Airport rail myths

Airport rail myths and infrastructure priorities

With the kerfuffle over whether the Airport rail link will or won’t be paused, delayed or cancelled, a couple of common myths have come up again.

Citylink will sue

One myth is that the government can’t build an airport rail link because Transurban/Linkt/Citylink will sue them.

The PTUA Myths web site has the detail here. Theoretically they could claim compensation if their toll revenue was affected by transport network changes.

But Kennett wasn’t a complete idiot when setting up the contract. A number of a road projects were carved out as exclusions, unable to trigger compensation, and also included was a rail link – specifically:

the development of a new public transport rail link between the central city and Tullamarine Airport as part of the metropolitan heavy rail network.

Note the qualifiers – my emphasis added.

Sometimes people propose ideas such as a monorail along the freeway. That might not be covered by this clause.

Likewise a High Speed Rail connection as part of a broader statewide or national network is sometimes proposed. That also might not be covered.

What about the proposed Suburban Rail Loop connection to the airport from Broadmeadows? Well, it’s going not going to connect to the central city. It’s going to be a driverless independent line, but it will serve as part of the overall suburban rail network. So will the lawyers get involved? Perhaps only if it opens before the Citylink contract expires.

A railway serving freight? As the PTUA page notes – that likely would trigger compensation.

But as currently designed, the Airport rail link is part of the metropolitan heavy rail network, runs to the central city, and is intended to serve passengers, so it should not attract compensation.

Aside from the old 1990s contract, and possibly superseding it, the rail link is also specifically named in the updated “CityLink Concession Deed – Assumed Transport Network Enhancements” – as part of the West Gate Tunnel agreement.

Flying over Melbourne, approaching Tullamarine Airport

There’s a station in the basement!

Another frequently repeated story is that the airport terminals were built with space for a station in the basement. Some versions of the story say it’s all built, including platforms; others just say there’s a void with space for a station.

Nobody seems to have ever presented any evidence of it, not so much as a single photo.

I asked a senior person at the Airport about it. It’s not true.

There are service tunnels, but nothing big enough for a railway station.

I suspect the myth has taken hold because 1963 plans before the airport was built show where an underground station could have gone if the line had been built. But it wasn’t.

Melbourne Airport in the drizzle

Notably, it seems that the Airport would prefer an underground station – in part because it could offer a more seamless entry into the terminals (and it’s hard to argue with this), and also perhaps in part to ensure the line can later be extended later if need be, to a potential future terminal on the other side of the runways.

So if there really was an void under the terminals big enough for a station, they’d be shouting about it from the rooftops, and taking the media on guided tours of it.

The government wants an elevated station, probably largely to contain costs – though the project as a whole is still set to cost $10+ billion. They’ll need to make absolutely certain that it provides an easy entry into the terminals, with 100% cover from the weather. It may end up being a long walk from the last carriage of an eventual 10-car train to the terminal.

You can’t build everything all at once

Alongside all the other big infrastructure projects going on… they may have discovered that they can’t build everything at the same time. My view is they should look carefully at what are the priorities as Melbourne continues to grow.

The bigger Melbourne becomes, the more troubleprone big new motorways are – they end up adding more traffic than they fix. So prioritising projects is important. As I wrote in The Age exactly five years ago, we can afford better public transport – if we stop building freeways.

If it was up to me, I’d be halting North East Link, given the cost is huge and rising. Unfortunately, West Gate Tunnel might be too far progressed to stop, despite the likely traffic impacts on inner Melbourne.

Confirmation of what’s going ahead and what’s being paused should be in the State Budget on 23rd May.


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.

14 replies on “Airport rail myths”

The cancellation that hurts far more than Airport Rail (and is getting far less media attention) is the postponement of Geelong Fast Rail. This is mainly because the future and the viability of the Western Rail Plan (a greatly needed 2018 election promise) was first delayed from 2018, and was then pegged to GFR. If GFR is delayed a decade or maybe built never, we may also see no substantial upgrade to Western commuter rail for the next 15-20 years.

On the station rumors, one theory is, it was built at the time of when the airport was built, but, it has since been built over or replaced?

As for the fast train to Geelong, it is so much better that, they slot an express train in between each of the existing all stations trains. If you have an express train run two minutes ahead of a stopper, you can save around 16 minutes before you catch up to the train ahead. On that basis, they currently take 62 minutes, meaning the express train will be down to 46 minutes for one journey, just two stops at Footscray and Sunshine. Alll on existing tracks.

“But Kennett wasn’t a complete idiot ”
Great article, Daniel. But your comment about the former Premier is gold. Thanks!

Is “metropolitan” defined as within the metro area, or specifically as part of the electrified network? I wonder if that explains reluctance to consider the RFI policy of using airport rail, with V/Line stock and extended towards Sunbury and Wallan, as a way to avoid having to quadruplicate through St Albans and Essendon?

There are already five ‘express’ trains to and from Geelong each weekday in addition to the normal stoppers. Of course they are the Warrnambool services and still take an hour but presumably when V/Locities start doing the Warrnambool runs this should be able to be sped up significantly. If these trains can be interspersed with the stoppers then surely some additional expresses could be added in but might need additional rolling stock.

I agree that public transport projects need to take priority over roads. The North East Link should be abandoned and the money in projects that we need like Airport Rail or more trains to the western suburbs, as well as more bus services, especially at night where most routes finishes at 9pm, which is not good enough. And get rid of the Grand Prix because if we can’t afford road projects, then we can’t afford the Grand Prix, which causes more traffic.

Oh, and one more thing. The contact for CityLink that was given to Transurban was signed by Jeff Kennett, so I think it is both major parties that cave into Transurban.

The big problem with the Geelong Fast Rail project is that it’s arguably a capacity project, not a speed project. Or if it’s a speed project, it’s not a very good one.

There’s already a regular service (the 17:29 Melbourne to Geelong) that is scheduled to do the trip in 53 minutes (stopping at Footscray, Sunshine, Lara and North Geelong). Chopping out 1-2 stops would get it to 50 minutes… which is what the GFR project is meant to achieve.

So the main benefit of the GFR project is capacity, but because it’s a third track (not a fourth), it would apply in the peak direction only.

What travel has been reduced markedly since the pandemic? Peak travel.

Maybe the fare cut will see growth come back, but in my view it’s difficult to see that project being justified above others right now.

I think the Geelong fast rail as currently conceived doesn’t make much sense. Whats really needed is building a link from Newport to Southern cross. Combine that with a proper quadding of the tracks between Werribee and Newport and you can have a real fast rail project that could get Melbourne to Geelong in under 40 minutes. This would also free up the current regional rail link tracks through Wyndham Vale for electrification and metro operation.
I’d argue that if they really wanted to decentralise the state this project should have been done before SRL (which mostly duplicates existing smart bus routes).

Yes the 5.29pm service could arguably cut out Lara, with Lara being added to the train that departs three minutes later – unless it’s not a stop on the latter train to balance up capacity.

Interestingly on speed – the 4.31pm loco-hauled clunker is scheduled to take 68 minutes, only making four intermediate stops, while the train before it makes four more stops but does the trip in eight minutes less!

Is there enough capacity on the existing metropolitan tracks between Footscray and Sunshine to handle Sunbury, Airport, Melton and Wyndham Vale, or will the regional track capacity also need to be used? If the latter, it might make sense to use that capacity only for Footscray to Sunshine expresses (or else need extra platforms at Middle Footscray, West Footscray and Tottenham) but that would likely require some reconfiguration between the Metro Tunnel and Footscray. And even then there would likely be metro/regional conflicts that might require another metropolitan or regional solution in future anyway (whether that’s Geelong Fast Rail, Metro Tunnel 2 or something else).

I don’t think I quite understand what’s happening at Sunshine to accommodate Airport Rail – is it extra platforms for Airport trains?

@Steve, I’m not actually arguing that the 17:29 should not stop at Lara!

The danger of the Geelong Fast Rail project as it stands is that the benefits wouldn’t stack up against the cost. Hopefully if it’s put on pause, they can refine it.

Ensuring it provided 2 extra tracks into Newport, for instance, would make it a lot more beneficial. However…

Re: how many trains the suburban tracks could handle out to Sunshine: if you assume that at peak times, the Airport as 6 per hour, Sunbury has 9 per hour, that should allow about another 10 per hour from Melton and/or Wyndham Vale without too much trouble. Peak hour demand is unlikely to outstrip that anytime soon given patronage remains down compared to 2019 levels and 7-car HCMTs carry more people than 6-car Siemens/Comeng sets. Plus the next logical capacity upgrade would be extending the HCMTs to 10 cars.

So perhaps the medium term solution for Geelong (and Ballarat) is in electrification and track expansion west of Sunshine.

A few years ago I recall seeing old images of MEL under construction and they clearly showing the earthworks under where the hotel opposite T2 is now and what appeared to be tunnels for future railway lines.

It might’ve been the herald sun. And I’m blowed if I can find it now.

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