As a frequent traveller, I’ve noticed the long drawn out debate about whether Melbourne ought to have a train to the airport has heated up again this year, possibly as a result of Victoria’s transport minister Martin Pakula saying it isn’t a priority. I have to be honest, I have a vested interest in the outcome of all this. As an expat Kiwi living in Melbourne who travels home regularly and has experienced the best and the worst travelling to the airport has to offer, I’m firmly in the pro-train camp–but the reasons for this are more than just my personal best interest, as we shal explore below.
Those arguing for rail point out that it could bring signficant money to Melbourne, that Melbourne is growing (as is the congestion on the Tullamarine freeway), and that it is a necessary competition to the exhorbitant parking fees paid by those who drive to the airport (this last from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission). Those arguing against a train claim it is not needed and likely to be uneconomic, based on experiences in Sydney and Brisbane, and that a travel time of 40 minutes each way to the airport during peak time is acceptable.
At present there are three main options for getting to and from the Melbourne Airport:
- The Skybus. There are a number of problems with this service: Skybus leaves from Southern Cross station, which is not Melbourne’s public trasnport hub, contributing the underserving of Mellbourne’s inner east and west which was admitted in the ground trasport planning document produced by Melbourne Airport in 2008 (sorry, PDF). Skybus runs along the Tullamarine freeway, and is subject to the same increasing congestion as other traffic on this arterial route, taking up to 40 minutes (more if there is any problem, such as an accident) on to make the trip. Even those in the anti-rail camp note that the Skybus has overcrowding issues during peak times, and I personally have had to wait 20 minutes for the next bus due to overcrowding (and the person behind me waited 40 minutes, through two buses)–more buses could fix this, but that would in turn increase congestion. Overcrowding also means longer load and unload times (since loading all goes through the front door). Finally, while Skybus is run on accessible bus, I suspect the experience of travellers with disabilities is less-than-wonderful–travellers with disabilities may face difficulties in using public transport, especially buses, for a number of reasons and crowding and moving bags could only make this worse.
- Taxi: Like the SkyBus service, taxis are faced with significant congestion. Not that, but there are a number of problems with Melbourne taxis, including overworked drivers falling asleep at the wheel, violence, perceived poor hygiene on the part of drivers, a booking system that makes for longer-than-necessary waits and and fares which may increase (though hopefully with a commensurate increase in service). Cabs are also a poor option for passengers with disabilities, as they are often (illegally) ignored in favour of larger groups. Basically, Melbourne taxis have a decreasing approval rating, and core Melbourne blog Fitzroyalty notes that the state government appears to be unwilling or unable to do much about the problem.
- Private car: Subject to the same congestion as buses and taxis, expensive to park, and only available to those who own them, or can talk someone else into driving them.
All of the currently available options have significant negatives for all users: those in Melbourne on business can expect to lose nearly two hours of their day travelling between the CBD and the airport; disabled travellers may have trouble getting to and from the airport at all; the first and last thing tourists see of Melbourne is either the SkyBus or a taxi, both of whch travel on the congested Tullamarine Freeway; and regular travellers face the choice between the possibility of a long wait at the airport if they allow sufficient time for traffic or (and I speak from experience here) cutting it hair-raisingly close to missing an international flight. Things are sufficiently bad that it makes sense to have a rail link simply on the basis of the improved experience of those who need to get to and from the airport–and if the planners that be get it right, the improved user experience will also make a train make economic sense.