Quick, cheap solutions are not always the best ones, particularly not when they are driven by political power plays, undue expediency or vested interests. That tenet should be kept in mind when considering the proposals about how to connect Melbourne Airport via a rail link to the central business district.
For anyone using the airport, the need for a public transport link is patently apparent. There are about 120,000 vehicle movements a day around the airport area, clogging the Tullamarine Freeway from the Western Ring Road all the way to the airport terminals.
More than 3.6 million people a year use the SkyBus express service from the airport to the city. And taxis initiate trips and drop off passengers at the airport more than 6500 times a day. Considering the concept of an airport-to-city rail link has been on the drawing boards for more than six decades, it is long past time to get it done.
The options are many, and they include a fast, dedicated rail link from the airport to an expanded rail hub at Sunshine, then express via a new 6.5 kilometre tunnel from Tottenham to the city; or a fast link from the airport to Sunshine, then by existing but upgraded, above-ground commuter tracks to Melbourne.
The eventual decision, though, should not be selected just because it is cheapest. It needs to respect forecasts that greater Melbourne’s population will rise to 8.5 million or more by 2050. It must also take into account the likelihood that residential, commercial and activity centres may be reshaped and relocated over the intervening years.
The ultimate configuration must be flexible enough to ensure it is well-utilised, and it must allow fast options for travellers whose destination is other than the central business district.
Melbourne Airport, which reaps more than $200 million a year from the 24,000 car parks at the airport, is part of a private consortium that has offered $5 billion towards construction of the Sunshine-to-city rail tunnel proposal.
The tunnel, in concept, is a great idea. But it must be guaranteed to integrate with, and be scalable for, future fast rail links to Geelong or other western and north-western routes. It also must be fully accessible at no extra cost to publicly-owned rail.
The federal and state government have been of like-minds for more than a year on the prospect of getting an airport rail link built, and they have committed $10 billion jointly to getting it done.
In recent days, the Morrison government has called for a “quick link”, presumably an express, dedicated link from the airport in line with the private consortium’s plans. The Andrews government has left open the prospect of upgrading and using the existing above-ground rail tracks from Sunshine to the city, a proposal presumably driven by the volume of railway infrastructure development work already under way or due to start.
A tunnel sounds like the ideal way forward, but it is possible to upgrade the existing Sunshine tracks while other rail projects are built, construct an airport branch line, and then commence the airport rail tunnel.
This project, though, should not by hijacked and later controlled by monopolists whose aim is profit. It has to be a whole-of-community project that benefits the future growth of Melbourne and Victorians more broadly, not just those who use the airport.