At first, there was $10 million on the table in the Victorian Budget. And when it was time for Canberra to hand down its budget, that figure swelled to $30 million. In short, whatever the final figure will be, a sizeable chunk of dough is to be spent executing a proper feasibility study on a Melbourne Airport Rail Link.
The study will look a number of aspects, most notably what form a high-capacity rail link would take (its corridor, its technology, its transit time etc) and how building and operating it will be funded (via a PPP, government debt, the Federal Government's new National Rail building fund). This funding aspect seems to be key, not least because the Victorian State Government to date has been reluctant to commit to any airport link project, except during this year's budget time.
Firstly, let's look back at what's already been studied.
In 2013 the Melbourne Airport Rail Link (MARL) Study was completed. Its findings primarily focus on corridors - working on the assumption a MARL would be an extension of the existing network (or utilise network-compatible rail equipment).
Here are the corridors that were looked at in the study.
And here's the assessment of each corridor.
The conclusion from this study is that the Albion East corridor best meets the various criteria each corridor was assessed against. It is a very safe assumption to make that should a standard heavy-rail / existing rail network compatible solution be chosen, the Albion East corridor will remain top dog.
On Wednesday 31st of May, RMIT's Centre for Urban Research held the latest in its series of Talking Transport seminars which focused on the Melbourne Airport Rail Link. One of the panellists was John Hearsch from the Rail Futures Institute and he spoke about RFI's proposal.
RFI's Airtrain proposal & documentation is a subset of its larger InterCity study which aims to completely separate all regional and metropolitan rail traffic over the longer term and while at the conceptual level, it's no doubt going to be a reference point for the new study.
At the seminar John Hearsch also provided greater context for the RFI proposal in that it would likely be a 3 phase implementation, done under a public-private partnership with the first phase being the most capital intensive: building the three tunnels, airport train shuttle maintenance and storage facility over a 4 year planning and 4 year build timeframe.
The transit time of 15 minutes would be made possible through the combination of tunnels and at-grade sections having a track speed (and operational service) in the same realm as the regional lines outside Melbourne: 160kph.
It takes inspiration from the 2013 MARL Study and John Hearsch made particular mention of the connectivity benefits in that from either Melbourne Airport, Sunshine or Southern Cross stations, the RFI proposal railway would be a 1 train change from any rail destination in Victoria.
The other public-domain proposal that the new feasibility study should look at is the Airshuttle Australia express train project. This is a proposal to use different rail technology on more direct corridors - in the Citylink median or a combination of above the existing Craigieburn rail corridor and the Tullamarine Freeway median north of Essendon.
As it is technology independent and wouldn't directly interface with the existing network, the Metro Tunnel dependency that has been used as an excuse to not talk about the Airport link in any great detail by the State Government - up until this year's budget - is irrelevant. In fact, both public domain concepts propose operationally separate railways with no dependency on the existing network; in both cases thne real sticking point is narrowing down the costs, potential benefits and how to fund them.
Of course, we shouldn't discount another well-rounded solution to the long-term needs of passengers at the airport and the employees who work within the vicinity of it to come out of this process either.
As PTUA's president Tony Morton mentioned at the Talking Transport seminar, the rail link should be ambitious and aim to do most of the heavy lifting; it should aspire to carry a high proportion of trips to and from the airport but we musn't also exclude other modes of public transport.
More than one panellist made mention of the 903 Smartbus that connects the airport with the Craigieburn line and going forward this is likely to remain the primary public transport connection for those who live in this area. But what other opportunities are there for a large airport-focused high-frequency bus network to the east of the airport?
Should money be invested in expanding 24-hour bus lanes & bus priority on Broadmeadows Road, Mahoneys Road, Pascoe Vale and Cooper Street? How much would it cost to operate a 15-minute frequency service from places like South Morang, cross-town, through outer north to Broadmeadows and onto the airport? What would patronage be like?
And a shout out for the tram network, the #59 tram terminates at Airport West, just short of the southern airport employment precinct and terminals. How much would it cost to extend this tram route out to the airport to compliment the bus network to the airport's east and the heavy lifting rail line?
Servicing the areas directly to the east and south-east of the airport should be within the scope of the new study.
It's also worth reminding ourselves that there is a significant body of strategic planning work underway in the region, most notably the Sunshine National Employment and Innovation Cluster shown in the video above.
'All rails lead to Sunshine' when it comes to the metropolitan and regional network in this part of Melbourne - the Ballarat Line has budgeted work coming online soon where the line will be duplicated to Melton in preparation for electrification and the Sunbury line is directly benefiting from the Metro Tunnel project.
It's a combination of this already budgeted for or investment that's underway, minimal property acquisition/re-use of existing surplus land in existing rail corridors, coupled with the Victorian Planning Authority's planning work that makes Sunshine such a potent inclusion to a rail link to the airport.
In short, the promised cash should not be limited to just studying how to get an airport rail link up and running sooner, it should be a holistic airport ground transport plan for the next 50 years.