Guest Post: Light Rail to Auckland airport – dodging a bullet!

A guest post by Lynne Mitchell:

The current halt of the projected Auckland airport rail link project is cause for tax payer celebration. Rail links to airports have proven a risky for ballooning project costs, years of building disruption and lack of early profitability.

For Auckland, the billions to have been spent on an airport rail link would be better utilised  improving journeys for Auckland area commuters.  By volume of total commuter traveling around cities, airports are not huge destinations.  Aside from tourists, airport workers and business passengers, most Aucklanders would only travel to the airport 3 or 4 times a year.   

Airport rail travel must be convenient and cost competitive or travellers will use alternative transport options.  Buses have advantages of a wider passenger coverage area and ride-sharing services such as Uber are growing. Sydney Airport now has dedicated ride share zones at domestic terminals costing $4 entry. Oakland and San Francisco International airports attribute declines in public transport rider numbers to the growth of ride-sharing companies.

Existing airport rail link projects provide useful insights. In Toronto, the Pearson Airport UP Express link opened in 2015 with the Canadian $456 million cost  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 initially the Provincial Government subsidy was Can.$52.26 each passenger ride! By slashing fares passenger numbers tripled and currently the Government subsidy is Can.$11 per ride. Between April 2016 and March 2017, the UP Express airport rail service cost the Province $68 million to operate. 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.

Sydney airport’s rail link initially failed to meet passenger targets, despite efforts such as cancelling the Airport Express bus service, creating taxi surcharges and more expensive airport parking. In 2000 it went into receivership and after purchase in a receiver’s sale, Government assistance was used to boost passenger numbers by subsidising fares.

The Brisbane Airtrain also failed in early days to meet passenger targets but now returns a small profit. The privately owned Airtrain has monopoly access to provide public transport to Brisbane’s domestic and international terminals until 2036. In 2017, Sydney’s Airport Link and Brisbane Airtrain  carried approximately 17 per cent of the 50 million passengers that passed through both  airports.

The Melbourne airport rail link is set for completion in 2031 with a cost range of 8 to 13 billion. This despite a 2013 study by Public Transport Victoria finding that the prohibitive costs of a Melbourne airport rail link outweighed the benefits. Critics of the service have questioned the cost of moving mainly tourists from the existing 24-hour express Skybus on to rail.

The proposed Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) project was cancelled on cost grounds following a change of Government.  However in 2007, it was agreed to retain the project as a light rail line between the airport and Edinburgh city centre and the Edinburgh Trams service was launched in May 2014 as a single light rail route from central Edinburgh to the airport.  The trams were originally designed to run for 15 miles from Edinburgh Airport to Leith by 2011 at a cost of £375m but a truncated 9 mile service, stopping in the city centre, opened in 2014 at a cost of £776m with the final bill expected to be bill to about £1bn.  The service has the capacity to carry 21 million people a year but in 2015 the Edinburgh Tram (light rail) carried 5.3 million passengers, running at an average of 25 per cent capacity. It currently costs more and takes longer than the existing airport bus services

A public inquiry has been set up to investigate the huge problems dogging the Edinburgh airport light rail project, which as well as massively over budget, was completed five years later than planned, and caused major disruption for residents and visitors through years of works.

According to The Scotsman, 2017, “Passengers are complaining the airport tram continues to be slower than the bus, and some Edinburgh residents are so furious with the inconvenience it caused they refuse to get on it”. A new scheme in Scotland to build a multi-million-pound link to Glasgow Airport has hit the buffers after experts warned it would do more economic harm than good.

Globally, a well-connected airport rail link is expected to achieve up to 20% of passenger share where the population are already well used to using public transport.  In the United States just 6 of the 50 busiest airports are served by transit options that can save time in typical traffic and many airport rail links do not exceed 7%  of  traffic share

Successful airport rail links share some clear attributes.

  • The airport rail link is part of an integrated city transport system with good connectivity to other transport services
  • The airport rail link does not terminate at the airport and serves passengers and commuters going on to destinations via the airport stop.  
  • The airport rail link connects 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.
  • Ease of access for pedestrians at the airport and rail stations i.e. no steps, stairs or long walk distances
  • Comfortable seats and room for luggage.
  • Easier beginnings. The Heathrow Express was created after a less expensive airport rail service had first been established via the London Underground
  • Attractive ride cost. With the average cab fare from Brisbane city to the airport at $47 and the Airtrain fare at $15 a seat, 58 per cent of travellers in groups choose to go by other means than Airtrain.
  • The success of an airport rail link is related to the city having a sufficiently large population base.
  • High public transport usage is indicative for a successful  airport rail link service with high car ownership a detrimental factor.

Expensive city transport projects need to be well future proofed. A new book, “The Driverless Car Revolution” makes the bold statement, “ Driverless cars are coming and they will change our lives. Pre-screened ridesharing options with driverless cars, door to door will be a new reality Most people will not choose to own these electric vehicles and traffic congestion will plummet”.

Airport rail links around the world have been described as being built mainly for nakedly political reasons, was this any different ?

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