Sydney’s Airport Link
Updated: Apr 14
A Quick Intro to ensure this article makes sense:
Like many Australian airports, International flights arrive into a different airport (terminal) than domestic flights. This means that international visitors proceed through a segregated arrivals process into one large terminal. Domestic passengers exit their plane straight into the common airside area mixed with departing passengers, this has an impact on what information a passenger is given in the segregated or mixed environments. Sydney’s Airport Link rail service has a station at both airports.
Also, I had been to Sydney before but on that trip we’d been naughty and got a taxi.
Landing in Sydney, it’s hard to miss the instruction to “CatchAirportLink“, its literally the first thing you see when you get off the plane… and then again when you walk through the terminal… and then when you’re waiting for your bag. Bleary-eyed after arriving from London, via 2 hours in Bangkok, this was all the persuasion I needed. The simple visual, linking the train with the the recognisable sights of Sydney (the Opera House and the bridge), draws a mental connection.
While they have you captive in the arrivals process, the branding is everywhere. This should be where the rail service commits the passenger to the service through providing ticket machines and departure information but during our considerable wait of at least 15 mins all we could do was look at the advert.
Once we emerged into the public arrivals area of the terminal, things got a bit less obvious and we had to look out for signs for train. The overhead sign I saw pointed to the right to the Train but then I saw no more official directions for the length of the terminal. Walking in hunt for the train, we did spot what were the direction signs but they were in a different format, on vertical poles and therefore, the words Airport and Train were only readable when viewed head-on.
At the end of the terminal, these vertical poles are the only wayfinding to prompt a passenger to turn right to reach the Airport Link station.
Welcome to Airport Link
Once a passenger gets past this ambiguous area, Airport Link wayfinding returns comprehensively. There’s a nice welcome desk to reassure the passenger they’re in the right place – though no one to actually welcome you. Full video available here.
As I moved from plane to platform, I counted 5 different maps presented on the Airport Link services. I’ve been to Sydney before so I was familiar with the central stations; however, Sydney Trains operates services from the airport into the central area around a loop before travelling back to the airport. Departure screens therefore display the ambiguous destination of ‘City Circle’ even though there’s no City Circle station – though there is a Circular Quay station. If you’re not a native English speaker, this confusion could make you hesitate to board a train.
Additionally, some maps show that the trains travel around the loop and terminate at Town Hall station, whereas the official Sydney Trains map shows the services as a loop. If this is the case for all trains, why not just use Town Hall as the destination on the boards? It would be helpful if the train direction was shown in an arrow showing the direction it will go around the loop.
I was fortunate to travel to Brisbane on this trip so I used the Domestic airport too. The dominance of the Airport Link messaging was just as clear. As this branding would be seen by departing passengers too, its a timely reminder of an alternative if someone had just sat in traffic driving to the airport.
Depending on the airline used, passengers emerge into one of two parts of the Domestic airport (Terminal 2 or 3). The entrance to the Airport Link station is well located in these terminals with an escalator leading down from a central point near to the baggage carrousels. These are both shown in a different format from the rest of the terminal signage and are also different from each other. As in the International Airport, once a passenger has entered into the Airport Link walkway, there’s little to mention as it’s rather obvious where to go.
The Airport Link stations are situated on loop from an existing commuter line, they begin and terminate further out on the network. At peak times, trains passing the airport are extremely busy with commuters, a problem compounded by the fact that most long haul flights from Asia arrive in the early morning, pumping many passengers down onto the network just as the morning peak is underway. For airport passengers, this means a squeeze onto the trains. Further, as the trains are double-deck, passengers with luggage have to use the small area at the end of the carriage rather than pull cases up or down stairs. On the plus side, the fact that it’s served by regular commuter trains means the frequency is very high at up to 8 tph in the morning peak.
Heading to the Airport
Within the stations in the central area, I saw a handy aeroplane symbol pointing to the platform for Airport Link stations, though again these were not consistent. I took the Airport Link back to the International airport: What surprised me on this return trip was the crowding that occurred when large volumes of passengers alighted trains to head up to the terminal. There was a wait for the escalator up to the ticket hall, then a wait whilst international visitors tried to pass through the ticket barriers. The struggle of families with young children was quite obvious. As we arrived up into the terminal itself, many passengers immediately stopped to look at the flight departure screens by the entrance. This blocked the path for all the following passengers, not that I was in a rush at all!
The Airport Link Experience
Airport Link is clearly well used: it has the convenience and frequency to provide an attractive service; having said this, I think Airport Link misses an opportunity to grow by not capturing passengers as they wait for baggage. Most international flights into Sydney are on wide body planes so when a passenger emerges into the public arrivals area, they are doing so alongside hundreds of other passengers. In this context, foreign visitors don’t want to look like innocent tourists which means they are unlikely to stop at this point and will possibly miss the one overhead sign for the train. Thinking back, I don’t remember seeing any staff around at this point either.
Once I understood it, the Airport Link became the obvious route to the airport, the short journey time and high frequency was a pretty good offer. On one of the trips back from the airport, the train sat outside Central station with no announcements or information for 18 minutes which was a bit of a let down. The layout of the trains is not perfect, being constrained into the ends of the carriages which don’t involve stairs, I accepted this as the compromise of being on a commuter route but I’d imagine the delay in boarding passengers in the morning would be something that the operator was incentivised to solve through better passenger advice or assistance.
I thought the image below was a friendly reminder of the need to maintain the attraction of the service…
I’d like to thank Tim Anderson of Airport Link for showing me around the network and facilities following my independent visits. It was a great help to understand some background to the operational environment. Tim confirmed that 8.6 million passengers have used the Airport Link in the last year.
Author: Liam Henderson
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