Melburnians who believe the city desperately needs a rail link to the airport should be careful what they wish for. They might just kill a bus service that is already better than a train could ever be.
So says international public transport planning consultant Jarrett Walker, who argues that Melbourne Airport already has the best public transport of any Australian airport, including Sydney and Brisbane with their rail links.
SkyBus is privately run with a portion of profits going to the state government. It charges $18 for a one-way trip.
Mr Walker, the author of Human Transit, who is visiting Melbourne on a lecturing and speaking tour, told Fairfax Media the key to a good airport link is frequency, not the transport mode.
"I am an extremely frequent flyer and when I land at an airport I want to get into the city and I want to get there fast and on that score Melbourne is actually the best of all Australian airports, because public transport to the city is leaving every 10 minutes," Mr Walker said.
Brisbane invested heavily in building a rail link to the airport, yet a train departs just once every half hour and the line shuts down just after 10pm. By comparison, Melbourne's SkyBus runs 24 hours a day and departs every 10 minutes between 5.30am and midnight.
"Brisbane spent a fortune building a rail line to the airport but it doesn't actually run enough to be relevant, certainly to the business traveller," Mr Walker said. "And while yes it's nice to be riding a train, it's even nicer to be where you're going."
While stressing he had no inside knowledge of the government's specific plans for an airport rail link – "for all I know someone has a plan to run a train to the airport every 10 minutes" – he said the realities of heavy rail made it more difficult and expensive to run frequent rail services than buses.
SkyBus was designed to provide a 20-minute run between Southern Cross Station and Melbourne Airport. A 2012 traffic study found it is consistently failing to do this during peak periods, with times blowing out to as much as 51 minutes in the morning and 59 minutes in the afternoon peak.
Mr Walker said the answer was putting in dedicated bus lanes.
"You don't of course need to build rail in order to get public transport out of traffic, it's just a matter of creating a space of any kind, whether it's rail or a busway," he said.
"I'm not particularly against an airport rail link, but folks in Melbourne need to think carefully about whether they want rail as a symbol and whether they would be willing to have less frequent rail rather than a more frequent bus."
The Napthine government last year completed a $6.5 million study into building a rail link to Melbourne Airport. The study report said the rail link would need to deliver passengers between the city and the airport within 30 minutes to be competitive. It should run every 10 minutes and 24 hours a day, via the Albion East alignment, branching off from the Sunbury line.
Premier Denis Napthine recently said the government would look to build an airport rail link in conjunction with the Metro rail capacity project, previously called Melbourne Metro, within the next decade.
The airport rail line is predicted to carry about 6 million passengers a year. SkyBus was forecast to carry four million people a year by 2026 in a 2011 Transport Department study, which also recommended putting express bus lanes on CityLink and the Tullamarine Freeway as a prelude to building the rail link.
The government rejected the proposal.