Like Airtrain, the Redcliffe Peninsula Line, and the promised Sunshine Coast Line, will add new spurs to the south-east Queensland rail network. Unlike Airtrain, those two lines were fully incorporated into the network from day one.

Just as Airtrain should have been.

To put it into some modern-day spending perspective, the cost of building Airtrain was about $376 million in today’s money. That’s about 6 per cent of the fully government-funded Cross River Rail.

It’s less money than two Wellcamp quarantine facilities, and about a quarter the reported cost of a temporary Olympic stadium at QSAC.

It’s a cost that could – and should – have been shouldered by the state government all those years ago. Because of that penny-pinching, Queenslanders were left to pay the cost for 35 years through overpriced fares – for many, an Uber or taxi is cheaper.

Monopolising a public service to the private sector never goes well for consumers.


As short-sighted as the Borbidge government may have been in going down this route, it was in some way understandable.

From an ideological standpoint, it was very on-brand for a Coalition government. And the political appeal of having the private sector foot the bill for a deliverable piece of infrastructure is real – just think of the hard-hatted photo ops, all without denting the state budget’s bottom line.

Treasurer Cameron Dick on the weekend described the Airtrain contract “a dud deal done by a dud LNP government that’s dudded Queenslanders”, while Mellish pointed journalists to former Liberal deputy premier Joan Sheldon’s comments in state parliament in July 2000.

“The Airtrain Citylink was definitely, totally, all the Coalition government’s initiative. I actually negotiated that myself,” she said.

Then-premier Peter Beattie and his transport minister, Steve Bredhauer, turning the Airtrain sod in 1999.

Then-premier Peter Beattie and his transport minister, Steve Bredhauer, turning the Airtrain sod in 1999.Credit: Robert Rough

But while it was certainly a Coalition initiative, Labor was also eager to claim credit for the deal back in the day.

Had Mellish continued his trawl through Hansard, he would have found first-term Labor premier Peter Beattie claim Airtrain as “one of the great initiatives of my government”.

“We signed those agreements when we came to office,” he said.

“It is like so many things; the opposition was never able to reach these agreements. I am delighted we were able to sign the agreement for the Airtrain city link — another project we will deliver.”


Political hypocrisy has become quite the feature of this column of late. Victory, quite famously, has many fathers. Failure is an orphan.

Back then, a shiny new viaduct to Brisbane Airport sure looked like a victory. Now, not so much.

The Airtrain folly should serve as a warning to future governments, that private sector investment in critical public infrastructure comes with many strings attached.

Just look at all the tunnels that have crossed the city in the past couple of decades. All delivered by the private sector, with Transurban reaping the benefits.

While motorists can avoid privately operated tunnels by taking surface routes, public transport users accessing Brisbane Airport have no other option.

Airtrain should serve as a cautionary tale for current – and future – governments. Control of vital public infrastructure is ceded at your peril.