Airport Rail Will Go Broke?


John Banks threw an unwelcome curveball into the airport rail debate at the weekend by claiming that if Auckland gets airport rail, it will go broke.

He claims there’s not one airport rail service in the world that’s profitable.


Brisbane is being held up as the example Auckland should follow as an supercity.

So how is its airport rail service, Airtrain doing?

While the latest financial year results should be announced any day, we can look at the last two years of the airport rail service.

In the last financial year,  Airtrain carried nearly 2m people - 1,889,549 to be exact.

Its patronage had increased in a year by 15% or 250,000 passengers.

It’s true that Airtrain, set up about 10 years ago, initially did have a rocky beginning until its board was shuffled and good marketing and services kicked into place.  Now it’s booming especially since it introduced that anyone under 14 can travel free (adults pay just nearly NZ$19).

Waiting for Airtrain in Brisbane

Its 2009 profit was up 53% to AU$7.4m. It paid shareholders a dividend of AU$2.50 a share, a 28 per cent rise on the AU$1.95 paid the previous year.

The company’s major shareholders include ABN Amro Morgans, Commonwealth Bank and National Australia Bank along with several private investors.

In 2008, Brisbane’s Airtrain  posted a 107% rise in full-year operating profit to AU$4.8 million.  The company’s chairman said 1 out of 10 travellers to Brisbane Airport was using the train.

Patronage grew 17% during 2007 to 2008 and 27% during the month of June 2008 alone.

“We used to have a slogan ‘take the train, make the plane’ but now it is simply ‘beat the traffic’,” chairman Mike Pelly said. ”The horrendous Brisbane traffic is the main reason for the increases. A taxi from the city to the airport can cost up to $50 these days, not to mention the time involved.”

That sounds very much like a description of Auckland’s problems.

And a $4.8m profit doesn’t sound to me like an airport rail service that is broke.

Why not bring those guys over to give us some advice on getting it right from day one?

And before he was cut off mid-sentence during the weekend’s TV3 debate between the 2 main mayoral candidates, Banks starting saying something about Melbourne-  probably that it doesn’t have or need airport rail.

Well, just a week ago a columnist in Melbourne’s Age newspaper wrote this which sounds like the debate we are having here:

“If Melbourne is to remain a truly global city, then it’s time to commit to a rail link between the city and the airport.

Travellers are sick of paying through the nose to get to the airport, with their parking or cab fare sometimes costing more than their interstate ticket.

Nor is there any evidence that Melbourne Airport’s passenger numbers are too low to support a rail link. Melbourne Airport has 12,000 employees and handles 25 million passengers a year.

Although there are alternative transport concepts either under consideration or in progress, these do not offer the genuine improvements in accessibility and value for money for airport users of rail infrastructure.

A report that examines 52 cities around the globe has found that 34 have airport rail links and 10 have rail links under construction or as a committed policy.

Among these cities 12, for example London, have two running rail lines that typically include a suburban rail connection and either an express or fast rail link.

Of the 25 cities with lower airport passenger numbers than Melbourne, 12 have a rail link and six others have a link under construction or with project commitment.

Cities with lower air passenger numbers than Melbourne are seeing the benefits of an airport rail link and the Victorian government must recognise that Melbourne is missing out.

Many other Australian cities, including Brisbane, have experienced an increase in patronage on its previously criticised airport rail link.”

Condemning an idea as a failure before we even seriously debate it is so much part of Auckland’s too -often small - minded thinking.

You can score some cheap shots by using scare mongering tactics to portray political opponents as going to be reckless with ratepayers money.

Or you can show that you have a vision to make Auckland a better place.

Scaring ratepayers is part of Auckland’s failed political culture which too often in the past can’t grasp the fact that to be a great city, we need to do some bold things, (sometimes initially unpopular), that other great cities are embracing.

And embracing green technology in an era of peak oil issues is a wise move in setting Auckland up for the future. Just building more and more parking lots at Auckland airport is not going to be seen as having been wise and practical in a few decades to come.

The fact is that airport rail links have long been popular in Europe and Asia. For example, Heathrow Express carries an average of 16,000 passengers a day.

For  many European and Asian airports, the official figures are that 20% to 30% of airline get to and from the airport using rail.

That’s a lot of cars off the downtown to airport roads in those cities.

In car-centric cities, it’s going to require time to change the mindset.

The growth in rail patronage in Auckland in the last year thanks to advocates like ARC’s Mike Lee shows that our mindset can be changed too. And rail patronage has doubled in 5 years.

It’s probably a bigger struggle - but not surprisingly - in car-centric USA, where the figures for airport rail travel are a woeful 2% to 5% of airline passengers.

There are at least 8 large US airports where you can get a train within walking distance of the terminals: Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, New YorkJohn F. Kennedy, San Francisco, Newark, Minneapolis, Boston and Philadelphia.

While more US airports attach a rail service to the metro services, it’s sadly true the figures overall have not been always meeting expectations.

In San Francisco, BART’s connection to the international airport , completed in 2003, has yet to reach BART’s initial ridership forecast and is still not profitable.

Prior to construction, BART projected there would be 17,800 average daily boardings to and from the airport by the year 2010. The  figure was closer to 11,000.

But there are some showing healthy growth.

About 4.75 million paid to ride the train to JFK airport in 2008.

And this has not stopped forward thinking cities on realising rail is the future.

There are plenty of plans on the drawing board.

Large airports with an approved rail project that will be completed in the next few years include Salt Lake City, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth and Oakland.

Several other airports, including Denver, Washington Dulles and Los Angeles, have similar plans, but their projects are years from completion.

Some airports are looking at light rail or people-movers.

In Seattle, where light-rail coverage is still growing, expectations are modest, with 3,000 riders a day expected at the airport station initially.

Look at Salt Lake City which 10 years ago had no commuter rail. The Utah Transit Authority has since built a system that covers about 240ks.

An 8k downtown-to-airport connection is under construction and scheduled to open in 2012. Its initial  expectations are for 6000 tickets a day.

To fund its airport rail plan, Phoenix has added a tax on airline tickets.

Others look to private-public partnerships.

A Glasgow airport rail link was due to open in time for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and was labelled a “nationally significant project”. It was to have cost $258m and was scrapped by the Scottish government last year as part of budget cuts. That’s a good example of short-sightedness.

There is some truth that not all airport rail services have been financially successful so far, and  there is no doubt some example somehere that the mayor could quote.

As the Governor-General said at the opening of the New Lynn transport hub on Friday, it has been proven now in Auckland as far as public transport is concerned that the old cliché about ‘build it and they will come’ does work.

We have proof it’s working but everytime we celebrate the opening of a new step forward, the tired old policymakers step forward again to pour water on the next plan.

On the verge of being a supercity, Auckland is at the crossroads.

The election so far has seen the same old mud-slinging small town politics that has held the city back.

It’s becoming very tiresome. I’m not the only person in my circles now talking aloud about whether Auckland is where I want to be in 10 years time.

Can we ever become the bold visionary city we could be?




  1. JX says:

    I use the Brisbane train everytime I go back and it is brilliant. In the last 15 trips, it has arrived on time (via a count down clock that predicts to the minute - wow - wouldn’t that be nice in Auckland) and gotten me to my stop on time.

    The Brisbane Airport road system is a huge mess at the moment and driving to the airport is always a drama - mainly due to the shortsightedness of the Beattie and then Bligh governments in updating roading infrastructure for this area.

    The rail link provides a speedy blessing to bypass all that delay.

    Now Auckland needs to get its act together and make it happen here.

  2. Goodbye Mr. Banks says:

    Banks has shown Auckland all his cards - finally Auckland can get rid of the idiot.

    He said he learnt from being dumped last time that Aucklanders wanted public transport over motorways. He hasn’t learnt a single lesson. The only lesson he will learn is that not truthfully endorsing public transport has cost him this election as well!

  3. Cam says:

    Oh dear, John Banks really does belong to that bygone era of “can’t do” Auckland polititcians the ones who condemed the city to limp along with substandard infrastructure for so long. I think the public are sick of politicians like him, who really don’t know what they are talking about, telling them that completing the motorway system will solve Auckland’s congestion problems and that rail is an expensive fantasy. The public wants world class public transport and dinosaurs like John Banks are going fall by the wayside. What is John Bank’s vision for Auckland, what’s his ambition for the city? More of the same it would seem.

  4. Cam says:

    “Scaring ratepayers is part of Auckland’s failed political culture which too often in the past can’t grasp the fact that to be a great city, we need to do some bold things that other great cities are embracing” - This paragraph sums it up perfectly.

  5. Matt L says:

    Great post Jon, it is going to take someone bold to drive a project like this through the vocal minority (I think they are a minority because I have never talked to anyone who has said that we shouldn’t have a line to the airport). A couple of problems I see is:

    1. that people only see it as a line that services the airport and forgets about the fact that a lot locals work there and in the airport oaks area that this would be useful for, there is also potential for about 2 other stations along the line close to Mangere town centre and Mangere bridge.
    2. people see this as one new line rather than adding to the overall network and don’t realise that as that network develops it actually improves other lines as well due to it being more useful to more people (of course when building motorways it is always, “We need to complete the motorway network for it all to work correctly”).

    You should really submit this or a slightly edited version (to fit in to any word caps) to the Herald as an opinion piece.

  6. Patrick R says:

    Great that Brisbane makes money but really Banks is doing the same trick that Joyce does by conflating the financial with the economic. Like the CBD loop the airport line will enrich us by being economically successful whether or not a financial return can be calculated. Remember the NZTA calculates that for every single dollar it spends on transit in Auckland it saves $4.40 in road user benefits. That is $4.40 it doesn’t need to find to spend on encouraging congestion with road building. Also capital cost is amortised over a really long period for a rail corridor because it’s economic return continues almost limitlessly… The eastern line, our most recent investment in a new line was built in 1930 [! shocking I know]. So it is not just the generation that plants the tree that picks the fruit…. So these investments ask for vision and big picture thinking by our politicians, something clearly beyond poor old John-boy.

  7. karl says:

    The only worry I have with Len Brown’s more expansive vision is that in this current National-led anti-PT cimate, he could spread himself too thin campaigning for more than one major rail project.

    I think he should go all guns blazing for the CBD tunnel, and push for/fund design studies and route protection on the two others, but not try to build them soon. He’ll have to face mayoral reality with increasing financial demands through the leaky homes crisis soon enough anyway.

  8. Matt L says:

    Karl - I agree, we can’t build everything at once but we should be getting similar studies going similar to what is happening with the CBD tunnel so that we can get things like the route protected and the line costed. One thing I’m surprised haven’t heard yet is someone saying “If the government doesn’t like the project then it is my job to prove the benefits of it to them”

  9. Goodbye Mr. Banks says:

    Matt L - you should have written “if Steven Joyce doesn’t like the project then it is my job to prove the benefits to him.”

  10. Matt L says:

    Goodbye Mr Banks - The problem is it is not just SJ that needs convincing as Labour have been equally as bad at seeing the benefits of rail. The previous government only committed to putting New Lynn in a trench after Bob Harvey dragged Michael Cullen out to the area to see how bad the traffic was with just a few trains running through. The reality is that project is actually a roading one not a rail one. My point was more that any mayor needs to be selling the benefits of these improvements to who ever is in power.

  11. Nick R says:

    Matt L, I agree with you totally. It is probably true that a rail line just to take air travellers to the CBD would go broke… but what we are talking about is a new suburban line that includes the airport on the way.
    Such a line would pass through the CBD, the inner ithsmus to Penrose, include an upgraded Onehunga branch, service two new suburban stations in Mangare, one new station in the employment zone to the north of the airport, one at the airport itself and continue on to connect to the Southern Line and Manukau CBD.
    With all this, why are they only talking about buisiness air travellers FFS?!

    So apart from all the people that live and work between the CBD, Managere and at Manukau we have:
    -12,000 employees at the airport proper (according to the AIAL website)
    -A further 10,000 employees in the wider airport zone (according to statsNZ 2009 data)
    -35,000 daily travellers (almost 2/3 international, AIAL website)

    So just at the airport precinct alone we have 79,000 potential trips, let alone the other suburbs and connections afforded.
    So if like Brisbane we get 10% of airport trips this alone would make the Airport line busier than the Western Line.
    Add in the patronage heading to and from Managere, Onehunga and Manukau and it could be the busiest line in Auckland.

  12. Jon C says:

    @Nick R Well put. Auckland Airport itself currently has 321 staff but over 12,000 people work in the airport vicinity. Some would use rail- but of course some work strange shift hours and I note the Brisbane service isn’t great on after hours travel like late nights.

  13. AdG says:

    Jon C - good post on profitability of Brisbane airport rail - any others you can dig up? Question - even though LBrown supports airport rail it would be good to get these sorts of stats’ to him personally - that we he can appear to shut JBanks up more convincingly in the eyes of the voters? Just a thought.

  14. Linz says:

    A superb post Jon. I agree with Matt L’s suggestion that this would make a superb opinion piece for the Herald - and I suggest you add in Matt’s own two additional points as well as those made by Nick.

  15. Patrick R says:

    Great posts but remember we are still allowing the road lobby [read Banks] to frame the argument: Show me a road that makes a profit? This is not a natural demand of transport infrastructure, the benefits are ECONOMIC not financial.

  16. Nick R says:

    Jon, just to clarify:

    321 people on site are employees of Auckland International Airport Limited, the company that runs the airport.

    12,000 people in total work at the airport terminals precinct for the airlines, customs and security, freight and logistics companies, hire car services, retail and food etc etc.

    22,000 in total work across the whole airport environs, including the ‘Airport Oaks’ commercial-industrial area south of Ascot Rd.

  17. Patrick Davis says:

    I have CC’d a good chuck of your above blog to the NZ Horrible. We’ll see…

  18. Steve W says:

    I hate to rain on the parade but I’m sorry to write that in general I agree with Mr Banks in that at least that the line to the airport would be unprofitable (Aren’t all suburban Lines anyway?). Trains aren’t family friendly I’m afraid, I found out the hard way by using the Sydney Airport-City Link. Personally I would love an Airport Train and use it all the time, but that is only my personal take.

    It has taken a lot of tinkering at the edges, to get the Brisbane “Airtrain” anywhere near to profitability. For instance, there was a deal with Qantas, that the Air Train will do all transfers between the Brisbane Domestic and International Terminals (some distance apart) creating revenue for the airtrain.

    Road traffic to the Brisbane airport has been horrific for sometime, forcing the airlines and travel agents to tell flyers as a neccessity to take the “Air Train”. Unfortunately this is about to all finish with very new motorways (some toll) soon to be opened. This will lead to a whole new adjustment in the market. Something else about Queensland should be noted (Mr Joyce and Mr Banks and/or staff are you reading this?). Through overspending - especially on roads, that are a luxury not a neccessity, the Qld Government is having to hold a fire-sale on assets to cover it’s coffers.

    Connectivity would be a great factor in favour of an Auckland Airport Line. Large groups of tourist come into New Zealand via the Auckland International Airport(Gateway to NZ) especially from Asian Countries. KiwiRail is becoming a lot more proficient at running tourist trains, trainloads could be collected at Auckland Airport and taken directly off to locations such as the BoP, Rotorua, the Central Plateau and the far North or even just downtown Auckland. This is where I would see the real value in running a line out to the airport. The number of people that get dragged around in buses in NZ long distances is horrific.

  19. Matt L says:

    Steve W - Just a few points for you, the purpose of the line should not be to make money but to make it easier to get around the city. When examining the benefits of such a project we should also take into account other factors like travel time benefits etc not just how many passengers and how much they pay.

    Also Sydney isn’t a great example as they charge a huge fee to get to the airport where as stations either side only cost a fraction of the price. If we priced an airport train the same as any other suburban line in Auckland it would probably be about 5 stages or a $6 adult cash fare. At that price a family of 4 could get to the airport for less than $20 compared with the almost $60 in Sydney.

    I completely agree about it being a great opportunity for tourist trains to leave from there or at least be a stop along the way i.e they could go Britomart - Newmarket - Airport then carry on further south.

  20. Patrick R says:

    Please do buy into this ‘it needs to make money’ idea. Does the road to the airport turn a profit? This is a red herring. The terms for evaluation, like for roads, are economic, not financial. Please people we’re all talking here like Joyce and Banks want us to.

  21. karl says:

    Indeed, Patrick - though its tantalising to know that some actually DO make money.

    I mean, I don’t know the environment around Sydney and Brisbane airport and so on, but especially an Onehunga line (essential an upgraded current Onehunga service extended to the airport) would be so much MORE than “just” an airport service. It would be great either way. Sadly, Joyce is already revving up the diggers to upgrade SH20A and SH20B to full motorways - then there will be “no direct need” for airport rail for another couple added years, before they have to think up some new excuse.

    Keep hammering the issue, and use the upcoming sparks effect and later the CBD tunnel to boost the case. We may have to wait another 10-15 years for an airport line, but certainly not 30.

  22. Chris says:

    No airport rail is profitable? What about the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport station.
    I think only the station at the airport wont be too profitable, but the other stations through Mangere will be very profitable.
    I also agree with Matt L - ‘the purpose of the line should not be to make money but to make it easier to get around the city.’

  23. Jon C says:

    @Patrick R Thanks for your reminders of your sound advice!

  24. Patrick OR says:

    I endorse the support for a rail connection to Auckland Airport as many have suggested in response to Jon’s latest post. For me it is about getting access to the entire train network for commuters and Aucklanders wanting to use public transport to make their flights that is important, not just for tourists to get to Queen Street. As a frequent traveller I try and use public transport to get to the airport wherever I am. In Auckland it means the Northern Express from Sunnynook, the train from Britomart to Papatoetoe and the 380 bus (who knows about this!!?) from there to the terminal. Cost $12.70. A lot less than the slow ride on the Airport Express Bus. We should not be looking at special fares for the airport as in Sydney. In February I rode the Piccadilly line from LHR to Hammersmith for one pound forty using my Oyster Card and in New York earlier this month I took the E train from Manhattan to Flushing and the Airtrain from there to JFK, total cost $7.20. An airport link integrated into our public transport system is the way to go. Everyone talks about extending the Onehunga line but Puhinui Station is closer and I suspect Puhinui will become an important interchange point when the Manukau City branch opens.

  25. Andy says:

    I don’t think you would see as much profit or success from other countries’ airport links if it weren’t for the vast amount of passengers in transit who venture out just for a day or two.

    NZ being at the bottom of the world is at a disadvantage when you look at it this way. This is all the more reason why people should not just see it as an “airport link” but an extension of the current network as many of you have mentioned.

  26. Steve W says:

    Matt and others - I don’t think that the airport line should have to make money, however I believe that there is potential, that unless done really well for the line to be a lemon hindering any further rail expansion. Contrastingly I believe that the CBD Loop will galvanise the entire suburban network and provide an irresistable case for a North Shore Line to boot.
    To me one of the most interesting things about the Onehunga Line will be to see if it attracts any airport traffic (other than myself).

  27. William Ross says:

    Excellent post, Jon.
    I was going to vote for Banks until he morphed into a grumpy old man who said ‘No you can’t have that, because my masters in Wellington said you can’t.” This is proof that the government wants to control the new supercouncil.
    I can’t bring myself to vote for Brown either because he feels very oldtime socialist if not a bit odd.
    I worry about your comment that you’re finding this tiresome and seriously contemplating living somewhere else.
    AKT has become my first port of call each day. YOu’re very well connected and bring us interesting news about our city I don’t find anywhere else.
    Unlike lazy bloggers who wait until something has appeared in the Herald and reprint it, you have brought us awesome coverage of all the big transport openings and I especially thank you for coverage of the council meeting on Dominion Rd which got only one paragraph in the Herald despite it being such an important issue.
    So please keep doing what you are doing.

  28. joust says:

    totally agree William Ross. And about the mayoral hopefuls. What an uninspiring bunch they are. Whats the point in having a mayor who’ll just be dictated to by the government. I suppose that would be true to an extent as well, if we had the other lot in with Brown.

  29. joust says:

    And on airport rail (back to the OP!). Sydneys airport is pretty close to their CBD by comparison. But I agree that comparisons aren’t particularly valuable. Lets see what a new (re-established) rail connection does for Onehunga and extend the same benefits to Mangere.

  30. Bryan says:

    I would like to see the extension of the Onehunga line south west .Having stations at Mangere Bridge,then Airport Oaks,Airport then branch off east to Papatoetoe and Finish at Manukau.Then another train could do the reverse.They could cross the NIMT at Puhinui for passengers on the southern line.Do it now while there is land available and people are focussed on transport and support it with Park’n'ride or kiss n go etc etc.


Leave a Comment


XHTML: You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>