Fed up with flight de­lays in China? Per­haps it’s time to try the high-speed rail

With air de­lays in China wors­en­ing while its high-speed rail net­work de­vel­ops at break­neck pace, per­haps it’s time to swap planes for trains?

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - CONTENTS - WORDS LOUISE COW­ELL

Not long af­ter the gleam­ing high-speed train de­parts from smog-smoth­ered Urumqi, China’s north­west­ern province of Xin­jiang spills out into an empty, alien land­scape. Mar­tian red earth stretches for miles to the dis­tant f lam­ing moun­tains, in­ter­rupted only by flocks of white wind tur­bines with swan-like blades that turn grace­fully. This is a far-f lung cor­ner of China that, de­spite be­ing rich in key re­sources such as oil and nat­u­ral gas, has for decades been no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to ac­cess by land.

In 2014, how­ever, the ground­break­ing Lanzhou to Xin­jiang high-speed rail (HSR) line linked this re­mote re­gion to China’s ever-grow­ing high-speed rail net­work, which now has ten­ta­cles from Harbin in the north­east to Kun­ming in the south­west.

The 2,000-kilo­me­tre jour­ney from Urumqi to Lanzhou, the cap­i­tal of Gansu province, now takes just nine hours (slashed from nearly 20) and cov­ers some amaz­ing scenery.

Add to that the spot­less Western-style toi­lets, com­fort­able seats and crys­tal-clear win­dows, and it speaks vol­umes about the money China is pump­ing into its rail net­work – RMB801 bil­lion (US$117 bil­lion) last year alone, with an equally gen­er­ous bud­get for 2018.

Train travel in China – even in sleeper class on reg­u­lar overnight trains – has been turned into a highly palat­able ex­pe­ri­ence and is quite pos­si­bly the coun­try’s best-kept se­cret.


Then again, in 21st-cen­tury China, fast jour­neys on plush trains are noth­ing to write home about.

China has held the record for the fastest com­mer­cial elec­tric train in the world since 2004, with the Shanghai Ma­glev (short for “mag­netic le­vi­ta­tion”) able to run at a top speed of 431km/h, sur­pass­ing Ja­pan which fa­mously pi­o­neered the world’s first bul­let train – the Shinkansen – in Oc­to­ber 1964 for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

The new “wheels-on” high-speed rail net­work in China of­fers some of the fastest high-speed trains in the world, typ­i­cally op­er­at­ing at around 300km/h. It is also the long­est HSR net­work in the world, mea­sur­ing 25,000km at the end of 2017, and ac­count­ing for an in­cred­i­ble 66 per cent of to­tal high-speed rail track glob­ally. Ac­cord­ing to the China Daily, this net­work trans­ported around 1.7 bil­lion peo­ple in 2017 – al­most half of the world’s quota for HSR pas­sen­gers.

What is per­haps most im­pres­sive, how­ever, is the sheer speed of its trans­for­ma­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Five-Year Plan, by 2020 China’s rail net­work will have 30,000km of high-speed rail track

“China’s rise to be­come a high-speed rail power has oc­curred just in the last decade or so; the speed of de­vel­op­ment has been phe­nom­e­nal,” says Dr Ger­ald Chan, an ex­pert on Chi­nese in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and au­thor of Un­der­stand­ing China’s New Diplo­macy: Silk Roads and Bul­let Trains.

It’s true that China’s first high-speed rail ser­vice (ca­pa­ble of run­ning at more than 300km/h) wasn’t built un­til 2008 and, like Ja­pan, can be traced back to Olympic grand­stand­ing, with the first ser­vice from the newly Bird Nested-cap­i­tal to Tian­jin open­ing a week be­fore the Bei­jing Olympic Games. In 2012, I took that line into the cap­i­tal, im­pressed as an LED ticker at the end of the car­riage con­stantly re­layed the train’s cur­rent speed to pas­sen­gers, lest they for­get its mar­vel­lous mo­men­tum.

Since then, things have gone into over­drive. Many pro­vin­cial cap­i­tals can now be reached from Bei­jing within eight hours, and that’s set to im­prove. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Five-Year Plan, by 2020 China’s rail net­work will have 30,000km of HSR track, (and 150,000km of to­tal rail) cov­er­ing 80 per cent of the ma­jor cities.

This will be achieved via an “up­grade of the so-called ‘4 hor­i­zon­tal 4 ver­ti­cal’ net­work, cov­er­ing the whole coun­try, to an ‘8 hor­i­zon­tal 8 ver­ti­cal’ net­work,” ex­plains Chan.

The plan pro­poses di­vid­ing China into a grid of rail­way lines, with eight trunk routes run­ning east to west and an­other eight north to south. Among the eight ver­ti­cals are two new lines con­nect­ing Bei­jing to Hong Kong and Kun­ming, while the eight run­ning hor­i­zon­tally in­clude a Shanghai to Chengdu route, and Xi­a­men to Chongqing line.

Fu­ture am­bi­tions are even more sci-fi: a new project sees China and Ja­pan col­lab­o­rat­ing to cre­ate an“al­ba­tross in­spired” train dubbed the Aero Train, which is

pre­dicted to have a top speed of 500km/h. Ad­di­tion­ally, at the end of 2017 Chi­nese re­searchers an­nounced their plans to de­velop a Hyper­loop – as en­vi­sioned by Elon Musk in 2013 – that would be able to travel at 1,000km/h (three times the speed of sound), with re­search and test­ing cur­rently un­der way in Guizhou.


How and why China has gone “From Lag­gard to Su­per­power” has been the cen­tral sub­ject of a num­ber of aca­demic pa­pers by Dr Chan – who is also the head of pol­i­tics and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

First and fore­most, devel­op­ing in­fra­struc­ture to fa­cil­i­tate the coun­try’s rapidly grow­ing sec­ond- and third-tier cities, and ferry a bur­geon­ing mid­dle class, is seen as vi­tal to con­tinue fos­ter­ing busi­ness con­nec­tions and eco­nomic growth, par­tic­u­larly in re­vi­tal­is­ing the coun­try’s poorer re­gions and prov­inces.

Closely re­lated is the much-hyped “One Belt One Road” ini­tia­tive, which has seen China pump­ing huge re­sources into im­prov­ing in­fra­struc­ture links with coun­tries from Asia to Africa, to re­vive the old Silk Road and birth new trade routes. The afore­men­tioned Lanzhou to Urumqi line is a per­fect ex­am­ple: not only has this line con­nected a ru­ral re­gion of China’s vast land mass, but it has also helped to open a strate­gic gate­way into neigh­bour­ing Kaza­khstan and Cen­tral Asia – a ma­jor tar­get of the One Belt One Road plan.

The phe­nom­e­nal trans­for­ma­tion has been made pos­si­ble thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of cheap re­sources (of both ma­te­ri­als and labour) en­hanced by mass scale economis­ing – ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, it costs China US$17-21 mil­lion per km of track, whereas in Europe that ex­pense rises to US$25-39 mil­lion. Po­lit­i­cal will and the ben­e­fits of ab­sorb­ing es­tab­lished for­eign tech­nolo­gies and huge in­vest­ment have also con­trib­uted to this suc­cess story.


Of course, China’s avi­a­tion in­dus­try has also been grow­ing rapidly, with new car­ri­ers, air­ports, air­craft and pas­sen­ger num­bers soar­ing. How­ever, air travel is no­to­ri­ously plagued by de­lays.

In sur­veys by the likes of OAG and Flight­stats, China’s ma­jor hubs reg­u­larly come up trumps for tar­di­ness. In the 2018 OAG Punc­tu­al­ity League, the on-time per­for­mance re­sults of Bei­jing (63.5 per cent), Shen­zhen (59.8 per cent) and Guangzhou (64.8 per cent) are in­dica­tive of the coun­try-wide prob­lem, par­tic­u­larly when com­pared to the world’s busiest air­port, Chicago O’Hare, which scored a much more re­spectable 79.85 per cent. It’s fair to say most fly­ers in China are ac­cus­tomed to au­to­mat­i­cally adding at least 30 min­utes to the sched­uled ar­rival time, while de­lays of up to 10 hours or to­tal can­cel­la­tions are far from un­heard of.

A large part of the prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try ex­perts, is that the mil­i­tary con­trols the ma­jor­ity of China’s airspace, with com­mer­cial avi­a­tion tak­ing a back seat to the de­mands of mil­i­tary ex­er­cises. In­creas­ingly congested air­ports, er­ratic weather pat­terns and strin­gent air traf­fic con­trol safety reg­u­la­tions slow­ing down run­way op­er­a­tions have also been cited as con­tribut­ing fac­tors.

For any trav­eller, de­lays are in­con­ve­nient, but for busi­ness trav­ellers in par­tic­u­lar, a de­layed or can­celled flight could (and fre­quently does) re­sult in miss­ing a vi­tal meet­ing, ru­in­ing on­ward travel plans, or hav­ing visas ex­pir­ing – all of which can have se­verely dis­rup­tive con­se­quences.

So while the two-and-a-bit hour flight from Bei­jing to Shanghai may sound prefer­able to a 4.5-hour jour­ney by rail, when you fac­tor in the very real chance of flight de­lays, it sud­denly starts to look more ap­peal­ing.

As Busi­ness Trav­eller fo­rum con­trib­u­tor AlanOr­ton1 said in re­sponse to an­other mem­ber en­quir­ing about the best do­mes­tic car­rier from Hangzhou to Bei­jing: “I’d strongly sug­gest con­sid­er­ing the high-speed train for this jour­ney. While it might take five to six hours… I sus­pect it won’t be much longer in to­tal travel time than time spent in the air­port, on the plane, etc. Pos­si­bly quicker given the po­ten­tial for [air-traf­fic con­trol] de­lays.”


Un­like an in­ter­nal flight, how­ever, it’s in­ad­vis­able to book a jour­ney via Chi­nese rail at the last minute: tick­ets on pop­u­lar routes sell out way in ad­vance. Tick­ets usu­ally be­come avail­able 60 to 30 days be­fore de­par­ture, and can be booked on­line through travel agency Ctrip, which has a com­pre­hen­sive English lan­guage site. The tick­ets can be de­liv­ered to a ho­tel – or any ad­dress in China – or picked up from the sta­tion (though lan­guage bar­ri­ers can prove tricky in this sce­nario). Ar­rive there an hour be­fore de­par­ture, to al­low for queues and se­cu­rity checks en­ter­ing the train sta­tion, as China be­comes more sen­si­tive to ter­ror­ist threats. You’ll need your pass­port to col­lect and book any tick­ets.

Most high-speed trains (those that be­gin with the let­ter G or D) have first and sec­ond class seats, both of which are air-con­di­tioned and com­fort­able. On some lines, there is also busi­ness class, which boasts leather chairs and LED TV screens, and is decked out more like a plane cabin. Prices vary be­tween lines, but trav­el­ling from Bei­jing to Shanghai on the G5, for ex­am­ple, will cost US$86 in sec­ond class, US$147 in first class and US$275 in VIP, and will get you to the Paris of the Ori­ent in 4 hours and 40 min­utes. Fly­ing that route, by com­par­i­son, costs about US$200 with China Eastern and takes two hours and 20 min­utes… on pa­per.

Nor­mal trains are coded Z, T, K, L, Y or S, and are usu­ally cheaper, have squat toi­lets and ticket classes rang­ing from stand­ing room (only is­sued when all other tick­ets have sold out; pas­sen­gers lit­er­ally have to stand in the aisles) and hard seat tick­ets (those with no cush­ion­ing and very ver­ti­cal backs) to the deluxe sleeper cabin for just two peo­ple.

Cur­rently, much of China’s spider web of rail­roads is lit­tle trav­elled by for­eign­ers, but per­haps they are miss­ing a trick. On a trip re­cently across south­ern China to Guilin, as I sat in VIP class, be­ing served com­pli­men­tary drinks and snacks while the train snaked through Guangxi’s lush land­scapes of jade green moun­tains and rice pad­dies, I couldn’t imag­ine why any­one would choose to fly.

Most high-speed trains have first and sec­ond class seats, both of which are air-con­di­tioned and com­fort­able

LEFT TO RIGHT: By 2030 China’s high­speed rail net­work will look like this; and air­linestyle seat­ing in a pre­mium class car­riage of a high­speed train

ABOVE: A high­speed train in China zips pas­sen­gers to their des­ti­na­tion

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