11.07.2019Melbourne Airport Link-what Melbourne can learn from Hong Kong

By Will Riley
Will is Senior Associate at WW+P and a UK registered architect and urban designer. Will specialises in transport led development and heads the masterplanning team in Melbourne. Here is what he had to say about what Melbourne can learn from Hong Kong.


The Victorian government has given the green light to progressing the business case for the much needed Melbourne Airport Rail Link (MARL). 67 million passengers will be using Melbourne Airport by 2038 and currently there is no reliable, fast and frequent service to the CBD and surrounding suburbs.

The Proposed airport link, via Sunshine, will provide Melbourne with this critical airport connection, serving both the Melbourne CBD and Geelong. Transport Orientated Development needs to be elevated in the list of state priorities when making such significant investment in infrastructure. Our Melbourne Metro experience tells us there are lessons to be learnt from existing international models.

As part of this new infrastructure, Melbourne should consider a Hong Kong style, in-town check-in service to provide the best possible passenger experience and see the greatest economic return on this investment. By incorporating airport bag-drop into the Hong Kong Central Station MTR Concourse, passengers simply head to metro station on the morning of departure and check-in all baggage, freeing them for the rest of the day to enjoy the city without having to lug bags around behind them. After dropping your bags, you don’t see them again until they are looping around the carrousel at your destination airport.

Being freed of luggage encourages you to make the absolute most of your last day of any city visit. In Melbourne, this service would be particularly useful for young families and long distance travellers, both of whom make significant contributions to the Victorian economy. Bringing the check-in into the CBD also frees up space and reduces visual clutter in the airport and improves the landside passenger experience. CBD check-in desks can be open all day too, allowing a staggering of passengers for bag-drop and shorter queues at departures.


I ran this idea past Andrew Mead, Chief Architect of MTR in Hong Kong, following a recent study tour to Asia with Rob Naybour (WW+P Founding Partner) and Mark Kelly (WW+P MD Australia) to focus on Metro designs in sub-tropical environments. Andrew, as ever, was well informed of the history and issues surrounding the HK Airport Express. His insights to the history, operations and design of the HK Express provide valuable learnings for MARL and associated Transport Orientated Development (TOD).


The original HKG airport was located on a former military airbase before being repurposed for civilian travel. Increased flight demand and higher aviation safety standards eventually rendered the site unsustainable and sparked the early 90’s move to Lantau. The Hong Kong Airport Express is over 20 years old now but provides a fantastic passenger experience; completely seamless access between the airport and the city. The rail connection was considered as an integral part of the Airport development, facilitated by major TOD sites on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The Multi-Billion dollar real estate developments conceived as part of the original deal provided the mechanism for MTR to capture the value from the infrastructure investment, providing capital to reinvest in the system and keeping fares low – ultimately driving the success of the project.


One of the key operational successes is the removal of the fare gates at the airport – there is no need to purchase a ticket in order to board the train. A single porous barrier in the system at the point of exit makes the system ‘truly innovative’, reducing journey times, queuing and check points. In reverse, when one arrives at Central Station to head to the airport, the check-in desks are behind the gates, meaning people need to buy a metro ticket in order to access the service. Passengers are then free to leave for a period of up to 24hrs before returning with the same ticket and boarding a train to the airport. This prevents people using the check in desks without paying and providing the aforementioned experiential benefits.


The MTR in Hong Kong is a colourful system (Andrew was key promoter of the Art in Transit programme on the MTR), but this is deliberately different at check in. The more simplistic expression of the airport architecture is used to bring the airport experience into the CBD and marks the gateway to the airport in stark contrast to the rest of the MTR stations. This isn’t seen in many other places – Taipei in-town check-in has its own character, Gatwick and Heathrow express are extensions of the train service, not the airport. This could be an interesting cue for Melbourne and provides a significant design opportunity at Southern Cross Station.


If the in-town check in was done today, security would be a much greater priority and bags would be screened much earlier in the journey. Currently this is done at the airport by the airlines, rather than at the in-town check-in. This would have an impact on the spatial performance and would need considering as part of any proposal.

Another issue for HK Airport Express is the sharing of the track with the domestic rail line. Train headways are limited to 10 minutes (as proposed for MARL) which works with the current HKG airport demand but as the airport typology shifts more towards retail and tourism, and becomes a destination in its own right, passenger demand on the railway will increase. Teamed with population increases at satellite destinations – similar to what will happen with MARL through improved connectivity at the Sunshine Regional Super Hub and the airport connection to Suburban Rail Loop – capacity on the line will likely become an issue in the future.

The Jewel @ Changi Airport, Singapore, one of the largest air conditioned buildings in the world, is the most recent example of an airport making significant investment in placemaking. Changi is a product of extensive market research, teamed with a clear domestic development plan and a strong will to make a political statement. At MEL airport a more holistic development policy, a robust transport strategy and a commitment to a sustainable future could provide the genesis for similar aspirations and allow the airport to compete on the world stage

It’s worth noting that airport rail does not work everywhere; Airport Express was abandoned in Singapore due to location and user groups. The distance between the airport and the city does not justify the investment in a new rail link. The airport also has lots of employees so lots of train passengers are going to work, not carrying bags, and so a metro connection is better suited to the demand. Singapore is well connected to the existing metro and lots of taxis provide comparatively short journeys at low cost. In Melbourne, issues could be similar, dependent of journey times and user groups, both of which are still to be understood. Will business commuters get out of taxis if the time saving isn’t significant? Will tourists use it Skybus is cheaper? The business case analysis will flush this out and have significant impact on the type of rail system chosen, journey times and infrastructure locations.


The HK Airport Express had the combination of geography, passenger demand and political will to provide the opportunity. City developments centred around transport, at IFC and Kowloon, and value capture mechanisms rendered the opportunity a success. MARL already has the political backing, now an understanding of the economic strategy, infrastructure design and transport led development opportunities are key. More holistic strategies around future transport solutions and development need to be facilitated by government. Return on investment is key – MTR are granted development rights by government with the land to build the stations. Private developers tender for the construction and MTR share in the profit from rental or sale. A similarly bold approach for infrastructure investment through low density areas of Victoria should be reviewed for MARL.

Advances in technology also need to be considered as part of this plan. Future stations will have much less physical interface – check in online and bag drop only. As the world’s ‘most liveable city’ Melbourne should be considering future passenger experience at a strategic level, through both service and space planning; from city scale transport orientated development, down to in-town check-in.

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