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 editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. 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 qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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Nicholas Gruen
Admin
4 years ago

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.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
4 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

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.

conrad
conrad
4 years ago

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?)

derrida derider
derrida derider
4 years ago

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.

Ken Parish
Admin
4 years ago

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
Admin
4 years ago
Reply to  Ken Parish

Sounds sensible

conrad
conrad
4 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

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.

Douglas Clifford
Douglas Clifford
4 years ago

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