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The Northern Light Rail link

The Northern Light Rail link
The Northern Light Rail link

For many a year now there's been talk of a rail link to Melbourne Airport with the Albion corridor named as the preferred alignment. While an airport heavy rail link via the preferred corridor would serve the Airport, Sunshine, the city centre and most parts of the metropolitan area in the East and South via a change of trains in the city, it doesn't do much for people living in the north and working at the airport, let alone cater for passengers accessing the airport.

On top of origin/destination trips to the airport's terminals, the airport master plan foresees significant non-aviation development and employment sprouting on the outer edges of the land it controls between Melrose Drive and the Tullamarine Freeway, notwithstanding the large amount of semi-industrial employment already in the region.

Essendon Fields is seeing ongoing commercial development, most notably in recent times with Linfox moving in, and Moonee Valley have currently zoned the area to the west of Matthews Ave as Business Zone 3 which allows for mixed-use residential and commercial uses. even has its eyes on development in this very precinct: see 83 Matthews Avenue.

Suffice it to say residents of Moonee Valley, Darebin and Moreland - areas where many people who work at Melbourne Airport reside - wouldn't directly benefit from a heavy rail link. These residents either have to travel into the city to catch the skybus (or in future the train) back out to the airport or play roulette with infrequent bus to bus (and rail to bus) connections; the only exception to this rule is the frequent connection between the Craigieburn line and Airport smart bus connection at Broadmeadows.

The idea: a light rail line stretching from Thornbury to Melbourne Airport

Airport West to Melbourne Airport

From the current terminus of route 59 at Airport West, new tram track would be built along the western side of Melrose Drive into the airport zone.

In order to not play havoc with existing vehicular traffic from the current terminus, the tram track would be elevated across the Matthews Ave/Dromana Ave/Melrose Drive intersection at the main entrance to Westfield Airport West, remain elevated across Mascoma Street and the Albion corridor rail line and then would transition to an open trench in order to have a clear path underneath the Malvern Avenue/Western Ring Road/Sharps Road interchange.

Between the Western Ring Road and Melbourne Airport, save for a short 200-300m section of Melrose Drive, the tram track would be laid at grade in the median that currently separates the northbound Melrose Drive traffic lanes and the service road. All sections where the tram track intersects with streets would be signalised and only triggered as trams approach the crossings, effectively giving light rail services priority.

From Trade Park Drive right up into the Airport lands - and where the new Tullamarine freeway exit intersects with Melrose drive - the trams would run in the ample space beside Melrose Drive and then switch to the Melrose Drive median up to Service Road and the Melbourne Airport Terminals.

The total length of this route is 6.3km, 350m of which is in an open below-grade trench and 550m is elevated at Airport West.

Essendon to Coburg

Using the short section of track which currently hosts the route 8 on Moreland Road, this idea would see both ends of that track extended west and east.

The first new track section from Essendon would run from where the existing route 59 trams turn out of Fletcher Street into Pascoe Vale Road down to the Moreland Road intersection and then turn eastward and run all the way to Moreland Station, where the existing tram track ends at Brunswick tram depot.

Engineering issues which would need to be dealt with along this route: Moreland Road descends moderately from Pascoe Vale Road and the general road corridor narrows over the Moonee Ponds Creek Bridge, this would need to be widened.

Similarly Moreland Road at Moreland station on the Upfield line would need to be grade separated - that's aken care of as it's already on the current government's map of 50 level crossing removals - but for the most part, Moreland Road is quite wide (parallel parking, bike and a single traffic lanes in each direction) and somewhat similar in profile to other roads in the area which have trams running on them.

This section of new tram track would measure 3.9km in length, connect/interchange with 3 existing tram routes (59, 55 and 19) and connect with 1 rail line (Upfield).

Coburg to Thornbury

Running on the existing tram track from Moreland Station across Sydney Road to Nicholson/Holmes Street the new track would be laid in the centre of Moreland Road and then across the Merri Creek along Normanby Avenue to St. Georges Road. From this point the route would use the existing track in St. Georges Road and Miller Street and Terminate at Thornbury junction in Miller Street.

There's an opportunity near the terminus to remove the existing Thornbury rail station and rebuild it 300m north in order for a) the station to be closer to the junction and b) directly interface with this new light rail route.

The width of Normanby Avenue from the Northcote Golf Club across St. Georges Road and into High Street is narrow and a straight route to High Street would need to include a grade separation. There is just one short 500m section of Normanby Avenue which would require some kind of tram prioritisation if the existing St. Georges road track were to be re-used.

This section of new track from Nicholson Street to St. Georges Road measures 1.6km in length. 1.4km of existing double tram track would be re-used for the Northern Light Rail line and from the St. Georges Road/Normanby Ave intersection to Thornbury junction. The new service would connect with 4 tram routes (1, 8, 11 and 86) as well as 1 rail line (South Morang).

Some employment numbers

Demographer's .id publish a great set of data on where residents of LGA's work. Melbourne Airport sits in the Hume - Craigieburn SLA which also includes Greenvale, Craigieburn and Roxburgh Park.

The 2011 census data shows that the Hume - Craigieburn area (where the airport is located) is the employment destination for:

Interestingly, the Hume - Broadmeadows area which stretches from Gladstone Park (where this Light Rail line would go) over to Broadmeadows itself is the destination for:

  • 1763 people or 3.3% of Moonee Valley's residents.
  • 1620 people or 2.5% of Moreland's residents.
  • 338 people or 1.3% of Darebin's residents.

The Moonee Valley - West region stretches from the Maribyrnong to Avondale Heights. The overwhelming majority of employment in this region is centred around Essendon Fields/Airport and Airport West.

It sees 2550 or 20% of its local residents work in the same region. 985 or 8% of its employees travel from the neighbouring Moonee Valley - Essendon region and 531 people or 4.3% travel from both the Brunswick and Coburg sub-regions of Moreland.

If we assume 75% of employees living in Darebin/Moreland/Moonee Valley work at/near the airport, 35% of employees from those LGAs are travelling to the Gladstone Park-Tullamarine area for work and 90% of the people are travelling to Essendon Fields/Airport West for work, then that totals approximately 8,000 employees traveling to a work place destination in the vicinity of this light rail line.

Throw in the wholesale integration with 7 tram routes plus 3 rail lines and the potential pool of passengers for this light rail line for travel to Melbourne airport will no doubt increase.


The new light rail line - let's number it route 60 - running from the Airport to Thornbury via Essendon Station, Fletcher Street and Moreland Road could start with 10 minute off-peak, 8 minute peak and 20 minute late night frequencies. All new stops along the line would be accessibility compliant and services would be operated with E-Class trams.

The Northern Light Rail link
Interior of a locally made Bombardier E-Class tram, image Wikipedia

Even though the journey would take over an hour from the city (remembering this isn't the main aim of the light rail line), there would be merit in extending the route 59 trams the extra 6km to Melbourne Airport. Using the current timetable as an example, that would mean 8 minute frequencies in off-peak times, 6 minutes in peak and 20 minute frequencies at night. Between Essendon and the Airport when combined with the new route 60 there would be an extensive amount of services.

According to the current route 59 timetable, from Fletcher Street and Pascoe Vale Road - where the new Moreland Road extension would connect to the existing network - the journey to the terminus at Airport West Shopping Centre takes 18 minutes in off-peak times. This route travels mixed with traffic on Fletcher Street, freely via the Mount Alexander Road median, mixes with traffic on Keilor Road through the popular Niddrie shopping strip and then on its own separate track alongside Matthews Avenue up to the shopping centre.

By way of eliminating a future tram bottleneck, the existing track between Matthews Avenue and the Tullamarine Freeway should be grade separated at English Street: the Tullamarine freeway interchange with Matthews Avenue / primary entrance to Essendon Airport / Essendon Fields.

Using the Keilor Road to Airport West segment - a distance of 2.5 km - as a guide, the current timestable states this journey takes 5 minutes. Given much of the extension north of Airport West SC would be in a dedicated corridor and measures 6.3km, the journey time from Airport West to the Melbourne Airport would take in the region of 12-15 minutes. This allows us to calculate journey times on route 59 as follows:

Journey Time
Melbourne Airport to Airport West 12 minutes
Melbourne Airport to Niddrie 18 minutes
Melbourne Airport to North Essendon village 23 minutes
Melbourne Airport to Essendon Station 26 minutes
Melbourne Airport to Moonee Ponds junction 34 minutes
Melbourne Airport to Flemington Bridge station 45 minutes
Melbourne Airport to route 59 terminus - Elizabeth/Flinders Street Approximately 1 hour

For route 60 as there is no precedent on an east-west route for estimating travel times however I'll use route 55's timetable. Melville Road, which Moreland Road intersects with, is of a comparable width and sees a similar volume of traffic throughout the day. From Smith Street to Bell Street - the entire length of Melville Road where route 55 runs - measures 3.25km. The current timetable for route 55 sees this segment's journey time at 9 minutes; this allows us to provide a journey time estimate for route 60:

Journey Time
Melbourne Airport to Melville Road (interchange with route 55) 33-35 minutes
Melbourne Airport to Moreland Station / Sydney Road (interchange with route 19 and Upfield line) 39-41 minutes
Melbourne Airport to Thornbury Junction (interchange with route 86 and South Morang Line) 47-49 minutes
Essendon Station to Brunswick (Sydney Road) 12-14 minutes
Brunswick (Sydney Road) to Thornbury Junction 11-13 minutes
Essendon Station to Thornbury Junction 23-27 minutes

Making things a little bit faster (and servicing different areas)

You'll note on the map there are two red lines: one from Airport West slicing through Essendon Fields and heading to the North Essendon village and a second red line running from North Essendon village to the Pascoe Vale Road / Moreland Road intersection via Glenbervie. They only exist to illustrate how new areas could be opened up for direct light rail services and would allow a more direct route 60 service to operate while interfacing with the existing route 59 in North Essendon and Airport West.

From Airport West Shopping Centre the tram track would stay elevated and cross the Tullamarine Freeway and then use the Wirraway Road median where just before the aviation zone starts, the track would enter a 1.1km tunnel and traverse the airfield and surface next to the DFO Essendon Fields. From there, another short section of elevated track above the Bulla Road freeway interchange would then deposit the track in the Bulla Road median where it would join up with the existing route 59 track.

From Mount Alexander Road, to the south of the North Essendon village strip, new track would divert down Glass street then cross the top of a newly rebuilt and sunken Glenbervie station and turn south onto Pascoe Vale Road and then east onto Moreland Road.

These two new routes marked in red on the map measure 4km and 1.65km respectively. The existing route from Airport West via Matthews Avenue, Keilor Road, Mount Alexander Road and Fletcher Street measures 6.5km plus another 500m to connect to Moreland Road.

5.65km versus 7km with the shorter route servicing Essendon Fields directly - specifically the southern end with its major retail uses and the northern end with its commercial focus - and providing a higher quality tram to rail connection at Glenbervie (passengers wouldn't need to walk 300m like they do at Essendon station for a connection).


One of the best sources of discussion on this topic is from this 2008 blog post. The author used the Box Hill, Vermont South and Docklands Drive tram extensions as an example and when you place the figures in that blog post through RBA's inflation calculator, the capital cost of constructing tram track - on road mind you - turns out to be $13.4 million per kilometre in 2014 dollars.

From the same post, the author asserts that the operational cost of running the tram network is (in 2014 dollars, thanks to RBA's inflation calculator) $1.1million per kilometre.

The original order of 50 E-Class trams by the State Government in 2009 cost $300 million according to this 2014 Age article; I'd estimate that 30 trams would be required for the new route 60.


  • $15 million per kilometre for standard in-road track.
  • $25 million per kilometre for elevated/trench track.
  • $30 million per kilometre for tunnel.
  • Melbourne Airport - Airport West (6.3km total, 500m elevated, 300m trench): $82.5 million + $20 million = $102.5 million.
  • Essendon-Coburg (all in-road, 3.8km): $57 million.
  • Coburg - Thornbury (all in-road, 1.6km): $24 million.
  • Total capital expenditure: $183.5 million for 12 kilometres of new track.

Alternative route 60 track:

  • Essendon Fields (4km total, 900m elevated, 1.1 km tunnel): $30 million + $22.5 million + $33 million = $85.5 million.
  • Glenbervie (all in-road, 1.65km, station rebuild costs not included): $25 million.

Lead image credit: Wikipedia.

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of Now a freelance writer, Alastair focuses on the intersection of public transport, public policy and related impacts on medium and high-density development.

Future Public Transport Ideas Urban Affairs

Community Discussion (13)

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What would you like to say about this project?
This is a fantastic concept and would remedy two under-serviced areas - direct public transport access to the airport for many aviation employees who live the inner northern suburbs and a east-west tram connection that links up all the north-south tram lines.

It is such a pain waiting for buses on the 504, 506, 508 and 510 lines, especially since they are scheduled during the week at least twice the waiting time that the north-south tram lines run and even worse on weekends.

I think I spend most of the waiting time dreaming up transit schemes such as this one!!
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@ Nicholas Harrison

The article estimates this route would provide a 45-50 minute service from the airport to Thornbury. so my 1 hr 3 minute existing trip is a more than valid comparison. if the Smartbus ran more regularly or more like BRT (or even juts with less fat in the timetable) I'm sure the 15 minutes difference could be made up for for next to no capital investment.

I agree with Jay to be honest the whole premise here is very simplified. project construction costs in a civil project are normally about 60% of the headline announced cost. even on a simple VicRoads intersection upgrade (which a lot of this is akin to) often there'll be that one telstra pit to move or that long known drainage problem to be fixed or that 500m section of road that is 50cm too narrow and requires a change in kerb line, which requires the drainage, teltsra, power, gas to be relocated.

btw. one commercial risk Jay forgot was CityLink...

From a transport planning perspective I agree there is a market for this route. I agree the Airport is a logical place to anchor the service as the airport has 10,000+ jobs in the building and on surrounding industrial land and becaue people from the north catch planes as well. Essendon Airport is a growing commercial hub. its links a lot of local activity hot spots.

but why wouldn't you just create reasonable bus routes to prove the patronage demand? For example the 510 runs every 20 minutes on Moreland Road today from Ivanhoe to Essendon. There are multiple buses from Airport West to the Airport. Maybe make them a consistent 10 minute service with bus priority at key locations.

Also why Moreland Road and thornbury? why not Bell Street and Greesnborough, Preston, Coburg? or Brunswick Road (or another east/west street). the iD data would stack up the same way for any of those roads as well...

not sure about CalderTulla interchange... maybe just a cut and cover trench under essendon airport land that they'd could contribute in return for a 'station' at Essendon Fields.
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Alastair Taylor's picture
Some more food for thought on the development side of the equation - planning zones.


[url= Map[/url]. [url=]GRZ/R1Z ordinance[/url]. [url= 2 to GRZ[/url]

Normanby Avenue on both sides of the street is zoned GRZ2 - and the schedule doesn't specify a height limit therefore it defaults (planners jump in if I'm wrong on this) to the standard heights for GRZ - 9 metres/3 levels.

There's a mixture of C1Z and R1Z on St. Georges Road and Miller Street into the Thornbury junction is GRZ and C1Z.


Maps: [url= [url= [url=

[url='s Schedule 1[/url] to GRZ - looks quite similar to Darebin's however something extra in there about planting trees.

GRZ1 looks to be quite targeted on Moreland road between Nicholson St and Sydney Road (the zone stretches back to the adjacent streets to Moreland at which point the NRZ takes over). Nicholson/Holmes St corridor is mixed-use Commercial zones, likewise Sydney Road.

Between Moreland Station and Haig Ave there is NRZ1 then toward Melville Road the GRZ1 is again applied and the Melville Road/Moreland Road intersection has Residential Growth Zone (an example of what's possible is [url= Moreland[/url]).

GRZ1 is present all the way to Moonee Ponds Creek / end of the municipality.

[url=]Moonee Valley.[/url]

Maps: [url= [url= [url= Essendon[/url]. [url= [url= West[/url].

[url= VAlley's Schedule 1[/url] to GRZ

I'm a bit lost with all the zones in use in Moonee Valley - there's a myriad which are in use along the existing route 59 alignment.

Given that Moonee Valley is seeing extraordinary development already ([url= Wednesday's article[/url]) it's safe to say that this is where the intense development would continue - and similarly the area would be made even more attractive to aviation and ground staff workers at the airport - if the tram line were extended out to Tulla.

It's good to see that through Moreland and Darebin, there's only minimal application of the NIMBY zone, oh sorry - Neighbourhood Residential Zone - along the Moreland Road alignment.

Planners: am I correct in saying that there's significant redevelopment potential in the RGZ / R1Z? Have I missed anything?

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Alastair Taylor's picture
[quote]All of a sudden everyone has an opinion on this otherwise relatively modest plan and they think your northern suburbs cross town tram is stupid because it is not a bullet train that starts in the CBD.[/quote]

hah! It's my fault, I should have just said absolutely -nothing- about extending route 59 to the airport :)
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[quote]Through densely populated inner urban area? The interchange alone for the trams at Melbourne airport would probably cost that much.[/quote]

For $300million Melbourne Airport are building: A new terminal to cater for upwards of 20 million passengers, 17 new aircraft parking bays, two multi-level car parks and a myriad of road network changes. Somehow I just can't see that building a tram stop is going to cost anywhere near $300 million, $183.5 million or even $50 million.

[quote]"$30 million per kilometre for tunnel." Not in a million years. Other costs sketchy, at best.[/quote]

Rather than just write it all off, can you provide another example on which to base a new estimate?

[quote]I also don't see costs for compulsory acquisition, compensation for affected stakeholders (especially Melbourne airport and Essendon airport!), huge cost in the form of disruption to local areas.[/quote]

[url= Planning Scheme Map - Tullamarine[/url] the median strip between service road and melrose drive as far as Mickleham Road = [url=]RDZ1[/url] (note permitted uses) - same RDZ1 continues through [url= and partially into [url= Valley[/url]

There'd no doubt need to be an amount of property acquisition beyond Mickleham Road, but not if the tram tracks are in the centre of the road. Keep in mind that [url= Drive is going to be cut off from the airport as Airport Drive is opened[/url] (and no doubt most people who use it to access the airport will instead use Sharps Road -> Airport Drive).

I'm struggling to thinking of how a state government authority would need to acquire land in the middle of a road reservation (road zone or not) - sure, they'd have to pay to move underground infrastructure (sewers/electrical/data conduits/cables) but that would be included in the capital cost.

Compo would, yes, be an interesting one - in Moreland Road I suppose compensation for lack of access to drive ways during construction would amount to the authority building the line providing temporary alternatives (local council relaxing side-street parking restrictions / providing free permits etc). IN the industrial areas, loss of access might amount to direct payments.

[quote]Planning... Urban planners do not like elevated rail, because it casts shadows, is a visual eyesore, and creates unpleasant concrete ghettos underneath.[/quote]

I would have thought [i]transport[/i] planners would look to balance flow versus cost and look to solutions that would achieve minimum impact to existing traffic / streets - perhaps even improve it - at the same time as building new infrastructure: grade separation would be in the suite of solutions.

The [i]urban design[/i] profession exists for a reason: it's their task to make infrastructure fit in and improve amenity and that might include activating space underneath elevated structures.

Not to mention the main grade separation areas are in areas where the car dominates away from residential uses.

If the line had to use the land which is owned by Airport West (presumably Westfield), compo for them could be increased retail floorspace / wholesale redevelopment (in fact an authority building this line would be mad not to encourage redevelopment as well as reconfiguration of the footpath network as the money invested in this redevelopment would help push the benefits up against the costs).

[quote]You're also proposing a tram driving from underground tunnel depth up to elevated rail height, without consideration for the sort of incline/grade that would be required in such a short space, not to mention the energy grid requirements of such.[/quote]

Trams can traverse steeper grades than heavy rail - just take a look at the hills on Glenferrie Road, the short/sharp grade changes from Melville Road -> Dawson Street, the longer grade changes on Bourke St from Elizabeth to Queen St.

I take it you're talking about Essendon DFO stop? This was just an alternative, thrown in - you're best to pay more attention to the base case which is just extending from the Airport West terminus.

[quote]Trams don't serve enough people; they don't carry the capacity or move people at an adequate speed. The city prefers trains as a mass-transit arterial, and then have lesser transport services "feed in" to the stations. Not have lesser services serve as the arterial.[/quote]

Like many of the reddit thread, you're confusing one fundamental thing: this isn't about serving the employment areas in the north west as well as the airport from the city or from a central city focus, it's about serving the inner north which would be ill-served by a heavy rail line through the government's preferred alignment.

If this idea in the article above [i]were[/i] to be about providing a rail link from the centre of the city then I'd be in 100% agreement.

[quote]A state government would get crucified if it proposed any form of rail link which was not whole-of-city beneficial. "Rail to the airport" is a huge political football, and (like it or not) the suggestion of anything short of a major train link project is political cyanide.[/quote]

see comment above.

[quote]Implementing light rail to the airport would be a HUGE setback to any real discussion, possibility or promotion of building a heavy rail train link to the airport. Political appetite for building additional rail to that route would be exhausted... which would be short-changing the locals in the medium to long term.[/quote]

see two comments above.

[quote]There is a sufficient existing "low capacity" public transport service already.. Buses. This proposal just exchanges one mode of transport for another. Buses are the ideal solution presently, because they are an adaptable and expandable network; they can be scaled or changed to suit changing demographic requirements.[/quote]

Go to PTV's site and do a journey planner trip from "Essendon Station" to "Melbourne Airport T3 Skybus" - you'll get estimated journey times minimum 43 minutes (in peak hours) and anywhere between 45min and 1 hour in off peak times. The 43-45 min journey times are rare because it's finding a journey on the very infrequent 473 bus which runs past Melbourne airport. The longer trips are catching train to Broadmeadows and getting the smart bus across to the airport.

Change "Essendon Station" to "Moreland Station" - you'll get journey times over an hour (using the skybus too).

Change "Moreland Station" to "Thornbury Station" - you'll get trips around the 1h 5-10m mark (using skybus).

Any trip using skybus will cost min. $18.

Compare those times to the table in the article and note the price of a one way trip would be $3.76 based on a current myki fare.

[quote]Any light rail it would need to be built in consideration of where a heavy-rail airport connection is going to be built... and we don't have that information yet.[/quote]

We know where an airport rail line will be built if funded : the Albion corridor and in the median of Airport drive which is getting extended (yes there's actually been some strategic planning around this in the [url='s masterplan[/url]), refer to [url= and the linked [url= sheet[/url].

And yes, I agree, a heavy rail line will eventually be needed, but so will a high quality PT solution to the areas which a heavy rail line will never service en route to the airport.
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