So which one’s faster, train or plane?

Shanghai Daily - - BIZ INSIGHT -

histling pass fields, rivers, moun­tains, tun­nels and build­ings on the new Shang­haiBei­jing high-speed train gives one time to sit back and con­tem­plate all the hoopla that has sur­rounded the launch of China’s big­gest rail project.

There have been count­less sto­ries about speed, safety, air­line com­pe­ti­tion and cor­rup­tion sur­round­ing the new 220 bil­lion yuan ( US$ 34 bil­lion) high-speed ser­vice.

I boarded the train at Shang­hai Hongqiao Rail­way Sta­tion, the ma­jor hub for bul­let trains, on June 16, in one of its many pre­view runs be­fore to­day’s of­fi­cial open­ing, with hun­dreds of other re­porters on board the 16- car­riage train. The train left ex­actly on time at 9am.

The seats in the car­riages were taken by tech­ni­cians, rail of­fi­cials, as well as re­porters and cam­era men, and ad­e­quate space was pro­vided for lug­gage.

The seats were cush­ioned, spa­cious and com­fort­able.

Speed, of course, is the mes­mer­iz­ing fac­tor of bul­let-train travel. One train in test tri­als re­port­edly set a world record of 486 kilo­me­ters an hour.

Our train reached up to 300 kilo­me­ters an hour be­fore slow­ing to be­tween 280kph and 290kph. Cam­era clicks greeted the dig­i­tal speed num­bers that flashed on a board in each car­riage.

The train speeds have been slowed some­what from the once touted 350kph af­ter safety con­cerns were raised.

He Huawu, chief en­gi­neer with the Min­istry of Rail­ways, has been as­sur­ing the pub­lic that safety is “guar­an­teed.”

Along with the mod­ern new ser­vices, the rail­ways have tried to quell their tra­di­tional im­age of crowded car­riages, chaotic masses of peo­ple, smelly in­te­ri­ors and surly at­ten­dants.

Pas­sen­gers on bul­let-train VIP seats, priced 1,750 yuan one-way, can beep at­ten­dants if they want ser­vice and are of­fered free snacks and news­pa­pers.

The most ex­pen­sive seat also gets you the priv­i­lege of watch­ing tele­vi­sion, lis­ten­ing to radio and seats that re­cline to al­low you to rest along the way.

In econ­omy class, the only free­bie is a bot­tle of wa­ter.

It’s ser­vice with a smile, though. Train at­ten­dants, who were cho­sen in an ap­pli­ca­tion process that only al­lowed one in 10 can­di­dates through, un­der­went six months of train­ing. One of the things they learned, ac­cord­ing to re­ports was to smile warmly, but show no more than six teeth.

One at­ten­dant, Chen Xi, told me that she once worked as a flight

Lower ticket prices, on-time ser­vice, com­pet­i­tive speeds, cell phone sig­nals, WiFi avail­abil­ity and mas­sive flight de­lays are be­ing touted by China’s high-speed rail­way sys­tem as good rea­sons to skip the air­lines and travel by train.

Last Tues­day, I left home at 8am to catch a China Eastern Air­lines flight due to de­part at 10am for Bei­jing. We were called to board at 9:30am. Ah, the flight will be on time, I thought.

But once on board, we sat for half an hour be­fore the cap­tain told us that our plane was in a queue and take-off time was un­cer­tain. The pi­lot blamed air con­trol for the de­lay.

I had a busi­ness meet­ing in down­town Bei­jing at 3pm, and I started to feel twinges of anx­i­ety about mak­ing it. But the pas­sen­gers around me seemed calm as they turned on their mo­bile phones, com­put­ers and iPads to pass the time. I got the im­pres­sion they were sea­soned trav­el­ers used to de­lays.

We fi­nally took off at about 11:30am and landed in Bei­jing two hours later. Hav­ing had no meal ser­vice on board a plane that was sup­posed to land be­fore lunchtime, I had 10 min­utes to grab a quick bite af­ter suf­fer­ing through a traf­fic grid­lock to get from the air­port to down­town.

From my front door in Shang­hai to my meet­ing lo­ca­tion in Bei­jing took seven hours. By high- speed train, the trip should have taken around six hours.

“If we had rid­den a bul­let train, we would have ar­rived in Bei­jing ear­lier,” a com­pan­ion trav­el­ing with me com­plained.

Air traf­fic con­trol is tak­ing the flack for flight de­lays these days.

“We are re­luc­tant to keep our pas­sen­gers wait­ing in the cabin, but we can’t keep our place in the take- off queue if we haven’t shut the plane doors,” a Hainan Air­lines of­fi­cial told me.

Stormy weather in Bei­jing last week fur­ther eroded pas­sen­ger bon­homie at the air­port, where many pas­sen­gers were stranded by long de­lays.

“I will never choose air­planes to travel be­tween Shang­hai and Bei­jing be­cause trains are more punc­tual and less af­fected by weather and traf­fic con­trol,” said Eric Yang, a 30-year- old freight­for­ward­ing em­ployee.

I think it’s a woe­ful time for China’s domestic air­lines as they are fac­ing a chal­leng­ing fu­ture with their rail ri­vals now of­fer­ing faster trains and a ser­vice that takes you to sta­tions in down­town ar­eas thus avoid­ing the traf­fic prob­lems that can oc­cur on the way from air­ports to the city cen­ter. It’s high time for the air­lines to aban­don their of­ten ar­ro­gant at­ti­tude to­ward cus­tomers

Ma Xu­lun, gen­eral man­ager of Shang­hai-based China Eastern Air­lines, has promised that the car­rier will im­prove its punc­tu­al­ity and ser­vice to com­pete with high-speed rail­ways.

Some domestic air­lines are start­ing to dis­count fares by as much as 65 per­cent in an at­tempt to keep their pas­sen­gers.

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