There has been talk of a rail link to Melbourne Airport at least as far back as 1958 when Tullamarine was identified as a site for a new airport for Melbourne. However, the airport was finally opened in 1970 without a rail link, indeed without adequate public transport in any mode: train, tram or bus. As a consequence, car parking has expanded enormously at the airport over the years, and at nearby independently operated establishments. The road network to the airport became increasingly congested.
Major new roads capacity to Melbourne Airport was provided over the ensuing half century, instead of high- quality public transport. The most significant expansion of the road network was the Kennett government- constructed CityLink, a tolled freeway which was finally completed in 2000.
The roads lobby and Melbourne Airport
It has often been asked why Melbourne should have lagged other major cities in the provision of high quality public transport services, including a rail link to the airport? The powerful roads lobby in Melbourne, in all its forms, and with its grip on the major political parties has been particularly successful at keeping effective public transport infrastructure and services at bay. Melbourne Airport itself has been a major influence, especially since it was privatized in 1997 and it identified car parking earnings as a major profit centre. Its advocacy for public transport since then has been half-hearted at best, a view that successive state governments have been happy to go along with.
The one token addition to public transport services of any scale to Melbourne Airport in the last two decades has been the 901 SmartBus service which commenced in September 2010.
It was launched by the Brumby Labor government with considerable fanfare. A large sign on a Melbourne Airport car park implored people to take the 901 SmartBus to “Get to the airport the Smart Way.”
The 901 serves a number of significant locations in what could be described as the North East Link “corridor,” including Blackburn, The Pines, Greensborough and Broadmeadows. If the service had been well designed, it would be a major benefit to airline travelers’ and Melbourne Airport workers who live or travel to the airport from these and related locations. It would take cars off roads.
Nothing smart about the 901 SmartBus to Melbourne Airport However, there was very little that was smart about the service when it was introduced by the Brumby government over a decade ago, and all the original flaws in the service remain unremedied to this day. Whilst it is a seven-day-a -week service it is relatively infrequent on weekends, in particular. It also takes a very indirect route which increases travel time. There are few on-road “bus priority” measures to support on-time running. It picks up and puts down passengers at only one point at the airport which means that patrons have to walk a long way to take the service, especially from Terminals 2, 3 and 4. In short, the 901 SmartBus is uncompetitive with travel to and from the airport by car. That is why so few people use the 901 SmartBus to travel to the airport.
Airport Rail and north eastern suburbs residents
Both the Victorian Government and the Federal Government have now made multi-billion-dollar commitments to build a rail link to Melbourne Airport. Construction may commence in 2022 and it is forecast to then take about nine years to complete. The rail link is to be built via Sunshine and it is to include links with the regional rail network.
What type of value would the rail link to Melbourne Airport have for people who live or work within the corridor proposed to be served by the North East Link project? Would it, for example, have the same value for these people as it would for those who have ready access to the south eastern metropolitan rail network? The answer is no, at least in the short-term.
In fact, recent Victorian Government advertising of the North East Link on commercial radio has been promoting the North East Link as a new and speedier way to get to Melbourne Airport.
Upgrade those route bus services for north eastern suburban residents
The North East Link is proposed as a toll road. However, it has always looked like a very dubious financial prospect. What better way for the Andrews government to pad out its finances than to get more people driving to Melbourne Airport on a toll road, rather than taking public transport? One way to do that is to continue with the existing mediocre public transport options for residents in the north eastern suburbs of Melbourne in order to maximise the number of trips on a North East Link tollway.
The Victorian Government should be upgrading bus services, including route 901, to Melbourne Airport for north-eastern suburban residents. It would be cheaper and quicker to do. If the government was really serious it could be progressed within months rather than years. It would provide a cost-effective option for airport travel and also remove many car trips from the road network. In short, it would constitute a key element in a sustainable transport future for Melbourne.