Local News - Victoria

Why it took 50 years for an airport rail link to get off the ground

Broken election promises, fruitless feasibility studies and vested interests have stalled the project, making it a common gripe for many Melburnians. Sydney and Brisbane have one, the complaint goes, so why don’t we?

The answer to this question should soon change. After months of negotiations, lobbying and the odd disagreement, the state and federal governments are on the cusp of announcing their preferred design for airport rail. Each are offering to spend $5 billion on the project.

Sources familiar with negotiations expect the governments to back a new, above-ground line between the airport and Sunshine, 12km west of the CBD. Trains would then run along existing tracks to the city via the new Metro Tunnel. This option would kill off a proposal from superannuation giant IFM Investors to build, fund and operate a $7 billion tunnel between the city and Sunshine, allowing fast express airport services on dedicated tracks.

The politicians might be opting for a cheaper build, but they’re coming closer than their predecessors to sending a train to Tulla.

A question of timing

With so few flights leaving the tarmac at Tullamarine because of coronavirus restrictions, some may question whether a multibillion-dollar airport rail link stacks up.

Total travellers at the airport were 97 per cent fewer in April compared with 2019, prompting S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the airport’s credit rating, citing reduced cash flows and increased debt.

Travel numbers are not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024 but Melbourne Airport’s landside access chief Lorie Argus says the rail link is still needed.

“We’ve seen global shocks to the industry before,” Argus says. “We want to build capacity ahead of the demand.”

Fifty years of waiting for a rail link to the airport have locked taxpayers into a far more expensive project than would have been possible decades ago.

A swag of Victorian premiers have investigated getting it built: Sir Henry Bolte in the ’60s, John Cain jnr in the ’80s, Joan Kirner and Jeff Kennett in the ’90s and Steve Bracks, Ted Baillieu and Denis Napthine over the past two decades. They commissioned numerous taxpayer-funded feasibility studies on the project, but to no avail. In the ’90s, the project involved extending the Broadmeadows line by five kilometres to the airport. That’s no longer feasible because of development in the west and reduced rail capacity.

“We talk about spending $5 billion now, that’s 10 times what was being discussed 30 years ago,” Public Transport Users Association spokesman Tony Morton says.

Politicians say airport rail has long been popular among voters. So why the delay?

The long take-off

Kennett, a long-time proponent of airport rail, says the reason for the project’s delay is simple.

“Other pieces of infrastructure had higher priority and were simpler to deliver,” the former Liberal premier says. “It’s a lot of money for a fairly short piece of infrastructure.”

Initial 1963 drawings of a proposed underground train station at Melbourne Airport's international terminal.

Initial 1963 drawings of a proposed underground train station at Melbourne Airport’s international terminal. Credit:CAHS/Airservices/CASA

Victoria has explored the likes of a French-built monorail and Dutch-inspired fast tram but time and demand hasn’t justified the expenditure, especially in the face of a high-performing SkyBus service.

Bracks won the 1999 election promising airport rail as Sydney and Brisbane were setting out to build their own. He envisioned a public-private partnership model, as did fellow Labor premier Kirner.

“Internationally, most places had this and it was a gap we could easily fill,” Bracks says. “There were certainly vested interests lobbying against our proposal” he says, referring to the taxi industry and the airport’s operators who were seeking to protect substantial car parking revenue.

Almost empty parking bays at Tullamarine Airport during the coronavirus lockdown.

Almost empty parking bays at Tullamarine Airport during the coronavirus lockdown.Credit:Getty Images

More pressing though, Bracks says, was a clause that Kennett locked into the CityLink contract blocking a public transport link. But ultimately, it was the collapse of Australian airline Ansett – reducing the high number of airport workers set to use the link – that put the project “on hold”.

“Ansett was key,” Bracks says. “I was very disappointed it couldn’t go ahead.”

Virgin rose to become a major airline that was competitive with Qantas after Ansett’s demise.

Lyndsay Neilson, a former state infrastructure department secretary who oversaw a study into the project under Bracks, recommended a boost to SkyBus over rail. “Suburban rail has in itself fallen so far behind that investing in airport rail was considered a luxury,””he says.

But bureaucrats underestimated the airport’s growth: “Nobody anticipated the extent to which China would open up as a source of international tourism,” Neilson says.

Follow the leader

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull beamed as he announced on a windy morning at Tullamarine in 2018 that he would build airport rail.

He promised $5 billion – beating Premier Daniel Andrews to the punch. Turnbull was a technocrat known to get hooked on the finer details of infrastructure. His announcement was paving the way for the type of big, city-shaping construction projects he hoped would become his legacy.

It caught Andrews off guard, forcing the state to match the funding promise. Andrews had iced Denis Napthine’s airport rail plans in 2014 to pursue level crossing removals and the Metro Tunnel.

“Services that people use every single day are my priority,” Andrews said at the time. But towards the end of his first term, he put airport rail back in the spotlight, promising it would be built within a decade.

“The Commonwealth was pushing hard to get airport rail on the agenda,” said Mike Mrdak, who was secretary of the federal infrastructure department at the time.

In 2019, Andrews outlined his vision for airport rail. It would probably involve a tunnel from the city and Sunshine and not stop at suburban stations. The project would be a boon for the regions, including Geelong and Ballarat, he said.

As if on cue, an IFM Investors-led private consortium proposed to build a $7 billion tunnel, allowing 20-minute journeys running 24/7, that would service regional fast rail. It seemed like a done deal but the state went cool on the proposal, preferring a cheaper, above-ground route that put it at loggerheads with the federal government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Premier Daniel Andrews speaking to media about the airport rail link at Sunshine station in April, 2019.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Premier Daniel Andrews speaking to media about the airport rail link at Sunshine station in April, 2019. Credit:Stefan Postles

Canberra wanted to keep costs down while building an express, high-speed service that was competitive with SkyBus.

Torn between Victoria and behind-the-scenes lobbying by IFM and regional Coalition MPs, including Victorian senator Sarah Henderson, Education Minister Dan Tehan and, more recently, Nationals MP Damian Drum, Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided he would not go to war with Victoria on airport rail.

The airport rail link is important to Coalition MPs keen to score points on infrastructure. They want a tunnel to secure fast trains to their regional seats, with Henderson calling for “high speed dual track rail tunnel” to deliver 32-minute services to Geelong as she fights to win back her marginal seat of Corangamite. Drum says the north-east rail line, which run through his seat of Nicholls, is the state’s “worst performing” and that he wants faster services to Bendigo, Shepparton and Albury–Wodonga.

Fifty years after the airport opened there could be an alternative way of getting there.

Fifty years after the airport opened there could be an alternative way of getting there.

But Morrison is determined to build infrastructure with Andrews, sensing it is a winning formula with voters. If federally-funded projects build car parks at train stations in Victorian Liberal seats are to go ahead, the Victorian Premier has the keys.

Party Matters

Arun Chandu, who has written a PhD on the airport, says a rail link has traditionally been pushed by the Liberal Party. “Andrews is the first Labor person to start talking about a railway line seriously,” Chandu says.

Kennett rejects this idea, saying support for the project isn’t a “Liberal or Labor thing”.

Former premier, Ted Baillieu.

Former premier, Ted Baillieu.Credit: Chris Hopkins

But Kosmos Samaras, a key Labor election strategist from 2006-2020, disagrees. “It’s always been the Liberals’ flagship because the business community has generally always asked for it.”

The economic argument for an airport rail link falls flat without providing additional stops to stimulate the western suburbs, says Samaras. The question of whether the train runs express to the airport can be viewed through the prism of traditional Labor values.


In 1965, Labor joined the Country Party to stop Bolte’s express airport route in favour of a suburban service stopping at Keilor East, Avondale Heights and Airport West. Former Labor member for Broadmeadows John Wilton accused Bolte of building a “glamour project” for a “selected few who travel by air”.

Treasurer Tim Pallas has signalled airport trains may stop at suburban stations to boost sluggish patronage, despite Andrews previously ruling this out. This option would also use existing tracks between the city and Sunshine, which risks clogging any spare capacity for extra trains to the west.

A suburban service is at odds with what is being proposed by the IFM-led consortium made up of Melbourne Airport, Metro Trains Australia and Southern Cross Station. IFM is fiercely pursuing an investment trifecta: a rail link connecting its two assets, the airport and Southern Cross Station.

The consortium insists they want a low return on revenue, that tunnel access charges will be modest and they will absorb the construction risk.

To Kennett, turning down IFM’s $7 billion is reckless. As licensees of the airports, the superannuation funds “should be investing in the provisions of the infrastructure,” he says. “And who better to own it than hundreds of thousands of Australians.”

But RMIT professor of urban policy Jago Dodson cautions against allowing the private sector to run airport rail.

“Private companies don’t get into building infrastructure for virtuous public purposes, they build it because they see a profit,” he says.

The airport link should be part of the suburban service accessible with a myki, with the cost on par with a regular zone 2 service and not be “fragmented out into separate rail systems,” Dodson says.

Baillieu, who promised rail links to Avalon and Tullamarine when he was premier, says that, express airport services on dedicated tracks are more costly, but without a dedicated line, “you’ll probably stay in a cab”.

“Commuters will judge this very quickly and very harshly,” he warned. “It will be judged on frequency, speed and cost to them – not to the taxpayer – and what happens at each end. That’ll be it.”

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ACCC’s Sims refuses to back down on rail freight sale decision

The ACCC launched legal action in the Federal Court two years ago seeking to block the deal but was unsuccessful, prompting it to seek leave to appeal to the High Court on Friday.

“PN (Pacific National) is a near monopoly on the north-south east coast route … and they’ve been allowed to buy the stand-out bottleneck infrastructure on the route,” Mr Sims said.

“They will remain a dominant near-monopolist and that’s bad for the rail freight industry. That means companies are going to face higher prices for rail freight, that worries us a lot and in a country like Australia rail freight is really important,” he said.

“This is the first time our merger laws have gone to the High Court, we feel it’s important that the High Court gives us a view on how our merger laws deal with a dominant player getting hold of a bottleneck asset, and that whole question of damage to the competitive process,” he said.

A Pacific National spokesperson said the company was disappointed by the ACCC’s move.


“The Federal Court of Australia twice confirmed that Pacific National’s acquisition of Aurizon’s Acacia Ridge Terminal could proceed.

“Pacific National was looking forward to completing the transaction and adding the Acacia Ridge Terminal to its network of efficient freight terminals, and this will once again be delayed while the ACCC seeks to further appeal what Pacific National considered was a comprehensive and correct decision by the Federal Court,” the spokesperson said.

Aurizon said it anticipated the ACCC’s application would be heard and decided before the end of 2020. In the interim it would continue operating the terminal, it said.

Aurizon shares were up 0.4 per cent at $4.81 shortly after 3pm.

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Local News - Victoria

Airport rail tunnel may need private route

Government efforts to build an airport rail link go back a long way. It was 1965 when the Bolte government introduced a bill into the State Parliament calling for the acquisition of land for a rail link from Glenroy to Tullamarine at a cost of no more than £100,000. The opposition was quick to raise concerns about its ability to attract enough patronage and arguments over possible routes proliferated. History does have a way of repeating itself.

In every decade since that bill was written there has been a repeat of the wrangling over the pros and cons of constructing such a crucial piece of Melbourne’s transport infrastructure. Fast forward to today, and the debate rages on. Except now the most contentious issue is whether a tunnel should be built between the CBD and Sunshine station, which would then connect with a new above-ground track to Tullamarine. Without the tunnel, trains along the the CBD to Sunshine section would need to share already congested suburban routes, but the project’s cost would be significantly less.

An artist's impression of the airport rail link station.

An artist’s impression of the airport rail link station. Credit:Melbourne Airport

While the state government has backed an airport link for some time, it has never shown a lot of enthusiasm for the tunnel, baulking at the extra cost, and is hesitant to allow private funding to be part of the mix. A superannuation consortium, including IFM Investors, Melbourne Airport, Metro Trains Australia and Southern Cross Station, has proposed contributing $7 billion to the project to ensure the tunnel is built. In return, the private consortium would operate the rail link and charge the state government for usage of the lines.

The Andrews government is shying away from handing over another major piece of transport infrastructure to private hands, with Transurban already raking in substantial profits on the back of the CityLink and EastLink tollways. It is also committed to getting the North East Link under way, is facing cost blowouts on some of its big builds already in progress and could face court with Transurban over contaminated soil on the West Gate Tunnel project. It has its hands full.

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Coronavirus Australia live update: more freedom as NSW and Victoria ease curbs while PM announces $1.75bn funding for rail line to Sydney’s second airport – latest news | Australia news

This project will create 14,000 jobs in New South Wales – music to our ears. In April we lost 21,000 jobs in New South Wales. We also know that there are so many other of our fellow citizens on jobkeeper. We know we have a job ahead of us of getting people into working, into sustainable jobs.

Having those direct and indirect jobs is fantastic, especially through the partnership of the federal government … We’re able to start acceleration of the project this year.

As we know, New South Wales has been supporting the federal government efforts in building this project to service a metropolis. It will not only service the airport, but so many people who will call this place home or will come to the airport for work.

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Local News - Victoria

No silver bullet, but Victoria still need faster rail

The Grattan Institute’s recent discussion paper Fast Train Fever does some useful myth-busting about the viability of bullet trains for long-distance travel in Australia, but completely misses the point about regional rail connectivity. The reason it misses this point is its ideological obsession with the view that nothing good happens anywhere outside the CBDs of Melbourne or Sydney.

The Morrison government has committed $2 billion towards fast rail between Melbourne and Geelong.

The Morrison government has committed $2 billion towards fast rail between Melbourne and Geelong.
Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Its analysis of the bullet trains is solid. We in Shepparton would love nothing better to be 30 minutes from Melbourne and 60 minutes from Sydney, but as is pointed out in Fast Train Fever, the combination of population and line length makes the $130 billion investment uneconomic at this time. However, we should not assume that all fast rail is the same and succumb to short-termism. We need to keep an open mind as population increases and technology develops, and different models give different returns.

The Grattan Institute is also very lukewarm on improved regional rail connections. But it is missing the point. It sees it all in terms of commuter traffic. According to the institute, the only reason to have a regional rail connection is to get workers into the CBD, because that is the only place there is any decent work, and why would anyone want to do anything other than clock on in Collins Street at 9am?

But that’s not the reality for many regional cities. People don’t all want to work in Melbourne, they want access to it. We have new industries burgeoning in the regions and a need for many more professional workers. They would be prepared to move to regional cities if they had the use of a decent public transport system to access the amenity of Melbourne.

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Local News - Victoria

Australia must “move on” from the dream of fast rail: Grattan Institute

But the Grattan Institute’s head of the cities and transport program Marion Terrill said the government should stop using public money to continually study these proposals.

While the sound of a Eurostar, Shinkansen, or TGV might sound appealing, fast rail networks in Europe and Asia connect large and concentrated populations even where the distances covered are very long. Countries similar to Australia in population size and spread — such as Canada and the US — do not have bullet trains.

“As regrettable as it might be given the undeniable appeal of an Australian east-coast bullet train, we should put the idea to bed and move on,” Ms Terrill states in her new Fast Rail Fever report.

Rail upgrades such as electrifying track or removing bends and inclines to enable speeds as high as 200km/h makes more sense in Australia, and may improve life for people in regional cities, the report suggests.

But claims they will take pressure off crowded capital cities while at the same time boosting struggling regions are “overblown”.

“Australia’s regional towns have more pressing infrastructure needs than faster rail, including better internet and mobile connectivity and freight links. And governments would help a lot more CBD commuters by improving transport options for people in the outer suburbs rather than the regions.

“Every proposed rail renovation project in Australia should be reviewed in light of the COVID crisis. The costs and benefit of each one should be rigorously assessed, and those that don’t stack up should be abandoned.”

The analysis also warned that once a bullet train was up and running, it would emit far less than today’s planes, but construction would take nearly 50 years and be enormously emissions intensive.

The Victorian government has invested $100 million in its Western Rail Plan, to improve speeds on the Geelong and Ballarat lines by fully separating regional and metro services.

The federal government launched its Faster Rail Plan last year to speed up links between Melbourne and Geelong, Shepparton, Albury and Traralgon.

It provided funding to the Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) company, which proposed to build two inland cities in Victoria and a further six in New South Wales that are linked by high-speed rail lines between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Federal Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has renewed calls for an east-coast bullet train in the wake of the pandemic after developing the policy a decade ago. He argued it would “revolutionise” interstate travel and become an “economic game-changer” for regional communities.

Federal Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge said the government’s ambition over the next two decades is to “connect the big capital cities to the satellite regional centres surrounding them”.

“In doing so, it can allow people to live in those regional centres and have the cheaper housing and lifestyle associated with that, while still being able to easily access the big city employment centres on a convenient and affordable basis.”


Federal opposition transport, infrastructure and regional development spokeswoman Catherine King reiterated that Labor was a firm supporter of rail – “whether that be urban, regional, freight or high speed”.

“High Speed Rail is a transformative, nation-building project which would reshape all of eastern Australia and deliver major decentralisation and development benefits to regional centres along the route.”

A Victorian government spokesperson said high speed rail along the eastern coast was a matter for the commonwealth government.

“We make no apologies for delivering on our election commitments to deliver fast rail to our regional cities – that will not only deliver faster travel times, but boost our economy and support jobs.”

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