Australia’s airport trains and buses compared

I’ve done a quick comparison of the main airport to CBD public transport in Australia’s biggest cities.

Brisbane Airtrain at the Domestic Terminal

Brisbane and Sydney have trains at premium fares. Perth and Adelaide have normal route buses. Melbourne has a premium bus.

City MEL









Distance (km)





Travel time





Peak freq





Off-peak freq





Weekend freq










Adult one way (peak)





Child one way (peak)










Adult $/km






*Update: Brisbane Air-train now runs to 10pm. Some prices have changed.

I’ve used all but Perth’s — which is worth noting serves the domestic airport, but not the international one.

Melbourne’s Skybus is the most expensive, but is also by far the longest distance, and is also the trip that runs at the highest speed, with the second-shortest travel time. It’s also the most frequent, apart from during peak hours when Sydney beats it. Skybus does get overcrowded at peak times, too.

Sydney’s works well, being frequent and quick, but the price makes it an extremely expensive 10ish minute journey, and the highest per kilometre cost.

Adelaide’s per kilometre price is higher than Melbourne’s because Adelaide has flat fares. People who want Melbourne to have a single zone might do well to note that upwards pressure has put the single trip $4.70 ticket is above the $3.80 cost of Melbourne’s zone 1, 2-hour ticket (though Adelaide also has an off-peak ticket at $2.90 which would also be valid for this trip between 9am and 3pm).

One thing Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide’s airport services have that the others don’t is good frequencies. We timed our trip on Brisbane’s train well going from the airport to the City, but that was luck more than anything else, and it’s difficult to control. We could just as easily have had to wait half-an-hour. Landing back in Melbourne, we just missed a Skybus, but it didn’t matter because of the ten minute service.

So which is best?

That’s a hard question to answer.

I wonder if for occasional travellers (including visitors to our cities) the distance and the speed isn’t really something they think about too much; it’s more about the frequency, cost and travel time… though leisure travellers sometimes don’t even worry about those — I remember the slow infrequent expensive Rome airport train (circa 1999) was packed full of us tourists.

Of course, trains have qualities that make people prefer them to buses. Something about prominence, (perceived) permanence, space, freedom to move, and ride quality.

For frequency, Melbourne and Sydney clearly win out, with Adelaide not far behind. But I’m amused that (despite the high price) Melbourne is per kilometre cheaper than any of them except Perth.

They’ve all got good points really. Ideally, like any other public transport, you’d want high frequency and speed, good comfort levels, and low cost. And ideally to make it usable you want it serving tourists, business travellers and airport workers (of which there are thousands every day).

The important thing for Melbourne, if airport rail ever gets the go-ahead, is to ensure the service quality (particularly frequency) remains high — otherwise you won’t get locals and regular/business travellers to use it.

Thoughts? What do you use? Did I mess up anything in the table?

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

27 replies on “Australia’s airport trains and buses compared”

Melbourne looks pretty good for Airport to Downtown service, however once the airport rail link is created (if ever) is to hopefully keep the speeds and frequencies are good levels as that would leave a good first impression.

Skybus offers better than 10 minute frequency at peak if it’s busy – they have reserve buses they can bring out if necessary. As a regular traveller, the frequency was the key attraction. If it had been half-hourly, I would have used it only if it was timed. This is, in fact, what I did in Canberra – half hourly frequency. It didn’t often time with my arrival so my mode share there ended up being about 25% bus, 75% taxi. Recently the Canberra airport bus service was terminated…. kind of shows, sometimes you probably need to go out with decent frequency to start with.

As Skybus is fitted out for purpose (luggage racks, open space) it’s in some ways preferable to say Sydney’s train, which effectively restricts travellers with luggage to the vestibule area.

As with a lot of public transport, the experience is not just the trip but the station access and navigation that forms a significant part of ease of use. Train systems are already integrated with the network, whereas Skybus falls down for being over in a bus bay that has poor access (up to the overbridge, then back down, typically with luggage if a tourist – and without the greatest signage) to the suburban train network, although tram or pedestrian access is ok.

For novelty’s sake, you could have included or mentioned Canberra, which has half a dozen services a day thanks to recent cutbacks, still at premium fares.

I reckon the best way to create a Melbourne Airport rail link without it being soo poor as Brisbane’s airtrain is to keep it as just another suburban line that terminates at the Airport. Perhaps the Upfield line could be diverted along the old goods train alignment near Broadmeadows , and then tunnel underneath the shops/houses till it gets to the Broadmeadows valley park, and travel over empty land to the Airport. The upfield line could be far more useful then, and could receive a proper service, unlike the current 3 trains per hour, although the current upfield station wouldn’t be served anymore (but still has Coolaroo station nearby).

Skybus could probably keep running for those who want ann express trip, but it may not be viable to compete with a rail link.

I used the SkyBus for the first time the other day, and it ticked all the boxes, frequent (I didn’t need to refer to a timetable), fast (20 mins if not shorter), clean, fit for purpose (luggage racks), and for a reasonable cost.

The only concern I had, having previously lived in a suburb off the Tulla, was the chance of hitting a major traffic jam on the way to the airport. This is the advantage (perceived or otherwise) that I see a train has over a bus. I would be more comfortable if there were dedicated, enforced, transit lanes installed the entire length of the Tulla from the Southern Cross on-ramp to the airport, perhaps even a dedicated exit/fly-over on the airport side. And instead of it just being a lane with some paint on it, have fixed entry/exit points to the lane like the carpool lanes in Brisbane (and elsewhere).

The cost to implement would surely be less than a train, would be able to be used for any future DART style PT services along the Tulla/Calder corridors, and may even allow a 30/40 minute guarantee to be offered, like a train service would.

There is an intangible confidence that you get when using fixed rail vehicles rather than buses and if it comes at a higher price, then I think it is worth paying. Although the Sydney airport train is outrageously priced, it is a very nice experience compared to Melbourne’s airport bus, which I loathe. How could be struggling onto a bus, worrying about hitting little kids with your case, concern about the security of your luggage, sometimes having to stand on a moving bus, worry when the traffic slows down on the freeway possibly be even near getting onto a smooth train with plenty of space.

Why are the return costs? I’m surprised that they have not been mentioned. It’s normal to return to the airport after visiting a city.

@Dave, yeah the interchange at Southern Cross could be a lot better. Coming back from Brisbane a few weeks ago, I took a wrong turn on the way to the trains, despite knowing the station well.

@Ashleigh, part of the issue with Brisbane’s Airtrain is that it’s a northern extension of the Gold Coast line, so (mostly) runs at the same 30 minute frequency. Extending the Upfield line would be of prime benefit to airport workers who live in nearby suburbs; it’s hard to see how the trip to the CBD (and for those from the south/east) would be competitive with taxis though, unlike Skybus now.

@Wayne, from memory in most cases there is no specific return fare, at least not for coming back on a different day, or only a marginal discount (Brisbane Airtrain). Skybus is the exception; $16 single but $26 return.

Sydney airport train fare is IIRC $25 return, but you can only do that on the same day, something that baffles me to this very day. Otherwise, it’s like $32 for two one way fares. And considering the trains have no particular amenity for travellers (double decker, no luggage storage), it’s fairly pricey. At least the frequency is right up there.

I do get the train in Sydney as it’s far faster than taxi particularly on Friday afternoons, especially with the “help” given by the NSW taxi directorate in directing cabs and getting self loading freight into the cabs. And by help, I mean the sort of help our three year old “helps” with cleaning, which is to say – makes things much worse. Getting a cab was a LOT faster when it was laissez faire back in the day.

I’ve tried the train a few times at Brisbane, but I’ve sat in the train for a long time after just missing it a couple of times. On Friday afternoons, it’s still faster from the city to the airport than getting a taxi, but you have to really time it. At least the trains are single decker and have room for luggage.

One of the fundament issues with upgrading bus to rail is that trains have over 10 times the capacity of high capacity buses. Therefore it is hard to maintain the service frequency if you cannot get anywhere near ten times more patronage.

This type of analysis actually goes to show that, our hatred for any bus-type transport aside, Skybus does provide a good service to the airport. However, it is hard for many to justify forking out $16 just for a bus ride, despite the quality of service it may provide. I do agree that the bus “interchange” at Southern Cross is rather poorly located and set out
Interestingly though, Skybus is a unique example of what an unsubsidised public transport service would look like. It is the only bus service in Melbourne (AFAIK) that runs to a profit without a government subsidy

Canberra’s airport bus was stopped, with no notice at all, THE DAY BEFORE I was due to use it to get home. There were at least three of us caught out, having to find a taxi (in canberra, this is extremely difficult) in peak hour in order not to miss our flight.

Turns out it was replaced with another company, leaving from two blocks away. But nobody thought to put up any notices before or on the day. Idiots.

To clarify, that was three of us at that stop at that time. I have no idea how many others were stuck too.

Great comparison!
Further, if you are part of a family of four travelling from the city to airport, it’s cheaper to catch a cab together.
And if you (family) are going to be away from home for say 7 days, it’s cheaper to drive to the airport and park in the long-term carpark (Tulla costs $77, and add on fuel).
Then there’s aways a relative who could pick you up (park at Maccas, Melb airport for nothing) if you offered them a bottle of duty free.
Most business people would be travelling by themselves and their work would pay for a taxi.

I’d like a train from Tulla to Melbourne, but pigs might fly too.

In Japan (sorry, but I do live here), many airports, even in smaller cities have rail transport to their airports. In Tokyo, to Narita, you have multiple options, even on and within rail lines (more than one to travel on both JR and Keio, slow, faster, and very fast) as well as ‘limousine’ buses (never taken one).

They even built a line out to my beloved Sendai airport (whose international flights decreased while I was living there). It may have been another governmental boondoggle, but it made traveling there easier. Nevertheless and the airport and rail line came to a standstill after the March tsunami.

Nevertheless, *little* Japan’s airports are well supported by public transport, trains and buses alike (but NEVER, repeat NEVER, take a taxi from the airport…you’ll need to take out a bank loan to cover the cost!!!).

Apart from the cost of building a rail line to the airport, which would be better spent on grade separation, bicycle parking, etc etc consider what we would actually get.

If the Upfield line had been continued to Craigieburn then Broadmeadows trains would have continued to the airport, either way train travelers would be crammed in with luggage on a suburban train, c.f. the dedicated bus with luggage racks. There is no room to run expresses on either the Broady or Upfield lines, so it would be a slow trip – 30 minutes on current timetables just to Broadmeadows plus the extra bit to the airport. That’s if the train is going direct from Spencer st and not wasting time going around the city loop (another white elephant which we are stuck with).

As for the bus getting delayed by traffic, I suppose our trains are never held up or cancelled with, guess what – bus replacements!

The missing issue is this. When is it better to put in light or heavy rail vs running a bus service. Answer: when patronage is greater than about 8,000 people/hour. So when your bus service is heading upwards of 5,000/hour and looks like increasing, it makes sense to put in rail. Currently the aiport bus (I’m guessing), would be carrying under 1000/hour max in peak, and that’s when they put on the extra buses.

Out of interest – how many bus passengers are there from Doncaster to the City at the moment? Also the proposed Rowville line – how many bus passengers? And if the answer is that the bus service is shitty and a train would be better – how about running a decent bus service to develop the patronage and then see if a train can be justified? Do the costings of Rowville allow for extra capacity from Caulfield to Clayton by the way?

Not sure about the operating hours of the other airports, but it’s worth pointing out that Sydney Airport has a curfew of 11pm.
This doesn’t help if you’re held up in arrivals, but still…

@Roger, cabs can be cheaper for a big group, but the child price on many of these services is very cheap if accompanied by an adult. Return tickets for Skybus also give a pretty good discount.

@Nik, some good points there, but the attractiveness of rail vs bus (even high quality bus) needs to be taken into account. And not sure I agree with your 5000-8000 per hour being the threshold for moving from bus to rail. 5000 per hour at 100 per bus (which is about as big as a bus gets) is 50 buses per hour; almost one per minute. Depending on the route, that may be a very poor use of human resources (drivers). Brisbane’s finding this problem with their bus ways… which I’ll post about separately soon.

@Will, maybe someone will correct me on this, but I think it’s only Sydney that has a curfew.

@Jarks, yep, most of the cities have other routes, including low-frequency private buses (such as the Melbourne one that goes down to Frankston and the Peninsula) and secondary public transport (such as Sydney’s public buses, and Adelaide’s to Glenelg). I was deliberately comparing the primary CBD to airport route.

The trainfare in Sydney is about the same to all over the metro area without having to buy another ticket. Also a return ticket ( for the same day ) hardly costs any more.

Also in Sydney you can catch the train in the other direction to the western suburbs and southern suburbs without going to the CBD all all.

Why is the train in Brisbane so slow ? Its slower than an Adelaide bus !

The Melbourne buses have very uncomfortable seats, and the luggage racks can be difficult for older and smaller passengers to load their (oversized) suitcases into.
Loading is therefore slow, and the advertised twenty minute trip is more like 30 minutes if you get on at Virgin, then crawl through traffic to Qantas, load then crawl on to the freeway!
One great beneift with Skybus is that the return ticket is valid for three months, and doesn’t have to be taken as a return, it can be used as two singles, that is, two separate trips to the airport, rather than a return.
I agree that the Spencer Street terminus is badly located, it was easier for me when it was in Franklin Street, as I need to catch a 59 tram back towards the airport to get home!

You could add a row of minutes or meters from baggage carousels to transport, Melbourne is best here, just outside the door, you can keep one eye on the carousel and another on the bus queue. Sydney has a deceptively long tunnel, then an escalator, Adelaide not far but on a different level with minimal signage, not sure about the others.

Interesting analysis.

One more aspect that could be considered is the ability to buy tickets online before travel. This is a pro in favour of the privately operated services in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

Each offering is slightly different, Brisbane seems to be focused on providing the service only to less frequent travellers, while Sydney only sells tickets in bulk that would seem a good deal for corporate types. Melbourne seems to cater to everyone including one off family tickets and bulk corporate tickets.

When I lived in Sydney I mostly used the bus to/from airport – painfully slow but cheaper than a cab.

They since built the rail to it, and have always used it whenever I have gone back – cost be damned it’s a regular, fast, and reliable service… Wouldn’t ever dream of using a cab or bus there anymore

To be fair to Sydney Cityrail, there is a heavy premium charge for use of the airport stations and the other two stations on the new Airport line.

To go from Sydney Central to Wooli Creek, the next station south of the Airport, only costs $3.20 single and is 7.39 km.

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