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THE popular view seems to be that a rail link from the CBD to Melbourne airport is a "no brainer" and that it would have been built long ago but for an unholy combination of vested interests and government timidity.
Much as I would enjoy a train to the airport, there needs to be a better reason than conspiracy theories or that it's an ''embarrassment'' that a city the size of Melbourne doesn't have one while Sydney and Brisbane do. There needs to be a calm, measured evaluation of whether it's a good idea.
don't think there's much of a case for a rail link at this time. First, the feasibility studies undertaken by the government concluded that the numbers for rail don't stack up (yet). An evaluation undertaken in 2001 projected rail would capture only 9 per cent of all airport trips and would require a subsidy over a decade of between $350 million and $450 million.
Second, the new rail lines to Sydney and Brisbane airports are not performing well. Brisbane's Airtrain has low frequencies and stops operating at 8pm. At one stage Sydney's Airport Link was in receivership due to low patronage.
Third, the current Skybus provides a fast service. The airport-Southern Cross Station trip takes about 20 minutes in the off-peak. While it balloons to 40 minutes in peak hour, that is by no means an unreasonably long time and nor is the $16 fare out of line with charges at Sydney and Brisbane.
There are other points to be considered. The government has helped Skybus deal with growing congestion by, for example, installing transponders that automatically activate signals so buses have right of way on freeway ramps.
In addition to all this, land has been reserved in the East Albion corridor for possible use in the event that a rail line should become viable.
In addition to this, a new bus service from the airport to Broadmeadows starts next year. It will connect the airport with Melbourne's broader public transport system and provide an alternative to driving for the airport's 12,500 workers.
Perhaps the key to this entire debate is that a rail link from the airport to the CBD is not going to be an effective substitute for private cars. Brisbane's Airtrain carries 9 per cent of passengers and Sydney's Airport Link carries 11 per cent. It is highly probable that the great bulk of passengers would come from Skybus and some from taxis.
It is hard to see how replacing one form of public transport with another would justify a subsidy of about half a billion dollars. Nor is it clear why business people travelling at company expense, or time-rich tourists, deserve to be subsidised.
One argument is that it would reduce the need for widening the Tullamarine Freeway. However, unless it substitutes for large numbers of additional cars over and above Skybus, this is not going to have a significant effect on either congestion or emissions. And this argument fails to understand that there are many other generators of traffic on the freeway besides the airport. It also neglects the likelihood that other traffic would simply fill any void.
The reality is that tackling congestion on the Tullamarine Freeway needs a much bigger perspective.
Funds are never finite and I think there are alternative needs - such as improving public transport in Melbourne's outer suburbs - that should have a much higher priority than subsidising business travellers and tourists.
Nevertheless, there are improvements that need to be made at Melbourne Airport. Overcrowding on peak Skybus services needs to be relieved by providing extra capacity. Workers at the airport should also get a reduced fare on Skybus as they do at some other airports.
A rail link will possibly make sense at some stage, but not yet. The current push, led by the lord mayor of Melbourne and this newspaper, has the hallmarks of the sort of political populism that led to questionable infrastructure decisions such as the Alice Springs-Darwin rail line.
Dr Alan Davies is a Melbourne planning consultant.
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