Rail link to the airport is only part of the solution

This opinion article, by SkyBus Co-CEO Michael Sewards, was published in the Herald Sun on Tuesday, 28 August, 2018.

Many people have welcomed the news that the long-debated Melbourne Airport Rail Link has finally secured funding from the Victorian and Federal governments.

As the existing provider of Melbourne Airport’s mass-transit service, SkyBus has also welcomed this development.

However, while a rail link to Melbourne Airport is an important development for the many thousands of people who currently travel to and from Melbourne Airport every day, it is only one part of the total transport solution needed to respond to the needs of travellers now and into the future.

The State Government has already signalled its intention to deliver a broader benefit to Victoria by ensuring the project links regional communities to the rail link via the Sunshine rail hub. The real challenge is now to ensure that such a significant investment of taxpayer funding delivers a truly integrated transport solution that recognises the different travel preferences and requirements of all travellers, not just those travelling from the CBD to the airport.

No matter how good the Melbourne Airport Rail Link is, millions of Victorians will still want to be able to access other options which suit their needs. Great Airports like London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, and fast-growing airports like Barcelona, are equally served by both high frequent bus and rail services that have each assisted in those airports rapid growth.

People will always want to be able to travel to the airport direct from their homes, the suburbs and key regional hubs. So how Melbourne Airport Rail Link works together with other transport options so that people have maximum flexibility in how they plan a journey that suits them is critical.

With a combined total of $10 billion already committed to this project by both the State and Federal Governments the challenge is to ensure that funding delivers an equitable and efficient outcome that meets the needs of all travellers.

Central to any Business Case analysis of the key success drivers for this $10b Heavy Rail should be the airport customer, with any service design needing to meet their rapidly evolving transit demands, no matter where their origin or destination is.

Airport users will continue to demand continuous improvement to their total airport experience, with real time technological response, integrated transit information and affordable, digitally enabled highly frequent transport options, in a constantly disrupted marketplace.

Any business case needs to incorporate planning for how airport rail will work together, with and be complemented by, other transport options including bus, taxi, rideshare, and private vehicles for all passengers, city bound and other, for it to be a truly competitive and compelling offering.

Clearly at a minimum, the business case for the $10b investment will need to demonstrate an ability for the service to be as fast, affordable, and frequent as other competing options including rideshare, taxi and the SkyBus City Express service.

Part of the business case focus clearly needs to be on developing complementary non-rail mass transit options from non-city destinations to the airport, on a mass transit basis.

Importantly, many of these developments could be developed and delivered long before the airport rail link is delivered. For instance, a focus in the next 10 years prior to Melbourne Airport Rail Link completion should be on bus lane priority, suburban hub park and ride facilities and airport precinct traffic improvements to ensure mass transit mode share grows with the airport passenger volumes.

Travellers are looking for certainty and convenience. For some travellers it’s the comfort and convenience of driving their own car to the airport. For others it’s taxi services or Uber, while others will want frequent but affordable mass transit options from key locations such as express buses.

While a welcome addition to our transport landscape, any Melbourne Airport Rail Link will not solve all our airport travel needs. It may be the missing link in our current offering but it will only ever be one component of the total transport solution that Victoria needs.