport rail link will be the one that attracts the most people. This will mean it is designed with customers in mind, protects the interests of taxpayers, is accurately scoped and has enough flexibility built in to allow changes to be made in response to new information. The emergence of new technologies, changes in population, shifts in travel preferences and the effectiveness of other transport initiatives could all impact how and when people travel, either reducing or increasing the need for an airport rail link. These areas should be closely monitored as part of the planning work.

Another key part of the planning needs to be an examination of the experience of other cities. You don't need to look very far for an example of a troubled airport rail link. Both Sydney and Brisbane airport rail services initially struggled to attract enough passengers to be commercially viable, rendering them liabilities for their private operators. Other cities around the world – including London, Singapore and Hong Kong – have strong patronage numbers. Why do some services succeed while others fail? The answer is likely to consist of a number of factors, including total airport passenger numbers, proximity of the airport to the CBD and the availability of other transport services. Internationally, rail services account for around 20 per cent of the airport travel market, meaning car, bus and ride share options will continue to be important. It will take time to fully explore the factors of success – and the potential risks – in order to design the best project for Melbourne.

The other crucial element of the airport rail link planning work will be a conversation about exactly what purpose it should serve. This needs to happen well before a sod is turned. Much of the discussion of the project focuses on speed, suggesting that a high-speed connection between the city and the airport is critical. But I suspect that what people value most when travelling to the airport is not speed but reliability. On-road travel always comes with a risk of traffic delays whereas a rail link could deliver much greater travel time certainty, something anyone connecting with a flight places a high value on.

It's worth remembering, too, that a high-speed service is a high-cost service. It will cost more to build and operate, potentially meaning higher ticket prices for passengers. While business passengers travelling for work purposes during the week may be willing to pay a premium for a fast service, more budget-conscious travellers may not. And if we want the service primarily to cater to a business market, would that mean low patronage on weekends? I don't think anyone wants an expensive airport rail service sitting idle or running with empty carriages.

On the other hand, an airport rail link could connect with metropolitan rail lines to form part of an integrated transport network. But do airline passengers want to travel to locations on the suburban rail network? How many people will be willing to travel with suitcases on a train that connects with a commuter service? We should take the time to get the answers to these questions in order to design an airport rail link that benefits Victorian travellers, and visitors from interstate and abroad. Time is on our side but that time – and taxpayer money – must be used wisely.