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Melbourne Airport rail can’t justify cost, says independent body

written by Daniel Croft | November 1, 2022

Aerial view Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport at night.
An aerial view of Melbourne Airport at night (Australian Aviation archive)

The Melbourne Airport Rail link project proposed by the federal and Victorian governments is currently under fire, with a lack of passenger demand indicating that the $8 billion to $13 billion price tag may not be worth the benefits.

Infrastructure Australia (IA), the independent statutory body responsible for advising the government on decisions relating to infrastructure, has unveiled newfound criticism of the project, suggesting that it be delayed until passenger demand can justify the cost.

“The strategic need for Melbourne Airport Rail is strong, and there will be long-term benefits,” said IA in an assessment released on Monday.

“However … we recommend further work is undertaken to improve certainty of the cost estimates, cost escalation risk, and outcomes of stakeholder engagement, particularly with Melbourne Airport.”

The Andrews government, which has rejected the suggestion to delay the project and has begun work, previously released a business case that stated that the project would result in a positive economic return of $1.80 to every dollar invested.


The advisory body, however, believes that those numbers are “potentially significantly overstated”, suggesting that it may instead return only a third of government estimates.

The reason for IA’s poor expectations is a forecast of low demand. It believes that many commuters travelling to Melbourne airport will still opt to use the Tullamarine freeway, rather than the proposed rial link, which would run from Tullamarine to Sunshine.

The freeway is expected to reach capacity in 2036, meaning passenger numbers on the rail line in the first decade are expected to be low, making it a poor investment for now.

It instead advises that it be delayed until this date and that the government could implement measures to encourage users to take the new rail link rather than commute by car.

“Taking the proposal forward, the proponent should consider measures that could prompt the behavioural change required to shift road users to Melbourne Airport Rail earlier, thereby capturing upside potential to maximise benefits and improve the economic case.

“This could include competitive rail fares, road user/ congestion charges and media campaigns. Upgrades to on-road priority for airport bus services would maximise the capacity, efficiency, and reliability of the existing public transport connection until Melbourne Airport Rail is delivered.

“The economic benefits of Melbourne Airport Rail do not outweigh its economic costs at this time.”

The rail link project is a significant play for the Andrews government ahead of the state election on November 26. The total infrastructure planning for the government sits at $184 billion, with the rail link being one of the most significant projects.

“Others have talked about a rail line to Melbourne Airport for decades – the Andrews Labor government will get on and deliver it,” said a state government spokesperson.

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Comments (5)

  • Random


    If ever there was proof that building infrastructure ahead of demand on greenfield sites is completely justifiable then this is it. Thankfully someone decided not to allow the same folly at the new Western Sydney Airport. It’s utterly un-fathomable that we defer and delay building infrastructure like railways and dual carriageways, instead leaving corridors and two lane roads for someone else to fix. Imagine what the original cost of this line would have been before urban sprawl took away all of the above ground options. Complete lunacy yet we continue to make the same mistakes whilst trying to undo the previous ones.

  • David Heath


    Worse, the implementation is wrong. I don’t know of any successful airport rail that shares capacity, track and carriages with suburban services.

    Instead, they should have copied the HK model where a dedicated city-based terminal could handle airline check-ins and the collection of luggage, leaving passengers free to wander the city (should they choose) with only their carry-on.

    The obvious place is Spencer St Station – all of the country and suburban trains pass through (or terminate) there. Perhaps build a new structure (either underneath the existing platforms or above the rail lines to the north of the station and have the airport trains take a new tunnel to somewhere past the VIC Markets, then emerge to take a ‘sky rail’ up Flemmington Rd and the Tulla. Cheaper, easier and much more attractive for passengers.

  • Raymond


    Not an Andrews or Labor fan in the least, but we do just need to get on and build it! The cost in future will be even higher, and for Melbourne to have an airport rail link is well overdue. Sydney and Brisbane already do, along with many / most significant cities overseas. The only caveat to this is that it should be build by a government that knows how to manage such a project. When it comes to the Andrews Labor government, we’ve seen nothing but massive cost and schedule blowouts.

  • Adrian P


    V-Line and metropolitan bus operators do not appear interested in maximising the usage of the Melbourne Airport bus station which coupled with bus lanes would provide a more versatile public transport service than trains constrained by their tracks. If Melbourne Airport comes to their senses and build new terminals in the centre of the airport between the proposed parallel runways then the proposed airport railway station will be in the wrong location. Train lines are expensive civil engineering with long lag times. Not sure what Victoria has against buses because the widening the Westgate Freeway from 8 to 12 lines does not include a single bus lane.

  • PaulE


    Clearly the people who balk at the “unjustifiable” cost of a rail line to Tullamarine don’t try to get out there on a Friday afternoon! The unpredictability of the traffic along the freeway is both frustrating and famous. It can take anything from 25 minutes to over an hour and a half. At least trains have their own right-of-way and have a predictable transit time. Just for once, plan ahead of the current demand and have something that is actually in place when the capacity is reached.

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