Aug 15, 2018 10:06 AM

Train or Plane? Business Travelers Are Choosing to Stay Grounded

When I was a boy growing up in the U.S. in the 1970s, our railway system was a bit of a mess. The old fragmented network of private passenger services was falling into disuse, overtaken by car and plane travel. That prompted the government to step in and try to salvage a national system for those who still liked to travel by train.

The result was our current national rail operator called Amtrak, which has become a viable alternative to air and car travel, at least in the densely populated U.S. northeast. Back in those early days, I remember a series of Amtrak TV jingles, including “We’ve been working on the railroad” and “America is getting into training,” which lead us nicely into this week’s column on China’s high-speed rail system and its growing place in business travel.

Those two ad campaigns nicely summarize China’s current state of high-speed rail travel, which is still very much a work in progress due to its relatively short history of less than a decade. There are still many kinks that need ironing out, as I know from my own experience as frequent user of a system that now covers much of China with some 25,000 kilometers of rail. Many of my own feelings and a few others came out in my online survey this week of about 20 people who frequently travel for work.

People have many feelings on the subject, but the major theme is basically what I’ve said above. Like America in the 1970s, China is now learning how to run its state-of-the-art high-speed rail system. That means it has worked out many of the most basic points like scheduling, but is still perfecting more subtle elements like etiquette and services both on the trains and in stations.

The current network includes high-speed trains that generally cruise at 300 kph (186 mph), or about a third the speed of today’s commercial jets. That figure has recently risen to 350 kph for a couple of the most popular lines, and speeds on the current track system could theoretically eventually handle trains up to 486 kph. That means that high-speed rail travel will always be at least twice as long as flying, and is currently about three times as long.

Thus the system really only makes sense for shorter rides where the extra time needed for things like security checks, check-in and so forth in air travel can make a difference versus trains that have little or no such requirements. Where people draw that line varies quite a bit, with some willing to take the train for up to seven or eight hours before they will take a plane instead, according to my survey.

Chugging through history

Before I detail the highlights from that poll, I’ll take my usual trip back in history to show just how far China’s rail system has come. The train system I encountered on first arriving in China in 1987 was vintage Third World in every sense of the concept. Trains often overflowed with people in every possible space, and were seldom on time, often arriving hours late.

Functionality was central in that era, and attention to things like comfort and service was minimal. Apart from masses of humanity, some of my other memories of such trains include cabins choked with cigarette smoke, discarded food wrappers and peanut shells covering the floors, and Styrofoam rice-filled boxes topped with bits of meat and vegetables that were the main sustenance for most travelers.

Zip forward to the present, where trains are mostly on time, tickets are only sold for the number of seats available, trains are generally clean, and the seats themselves are the Western-style reclining type, rather than the bolt-upright wooden seats of the past. My own time standard for the train vs. plane decision is around the five-hour mark, which in my view is the break-even point after which air travel becomes a significant time-saver, even when planes are late.

The punctuality factor was by far the most commonly cited reason for taking the train over the plane, since delays of 30 to 60 minutes are pretty much the norm for air travel in China these days. After that, the next most commonly cited reason for taking the train was the ability to stay connected, since wireless signals are available and thus it’s possible to use both smartphones and access the web on a PC using a smartphone-based mobile hot spot.

For drawbacks, the two biggest people complained of were disorder and lack of amenities both at stations and on actual trains. As someone who has used the system quite a bit, I can testify to the disorder at Beijing station. But smaller stations are usually much emptier, and Shanghai’s Hongqiao station is better run in general. Even Beijing has improved over the last two years as managers get more adept at handling the crowds.

The situation is similar on the trains themselves, where one of the most widely cited gripes was noise and disorder created by things like unruly children, people talking loudly on cellphones, and passengers watching video without earphones. Even here, I’ve noticed the situation has improved quite a bit in the last year or so, and the boilerplate onboard announcement now reminds people to be mindful of others when taking the train.

On the whole, rail travel in China is like many newer things here like subways, cellphones and movie theaters — very much a work in progress when it comes to developing proper etiquette and supporting services. In nearly all cases the trends are always moving in the right direction, even if that means rail travelers still have to tolerate overcrowded stations and young children running up and down the aisles from time to time while China works out the many kinks in its fast-developing high-speed rail network.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to

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