So which one’s faster, train or plane?
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.