Lynne Mitchell: Light rail to Auckland Airport not worth the price tag

OPINION:

Rail links to airports are risky business. Airports are not high destinations by volume of daily commuter journeys. Aside from tourists, airport workers and business passengers, most Aucklanders would travel to the airport three or four times a year. The $14 billion-plus cost of the proposed Auckland airport rail link would be better served improving commuter travel times around the city.

Rail fares need to be competitive against other airport transport providers. Buses and ride-share service can offer more flexible passenger drop-off and pick-up points and accommodate the luggage of air travellers.

Journey time is a factor in transport choices to the airport, more rail stations (18 stops to the airport) mean a slower journey. NZTA had estimated 40 minutes for a light rail journey from downtown Auckland to the airport.

Airports operate early and late flight times, with passengers and workers needing to arrive two hours before a departing flight, say 4am, and these early and late transport times create high running costs for trains. The Brisbane Airtrain for the first few years could only afford to run until 8pm and it now stops at 10pm because of cost.

Existing airport rail link projects provide further insights into cost issues. In Toronto, the Pearson Airport UP Express rail link opened in 2015 with the C$456 million ($544.9m) cost made possible using some existing rail track and diesel engines. Despite Toronto’s population of 2.8 million, (compared to Auckland’s 1.5 million), the rail link struggled to attract passengers and the Provincial Government subsidy was C$52.26 each passenger ride. Fares were eventually slashed to triple passenger numbers and the current Government subsidy is C$11 per ride. Between April 2016 and March 2017, the UP Express airport rail service cost $68m to operate and brought in $32.4m revenue.

Critics of the Toronto airport rail link say that it is used mainly by tourists and business passengers and has diverted funds away from needed city transport projects.

Airport rail links in both Sydney and Brisbane initially struggled to turn a profit. In the early days of the Sydney airport rail link, despite cancelling the rival Airport Express bus service, creating taxi surcharges and expensive airport parking, the rail link failed to meet passenger targets and in 2000 went into receivership. It was purchased in a receiver’s sale and Government assistance eventually boosted passenger numbers with fare subsidies.

Stakes in the Sydney and Brisbane airport rail operations were sold in 2013 to UK’s Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) as part of their diversification into infrastructure assets. The Brisbane Airtrain, which cost $220m to develop, was sold for just $110m. The value of USS’s 49.9 per cent investment in Sydney’s Airport Link has not been disclosed, although Westpac is reported to have bought it for $300m in 2006.

In 2015 Sydney’s Airport Link had about 18 per cent share of airport travellers, while Brisbane’s Airtrain had between 6 and 9 per cent. Market conditions in Brisbane were seen as more challenging, with the airport recording low growth, improved road capacity to the airport and a more sluggish economy. Brisbane’s Airtrain has an edge with a 35-year agreement that excludes the operation of subsidised public transport buses to Airtrain stations. That agreement expires in 2036.

In March, 2021 a report by Infrastructure Australia savaged the NSW government’s justification for building a rail line to Sydney’s second airport warning the cost of the $11b project will far outweigh its benefit. Infrastructure Australia said the cost of building the airport rail line outweighed its benefits by $1.8b, adding that the government’s business case for the project “may be overestimated”. “There is insufficient evidence that the economic, social and environmental benefits of the project would justify its costs,” the report said.

The Melbourne airport rail link has a completion date of 2031 and a cost range of $8 to $13b. In 2013 a study by Public Transport Victoria found the prohibitive costs of a Melbourne airport rail link outweighed the benefits. Critics have questioned the cost of moving mainly tourists from the existing 24-hour express Skybus on to rail.

A change of government in Scotland in 2007 cancelled the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) on the grounds of cost but the project was retained as a light rail line between the airport and Edinburgh city centre. The Edinburgh Tram service was launched in May 2014 as a single light rail route from central Edinburgh to the airport. With the capacity to carry 21 million people a year in 2015, the Edinburgh Tram carried 5.3 million passengers, running at an average of 25 per cent capacity. It costs more and takes longer than the existing airport bus services.

A public inquiry is now working through a massive six million documents to investigate the Edinburgh airport rail project as it was massively over budget, completed five years later than planned and caused years of disruption. It has run at an operating loss since 2018.

According to The Scotsman newspaper in 2017, “Passengers complain the airport tram continues to be slower than the bus, some Edinburgh residents are so furious with the inconvenience it caused they refuse to get on it”. In 2019, plans for a rail link from Glasgow city centre to the airport was scrapped for the second time with consultants warning it would do more economic harm than good.

At 44 of the 50 largest airports in the United States it is slower taking an airport train or bus than a cab and only a handful of cities have transit options that can save time in typical traffic. Door-to-door airport transport services like Uber and Lyft provide strong competition to airport rail services and airports report declining public transport use because of the growth of ride-sharing companies. Portland International Airport in Oregon has seen rideshare pick-ups increase to 106,000 from 48,000 in two years.

Airports are accommodating ride-sharing services by providing designated parking garages or pick-up zones, and technologies are creating more efficiencies. “Rematch” is an Uber despatch technology that allows drivers dropping off passengers to immediately take on another fare without needing to exit the airport.

The future of transportation is transforming rapidly. In Rutt Bridges book, Driverless Car Revolution: Buy Mobility Not Metal. “Driverless cars are coming, and they will change our lives. Most people won’t choose to own these electric vehicles. A few button clicks on a smartphone will bring a driverless car to your door in minutes. If you are willing to share a ride you’ll pay half as much. You will be able to request a ride share with someone of the same gender or age group. Plus, your fellow traveller will be pre-screened by your mobility service. Traffic congestion will plummet because ride sharing is hassle-free and half the cost”.

Elon Musk is in the forefront of new transportation technologies such as underground hyperloop pods and autonomous electric cars on skate systems. He has typically strong views on public transportation: “I think public transport is painful. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time?”

One of Musk’s proposals is an “AirBnB” vehicle scheme where owners add their car to a shared electric fleet and have it generate income while the owner is not using.

These ideas highlight the massive technologically changes occurring in how people move around cities. It is essential that public money going into city transit is well future-proofed.

In summary, successful airport rail projects share these attributes:

• The airport rail link is integrated with the city’s transport system and is not standalone line.

• The airport rail link does not terminate at the airport and serves passengers and commuters going on to other destinations via the airport stop.

• The airport rail link connects with passengers easily from dispersed suburban locations as well as from the central city.

• Total travel passenger time is efficient in terms of number of stops and the train timetable.

• The rail link serves both air travellers and airport employees with operating times suitable for their needs.

• Many successful airport rail links particularly in Europe have had an easier background. The Heathrow Express was able to be created after a less expensive airport rail service had first been established via the London Underground.

• An airport rail service needs to be competitive in price. According to a draft Brisbane Productivity Commission report, with the average cab fare from the city to airport costing $47 and the Airtrain charging passengers $15 a seat, 58 per cent of airport travellers choose to travel by road.

• The success of an airport rail link depends on a sufficiently large population base. High use of public transport is a factor in airport rail success whereas high car ownership is a negative factor.

• Blue sky city transport technologies and travel options are factored into projects.

Airport rail links around the world have been described as being built mainly for nakedly political reasons. Can we eliminate this reason in Auckland and ensure transport funds are well spent for Auckland commuters?

Marie Lynne Mitchell was a business librarian at the University of Auckland and is now an independent writer and researcher.

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