Planes, trains and the Skybus: experts debate whether Melbourne urgently needs an airport rail line

<span>Photograph: Flavio Brancaleone/AAP</span>
Photograph: Flavio Brancaleone/AAP

It was 58 years ago when Victoria’s transport minister first made an impassioned case for a train line to connect Melbourne’s CBD to the yet-to-be completed airport in Tullamarine.

Every few years since, the words of Edward Meagher from 1965 arguing for “fast, cheap and convenient access to the city and suburbs for air passengers, visitors and airport workers” are republished, as others push the case for such a rail connection.

But the recent halting of the project and reports that the rail line could be stalled for years have cast doubt on whether the quest for a train to the airport will ever take off.

With an estimated price tag of up to $13bn, it has sparked debates about whether the project’s cost is worth it.

It also remains to be seen how an ongoing federal review – designed to cut wasteful infrastructure spending and scrap unnecessary projects – will rank the need for the train line.

Transport and planning experts agree a train line to the airport has multiple benefits. It would reduce emissions from car travel, ease road congestion, cut travel times and improve connectivity for Melbourne’s western suburbs – which include some of the fastest growing local government areas in Australia.

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Yet when Infrastructure Australia reviewed the airport rail project last year, it excluded it from its priority list. It urged governments to consider delaying construction until there was enough passenger demand. It found the economic costs outweighed the benefits, with a return of 50 cents for every $1 invested.

Daniel Bowen, a spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association, says while costs should be kept under control, the project was vital to provide rail connectivity for tourists, residents and thousands of workers in the airport precinct.

“Sydney, Brisbane and now Perth all have rail links to their airports and overseas all the big airports have rail links. It makes sense given how busy Melbourne airport is,” he says.

Inside Melbourne’s Southern Cross station.
A bus service currently runs between the airport and Southern Cross station, but the Public Transport Users Association says the connection to the train system is ‘awkward’ Photograph: Speed Media/REX/Shutterstock

But Natasha Bradshaw, an associate at the Grattan Institute’s Transport and Cities Program, says now is not the time for such a project.

“It’s not a good time to be investing in infrastructure due to the debt Victoria is in,” she says.

“The construction sector is really at capacity, the cost of construction is skyrocketing so it’s really the time for state and federal projects to be pulling back until those prices stabilise a bit more.”

A long-term plan

The project – with an estimated time journey of 30 minutes between the city and airport – was originally due to be completed by the end of the decade, although the government acknowledges that will have to be pushed back. The government also expects it will also connect to the Suburban Rail Loop – a 90km orbital train line that will eventually link every metropolitan train line.

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The vision is for the line to run through from the airport and through Sunshine, about 12km west of the city, where it can connect to regional train services and other Metro Train services, before continuing along the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines. This will see those in the western suburbs avoid having to transit in the city, while those in the south-east can catch a single train service to the airport.

But Infrastructure Australia found most of the project’s benefits would not be felt until the recently widened Tullamarine Freeway – which links the airport to the city – reaches capacity. This is expected to happen in 2036.

“Delaying it would not reduce those benefits because the benefits were not expected to be felt for some time,” says Bradshaw, from the Grattan Institute.

Jago Dodson, the director of RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, argues an airport rail project would help Victoria be a competitive city.

But he says the wider issue Victoria faced was not having an overarching transport plan to determine infrastructure priorities, which he believes is “failing” the state.

“If we had a coherent transport plan it could have asked whether it was preferable to leave the Tullamarine Freeway at previous capacity and for a rail line to pick up the future additional travel to the airport,” he says.

“The state has had more than a decade of completely incoherent metropolitan transport planning. It’s unclear what decision making is going on about what to pause or cancel.”

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Dodson argues this is a more prominent issue post-Covid, while the state faces higher interest rates on borrowed funds, a drop in projected population is leading to reduced revenue, and a constrained budget due to pandemic spending.

Bradshaw agrees the government’s approach to transport planning made it difficult to determine if they were better alternatives to achieve the project’s objectives.

A Victorian government spokesperson says it has an integrated transport strategy.

“Our integrated transport infrastructure strategy – Victoria’s Big Build – has been endorsed by Victorians and supports the most ambitious transport infrastructure agenda in the county, delivering transformation change to our state’s transport network,” the spokesperson says.

Buses replacing trains?

Peter Parker, a former Department of Transport bus planner, argues an interim option would be to establish an express bus route between Sunshine and the airport.

“When you’ve got a government short of money it’s not a bad idea to put a bus in first,” he says.

“At the moment there is no direct public transport link between Sunshine – a transport hub – and the airport.”

“If you’ve got an airport bus running from Sunshine it will increase connectivity to a catchment of maybe one million people at the fraction of the cost.”

Parker says the demand for the service could help build an argument for airport rail in the future, but provide a public transport connection within a closer timeframe.

Currently, Melbourne airport is serviced by the SkyBus – which provides a 30-35 minute journey from Southern Cross station in the CBD. But at a cost of $22 for a one-way adult ticket, it’s a significantly higher fare than for the state’s public transport network, capped at $10 a day for unlimited travel.

A backpacker outside the international terminal in Melbourne.
Arguments for a rail connection to the airport have been made since the 1960s, with no marked progress since. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

The project’s business case states that once completed, the airport rail’s journey time of 30 minutes will be faster than that of the SkyBus, which is expected to be 40 minutes in 2031 and 66 minutes in 2056.

Bowen argues the reliability of a train network – which avoids road congestion and associated traffic jams – is one of the many benefits that airport rail has over the SkyBus.

“When you’re dropped off at the SkyBus, it’s an awkward connection to the Metro trains. It’s quite a long walk to the rail platforms from the bus terminal,” he says.

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“Having the reliability of a train would definitely help and improve connections at Sunshine for V-Line services and dropping passengers in the middle of the city, and it’s a one-seat ride through to south Melbourne on the Cranbourne and Pakenham line.”

Adrian Dwyer, chief executive of thinktank Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, says the bus service was a good public transport network but its future would be dictated by capacity.

“There are limits to how many people you can sustainably carry on a bus system so you get to a point where it makes more sense to do that by rail,” he says.