SkyBus – remember 20 minutes to the airport?

There was once a time when SkyBus would whisk you from the Melbourne CBD to the airport in just 20 minutes – but thanks to traffic congestion and a lack of bus priority, that is now a distant memory. So what went wrong?

SkyBus articulated bus #74 7487AO on the Tullamarine Freeway near Essendon Airport

Born out of the airline operated shuttle bus services that operated out of Franklin Street at the north end of the Melbourne CBD, in 2000 the city terminus moved to Spencer Street Station, which combined with upgrades to the Tullamarine Freeway as part of the CityLink project, saw the travel time to Melbourne Airport cut to just 20 minutes.

As late as 2008 the 20 minute travel time was front and centre on the SkyBus website front page.

By 2010 the 20 minute reference was dropped from the front page, but still appeared on their FAQ page. There it remained through 2012, 2014 and 2015 – but with the addition of an asterisk – “times may vary due to traffic conditions”.

By 2016 the SkyBus FAQ admitted that travel times had blown out by 50% in peak periods, to 30 minutes.

And by 2017 it had blown out further – 30 minutes the best case scenario, with a 45 minute journey expected in peak periods.

My recent SkyBus trip took 50 minutes to travel from Southern Cross Station to the airport.

SkyBus double decker #111 BS02KI southbound on CityLink at Moreland Road

Why is SkyBus taking longer?

The short answer – traffic congestion.

Traffic comes to a dead halt at the Bell Street / Pascoe Vale Road interchange

During the 2000s upgrade of the Tullamarine Freeway as part of the CityLink project, an ‘express lane’ for buses and taxis was added between Flemington Road and Bulla Road, operating between 6:30 am and 9:30 am inbound and 3:30pm and 6:30pm outbound, weekdays only.

Taxi / bus / VHA/C lane only operates between 3:30pm and 6:30pm

As traffic congestion increases this lane is the key to reducing SkyBus travel times, allowing buses to bypass other vehicles, as The Age reported in 2011:

SkyBus was designed to provide a 20-minute run between Southern Cross Station and the airport but 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.

A study by engineering and consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff found that “the future will see a continuation of the significant but relatively gradual degradation of travel time on the CBD-airport bus route”.

The study provided three options for improving travel times, with the department’s preferred one involving creating an express bus lane and putting SkyBus on a public transport fare.

A 2011 briefing to Transport Minister Terry Mulder said: “Putting SkyBus on a Met fare and enforcing express lanes would significantly reduce travel time on the express lanes without significantly affecting travel times on the non-express lanes.”

The SkyBus lane would be created relatively cheaply by removing the emergency lane and nominally narrowing the other lanes.

However, Transurban is believed to be bargaining hard to ensure it is not locked out from any extra lane on CityLink. A spokeswoman said: “Transurban supports any further augmentation of CityLink for the benefit of all the travelling public.”

Public Transport Victoria spokeswoman Andrea Duckworth said: “The government does not have immediate plans to install myki readers on SkyBus or widen CityLink.”

Despite the “no plans to widen CityLink” line, what did the government decide to do a few short years later? More roads, of course!

Throwing good money after bad

Approval for the CityLink Tulla Widening project was given in 2015, adding an extra lane to the Tullamarine Freeway between Melbourne and the airport, at a cost of $1.3 billion.

'New lanes now  open. Getting you home sooner and safer' propaganda from the CityLink Tulla Widening project

The section of elevated viaduct opened by CityLink in the 2000s as the ‘Western Link’ has had the emergency lanes removed and the speed limit dropped to 80 km/h, allowing an extra traffic lane to be squeezed in.

Emerging from the Tullamarine Freeway sound tube

An additional lane has also been added to the five lane section north of Flemington Road.

Six lanes northbound from Flemington Road

As well as the four lane section north of Moreland Road.

Back down to five lanes north of Moreland Road

But on the bus priority front, nothing has changed, despite the addition of a new lane for general traffic – limited operating times, no enforcement when it is active.

Variable speed limit signs hang from the new Bell Street ramp

And it still comes to an end at Bulla Road – only half way to the airport!

'Taxi / bus / VHA/C lane end' notice at Bulla Road northbound

And to make matters worse, there are no emergency lanes on the upgraded section of freeway.

'In case of emergency exit freeway' notice at Flemington Road northbound

Broken down taxis are a common sight on the Tullamarine Freeway.

Taxi passenger taking a piss in the middle of the freeway

As are rear end crashes.

SkyBus articulated bus #81 passes a broken down taxi on the Tullamarine Freeway at Essendon Airport

Today a mere inconvenience, but without emergency lanes any minor incident will result in an entire traffic lane being closed down. $1.3 billion well spent?

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18 Responses to “SkyBus – remember 20 minutes to the airport?”

  1. Conrad says:

    An addendum perhaps worth noting (but I cbf finding sources): I remember stories in the press saying that the proposed Melbourne Airport train would take 25 minutes via the preferred Sunshine route, and people were complaining at the time that it wouldn’t be worth it if it ran more slowly than the SkyBus. The assumption underpinning this opinion was obviously that the bus would still take 20 minutes.

    Thanks to all the induced demand and lack of priority, it’s now much more time competitive. The main argument now undermining any airport train is frequency compared to SkyBus.

  2. Jordan says:

    High frequency public transport is the answer not roads.

    Politicians have even said it themselves that if you provide a high frequency service people will use it.

  3. Jason says:

    Good summary. I’m a Skybus fan but tbh haven’t used it for a few years and didn’t realise how bad things had got!!

    dedicated lane is an urgent priority. I’m not sure whetehr to be more furious at transurban or our dismal government that is so in thrall to them.

  4. Don says:

    You don’t need Emergency Lanes on a modern managed road as the freeway management system shuts a lane to create one when required. About time people stop reporting on this as it’s a non issue.
    Transit lanes on the other hand would have been good as the third lane during peak periods all the way to the airport.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      The system creates an emergency lane as required, but it does mean you lost a lane to normal traffic, forcing traffic to merge on the approach.

      The real question – is it worth losing a lane when someone breaks down, if you get an extra lane when traffic is flowing normally?

      • Jamie says:

        In an ideal world, with a bottomless pit of money, then all freeways should have dedicated emergency stopping lanes.

        However, it would be interesting to see figures related to how many break-downs occur on the CityLink section of the Tullamarine Freeway per week in order to see how often an emergency stopping lane would genuinely be used.

        If it’s just one or two a week (which may not be in peak time), then if it’s a choice between an extra traffic lane open 24 hours a day, or an dedicated emergency stopping lane to guarantee no traffic disruption, then when weighing things up, you could get away without the emergency stopping lane.

        Emergency stopping lanes also tend to be used by people for things other than emergencies, like taking phone calls on the road, getting one’s bearings, taking a short break, etc. Even genuine emergencies, like flat tyres, are usually things that don’t happen instantly, so you could get off the freeway to attend to them.

  5. FMI says:

    Bus/ VHA priority lanes have never been followed by normal drivers, nor as far as I can tell even been policed.
    Priority lanes in name only.
    One wonders if Citylink asked for them not to be enforced.

  6. Wolf says:

    And where is this airport rail link that the governments of this country have been talking about for decades? Such a joke for city like Melbourne not to have an airport rail link.

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