Airport rail links should be a low(ish) priority

With airport rail links in the news in both Sydney and Melbourne, here’s my recent column for The CEO Magazine arguing that most transport systems have higher priorities.

Most people seem to love the idea of airport rail links. Some media outlets have taken to referring to an “embarrassing gap” between Melbourne Airport and other big airports. It’s even been claimed that “experts say” a rail link to Badgery’s Creek is vital to that planned airport’s success.

Such claims are dubious. Getting people to airports is important, but the best planners think about the needs of the city, not just its CBD – a point made well by transit expert Jarrett Walker (no relation). And compared to other uses of the money,  it’s hard to make CBD-to-airport rail stand up when you compare benefits to costs. On top of that, Melbourne Airport already has a good bus service.

Read the whole thing here.

Since writing the column I’ve been pointed to this thesis paper, which reiterates two points often overlooked in these discussions:

  • Airport rail link advocates tend to overestimate ridership and understimate costs, as shown by the work of Bent Flyvbjerg.
  • Bus links tend to cost less, scale better and let you pick up and drop off passengers in a lot more places.

Australians mostly prefer trains and trams to buses. But some relatively small investments in better bus links – more protective and comfortable stops, more seat space, better road priority and so on – may make much more sense than huge investments in airport rail. That’s particularly so when autonomous vehicles are making the future of public transport less clear.

David on Twitter: @shorewalker1

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS ( and is an editor and writer for hire. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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12 Responses to Airport rail links should be a low(ish) priority

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I agree with you. But I must admit to being at Sydney airport catching the train as I always do the other day and people were just streaming into and out of the train and I remember thinking “I don’t know how they did their calculations, but I’m finding it very hard to believe this wasn’t a sensible investment. Maybe they were using a commercial discount rate when they should have been using a social one.”

    Anyway, it’s obviously an empirical question so obviously I could be wrong and I’d yield to the numbers, but at least for Sydney with the pressure it takes off the roads there, it seems pretty good to me. (Also, it’s hard to believe it doesn’t scale well. I know the network is a bit congested, but at least at the airport they could increase capacity about five fold I’d imagine without running into capacity constraints.

    As for Melbourne and most other cities, I expect you’re dead right. Unless I’m mistaken the Brisbane train was one of those PPPs that actually worked. Someone came in, invested a pile, and lost their shirt. And the train still runs – and I take it as much as I can.

    Why do we like trains and trams so much more than busses? It’s irrational I think, but there you go I guess I’m irrational too.

    • David Walker says:

      Nick, for what it’s worth, I have the same reaction to the Sydney Airport link as you do, and I use it fairly regularly. Airport-to-CBD rail can work when a bunch of factors line up, and one of those factors is having the airport in the middle of a transport network rather than at the periphery. This is Sydney Airport’s situation.

      Ridership to Sydney Airport has been rising strongly (maybe seven per cent annually) for more than a decade now, so the station now looks much busier than it did even a few years ago. It’s probably more popular now than the Melbourne Airport bus. One lesson of the Sydney Airport link’s descent into administration is that people take time to adjust when new transport links pop up.

      By the way, there is research into the developed-world preference for trains over buses. I’ve now changed the link to the Hensher and Mulley paper so that it goes to Alan Davies’ excellent synopsis of it. But the sources of the preference boil down to buses being slow, late, indirect, uncomfortable and stigmatised. None of these are necessarily true, but they have tended to be true of most Australian bus systems.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Thanks David,

        As I understand it, the Sydney airport underground stations were also subject to a dodgy PPP which made them more expensive than necessary.

        I presume you mean

        But the sources of the preference boil down to trans[buses] being slow, late, indirect, uncomfortable and stigmatised.

  2. conrad says:

    There are problems with the bus service in Melbourne — in peak hour (3pm-6:30pm) the variability is huge (40 mins -> 1 hour plus on very unlucky days). Alternatively,they are increasing the number of roads on the freeway to the airport anyway, so the simple solution would be to make a transit lane for the airport bus, taxis, cars with 4 passengers, and so on. Curiously this was ruled out although no-one gave any good explanation (political? or is the trade-off with cars not worth it?)

  3. derrida derider says:

    Yep, rail links to airports are only make sense when they form part of (not necessarily near the centre of) a properly integrated network. If you can’t tie it neatly into the stuff you’ve already got, don’t bother.

    But if you can do that, you should. Because there aint nothing irrational about a passenger preferring a train to a bus; faster, smoother, roomier, safer, greener and much more reliable. And this is innate – I don’t believe it’s only Australia where bus travel is an ordeal.

  4. Ken Parish says:

    Why not think big and aim for a rail line engineered to almost VFT standards on the route Melbourne CBD – Airport – Sunbury – Macedon – Kyneton – Castlemaine – Bendigo? It could do the Bendigo-Melbourne journey express in well under an hour, making the whole line a comfortable daily commute distance thereby making a useful contribution to reducing suburban sprawl, and could form part of a Melbourne-Sydney VFT line when that is commercially viable (which it certainly will be one of these days).

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Sounds sensible

    • David Walker says:

      Hi Ken. A few points:

      * There is rarely any shortage of “thinking big” in infrastructure debates. The usual struggles are to get people to think smaller (e.g. new signalling, better maintenance, nicer stations and bus stops) and more holisticly (e.g. charge road users, get the Melbourne rail system out of the way of regional rail, create a system that allows a local area to upgrade its broadband infrastructure), and to wear the costs to government.

      * I’m not sure we could produce a one-hour trip from Bendigo to Melbourne via the airport and four other stops at sub-VFT speeds, but let’s assume we can.

      * That’s a lot of extra costs when there’s already a rail line to Bendigo. The Infrastructure Victoria options book, a terrific resource, discusses it but doesn’t sound hopeful that it would survive benefit-cost analysis, and doesn’t include it in their 30-year strategy. In general I trust IV’s knowledge and judgments more than my own, and the process they have gone through seems pretty good. Feel free to correct me.

      * Any VFT will have very specific engineering needs, so I’m doubtful there’s much point in building anything that could form part of a later VFT line. I could be wrong.

      * I have still to understand why people think making Bendigo, Kyneton et al into suburbs of Melbourne will reduce sprawl. This is already happening with the existing transport links; Kyneton, for instance, seems to be growing by about eight per cent a year. Give the larger block sizes in Kyneton and towns like it compared to the Melbourne periphery, it seems certain that this is increasing sprawl, not reducing it.

      I’m especially serious about this last point: I’d love to hear a credible counter-argument.

      • conrad says:

        You wouldn’t reduce sprawl, but you would reduce congestion, assuming (a) these people don’t drive to Melbourne too often; (b) the new growth in Melbourne still leads to people driving a lot (say vs. people living in the Docklands that don’t); and (c) that the amount of time taken to drive somewhere follows a power law based on the number of people taking the same roads as you. In this case, adding one person in a small city will affect congestion less than adding one person in a large city due to the non-linear effect of congestion.

        Also, in terms of special lines for VFTs — at least with the French TGVs, you can run them on tracks not engineered for them, but you can’t run them faster than normal trains. Some of this I believe is just due to maximum curves on the line so whether you could build something that could be used later as a TGV line depends on whether you have enough space to stick in another track and whether the space is straight enough.

  5. Douglas Clifford says:

    The Perth Airport line is already being constructed, including a tunnel under the (Swan) River. Has anyone done the economics of this?

    • David Walker says:

      Douglas, yes they have. The Infrastructure Australia evaluation is here. Summary: Not the world’s most important project, but “Infrastructure Australia is confident that the BCR for the project would be greater than 1.” It’s a commuter line as well as an airport link, so the biggest slice of benefits accrue to non-flyers.

      Last year’s go-ahead was probably easier because the line goes through two marginal Liberal electorates, but that’s how these sausages get made …

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