High-speed rail now rivals air travel on key Asian, European routes

High-speed rail now rivals air travel on key Asian, European routes

Across Asia and Europe, high-speed rail is providing a competitive alternative to air travel on the same routes, in terms of price and the all-important barometer of time. Put that together with the environmental benefits that flow from not burning jet fuel, and staying on the ground begins to make more sense for travelers who would otherwise trudge to the airport.

Speedy trains and planes are generally competitive until your travel plans extend beyond 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), at which point travelers consider flying superior for time savings, according to an overview of academic research by the Journal of Advanced Transportation.

But new technologies may push that boundary in the years and decades to come. The chart below gives examples of key global routes where the two are currently comparable.

“Travel time is critical for the competitiveness of different transport modes,” researchers from Beijing’s Beihang University and the University of South Florida in Tampa wrote last year, buttressing a 2014 European study that found more air service on routes for which trains take longer.

While this supports the theory that trains can supplant air travel if door-to-door time and price are equal or better, that doesn’t turn out to be the case in reality. It’s not a zero-sum game after all.

In general, the advent of fast, affordable train service in China, Japan, South Korea and western Europe has eroded such preconceptions as to how airlines and railroads compete.

The entry of high-speed rail in markets dominated by airlines doesn’t always lead to fewer available flights –there’s evidence that, in many places, affordably priced train tickets actually spur new travel demand, much the way ultra-low-cost airlines in Asia, Europe and the Americas have affected bargain fares. That helps both trains and planes.

Asia rides the fast rail boom

The new rail industry is seeing its most vibrant growth in China, which also has the world’s largest high-speed network, the fastest trains and the greatest ambitions for future expansion.

One of the world’s busiest routes, Beijing to Shanghai, features the new domestically built Fuxing high-speed train, now with a top allowed speed of 218 miles per hour (351 kilometers per hour). That speed increase cut the 775-mile (1,247 kilometer) trip to 4 hours, 28 minutes on a route that has about 100 million rail passengers annually, according to Chinese news service Xinhua.

Japan’s high-speed shinkansen, or bullet trains, date to the 1960s and have become a staple of domestic travel, with speeds of about 199 mph (320 km), making for a 2½ hour trip between Tokyo and Osaka, one of the most heavily trafficked routes.

That same city pairing, however, has hourly airline service by both of Japan’s largest carriers - with each using a mix of wide-body Boeing 767s, 777s and 787s for the 70-minute flight.

While adding station/airport dwell time and the time spent getting from city center to the platform/gate doesn’t change the result in this case, such calculations sometimes make the difference when it comes to travel time.

In 2015, 910 million Chinese traveled by all forms of rail – more than twice the 415.4 million who flew, according to the journal article. Unsurprisingly, the future of train technology resides in China.

The first magnetic-levitation, or maglev train, which can travel as fast as 267 mph (430 kph), operates in Shanghai; engineers are researching future maglev trains that could travel at a stunning 373 mph (600 kph), an achievement that could thoroughly upend the current dynamic between air and ground travel.

Over time, Chinese airlines and high-speed trains have generally evolved so that fares and service classes are comparable, said Yu Zhang, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida and one of the journal report’s authors.

In their early days, Chinese high-speed rail operators sought to emulate airlines in terms of attendant training, with fares that were generally too high to spur much demand, she said. Since then, train fares have dropped.

“Air service is impacted, but we do not see a significant reduction of passengers, either,” Yu said of the Chinese market. “It’s really dependent on the particular route.”

Eurostar's 10 million travellers per year

In Europe, the Eurostar high-speed rail from London to Paris and Brussels served 10 million riders last year, the fourth since it first topped that mark.

The service began in November 1994 and drew 2.9 million passengers the following year. Current Eurostar fares begin at £29 (A$50), down from initial fares of £79 pounds in the system’s early days.

Again, the different modes of transport that might seem to be rivals for the same passengers are in many way complementary.

Low-cost airlines focused on short-haul routes and European high-speed rail options that would seem to compete are generally not rivals, given their vast differences on other counts. The trains generally serve city centers, while the air carriers tend to use secondary airports further afield as a way to lower their costs.

On the Paris-Bordeaux line, high speed rail is “by far the most competitive travel offer with a real traffic growth of 70 percent since its launch in July,” the French railway SNCF said in an emailed statement.

“In November, we reached 82 percent of the Paris-Bordeaux travel market share,” SNCF official Rachel Picard said. “This high speed benefits all customers, including professional travelers whose number has doubled compared to 2016.”

And what happened to the big airlines on the continent such as Air France-KLM? They have ceded traffic on the shorter routes to low-cost rivals, including Ryanair and EasyJet. Many major U.S. airlines are following suit, abandoning smaller regional jets and reducing service to less-populated cities.

“The way airlines think of trips that are short-haul has changed,” said Holly Reed, an executive with Texas Central Partners, which is raising money to build a bullet train between Dallas and Houston.

US takes the slow train

By now, you may have noticed the absence of one large country from this discussion. After a century of neglect, U.S. transit infrastructure has more in common with the developing world than with China or Western Europe. While Asia rail systems measure their passengers in the hundreds of millions, in the U.S., Amtrak had 31.3 million riders in its 2016 fiscal year.

America’s fastest train, the Acela, travels on the Boston-New York-Washington corridor with a speed capability of only 150 mph (241 kph) – but the trains rarely exceed 100 mph (161 kph) due to congestion – and then only for short periods on aging tracks.

With the rails often running parallel with the busy Interstate 95, it’s not uncommon to see cars outpacing locomotives.

Also read: London-Paris – when the train beats the plane



  • sgb


    11 Jan, 2018 08:52 am

    Eurostar Business Premier London to Paris is magnificent. The absence of one other large country from this discussion would have to be Australia. We are just so far behind .
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  • Nuttynorton


    12 Jan, 2018 02:54 pm

    100% correct
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  • Jedinak K

    Jedinak K

    11 Jan, 2018 09:08 am

    @sgb I think by 'large country' they are referring to population, rather than surface area.
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  • Frank


    13 Jan, 2018 08:24 pm

    Indeed Jedinak. What sgb and NuttyNorton overlook is that Australia is a country the size of Western Europe, with a population the size of two of their biggest cities. We all would love it, but it just ain't going to happen.
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  • traveller99


    14 Jan, 2018 07:24 pm

    "We all would love it, but it just ain't going to happen."

    Agreed. Fast forward to the year 2068 and I bet we still won't have any proper high speed rail.
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  • peterh_oz


    16 Jan, 2018 12:16 am

    Yet we have the 2nd busiest flight corridor on the planet, SYD-MEL.. Of course it can be done, and would be feasible if it included CBR. But the kiwis will have one before us.
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  • Trogdor


    11 Jan, 2018 09:33 am

    Meanwhile, in Australia, it takes 3 hours on a train just to get from Sydney to Newcastle. Similar to the time it takes packets on the NBN to travel the same distance, I suspect.
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  • johnaboxall


    11 Jan, 2018 11:16 am

    Ahh, the shitkansen. Tip for new players, if you're about to head from Sydney to Newcastle (Hamilton) - and if your schedule permits, on the day try for a seat on the XPT to Broadmeadow. Quieter, more comfort, a tray table and a cafe car.
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  • sgb


    12 Jan, 2018 01:36 pm

    What is the XPT's destination from Sydney?
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  • lm1


    14 Jan, 2018 01:36 am

    Brisbane, sgb. Also a long trip :-/
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  • Looking


    12 Jan, 2018 10:26 am

    Glady's and her mob cut the railway line 5km from the city so...no trains to Newcastle since 2015
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  • sgb


    12 Jan, 2018 01:26 pm

    It this day and age how appalling is that, a bit like the SBS special the other night on The Ghan, it seems to dump passengers about 5Km's from the civilization of Darwin.
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  • GoYouBlues


    11 Jan, 2018 12:07 pm

    London to Paris on Eurostar is a no-brainer in comparison to flying between the two cities. Why?

    1. Check-in half hour before departure; 10 minutes if business class.

    2. Easy immigration into France - before you leave the UK.

    3. Minimal security line.

    4. Take your luggage on to your carriage - no weight restrictions.

    5. WIFI and power in station and on train.

    5. No trip out to LHR or LCY. Eurostar goes from city centre to city centre.

    6. No waiting around at gate, on plane, at the end of the runway while other planes land and take-off, no waiting for luggage at carasoule at CDG, etc., etc., etc.

    7. Cheap prices.

    8. Relaxing journey on smooth trains (no turbulence) with nice scenery.

    9. Get up and walk down to the food and drink carriage.

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  • sgb


    11 Jan, 2018 01:27 pm

    Also why - If in Business Premier class you won't even have to walk to get food, it will be brought to you at your table very promptly by two attendants and the food and drink is of very good quality and presentation. I found it difficult walking the short distance on these trains just to go to the toilet, (same Carriage) at such speed you need to hang on very well indeed. Also the lounge at St Pancras Station is excellent.
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  • Alistar Chinn


    11 Jan, 2018 08:13 pm

    It’s the same through Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy.. And the added bonus is the business class seats are cheap and there’s heaps of leg room.
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  • Brian Williams


    12 Jan, 2018 03:42 pm

    And if you're departing from France it's just as good. Nice lounge at Gare Nord, a station which is much easier to get to and navigate through than CDG or ORY. Basically 10 mins from my hotel in Paris to the station, and 10 minutes from St Pancras to my hotel when I arrive.
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  • elchriss0


    11 Jan, 2018 01:31 pm

    Did London to Edinburgh return in Virgin Trains 1st class last year. The train took about 4.5hrs plus had lounge access and proper seat service onboard with alcohol/meal/snacks included all for £110 but those trains max out at 200kph and onl ycertain sections. Similar price with easyjet/ryanair with suitcase but then would've needed to drive out to airport at london and then get airport tram at other end. Overall the timing might have been the same by the time you factor in travel time to St Pancras but much less stressful.
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  • Geoff J Booth


    11 Jan, 2018 01:45 pm

    Having just returned from Shanghai I got to try the Maglev that hits 431kmh, even though it really doesn't cover the Airport to City (stopping a little outside of centre) it was worth the approx $10 to take 8mins instead of 40ish in a car for a lot more $. I also use the Seville - Barcelona train over the flights for better comfort/cost/time when all factored in.Trains are definitely a choice in a number of locations around the world.
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  • grug


    11 Jan, 2018 05:12 pm

    I took the Shanghai Maglev just for the fun of it 2 weeks ago. Paid for business class (knowing it was a waste) and got the cabin to ourselves. The train was fairly empty in cattle class too.

    But a tip - the train only runs at 431kph for about 2 hours a day. A short period in the morning and a short period in the afternoon. I cannot help but think it costs a lot to run at top speed and they only run it at top speed briefly each day to hold the record as fastest regular timetables pax service train in operation.

    But enough knocking it. It was amazing. So smooth. At 431kph it seriously felt like you were doing 150-200; apart from the fact that everything was just a whir outside.
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  • Geoff J Booth


    11 Jan, 2018 05:18 pm

    True on the speed limiting to certain times, I made sure to go just after 3pm for the full 431kmh experience, now think about the fact that there are a handle full of cars that can do that speed, incredible.
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  • ianrwatson


    12 Jan, 2018 04:46 pm

    I believe the reason that the Shanghai maglev only travels at the maximum speed of 431 km/hr for 2 hours a day is that because the two lines were built too close together, trains are unable to pass each other at full speed. So during the least busy time of day they just run one train at the maximum speed.
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  • highflyer


    12 Jan, 2018 03:10 am

    In Taiwan, the High Speed rail between Taipei and Kaohsiung basically destroyed the local domestic airlines. It has also changed a lot of how locals do business as now day travel is achievable between the North and South of the Island. Factor in things like, No security, no bookings required, trains every 20-30 minutes, and easy entry to and from the stations and straight into the city.
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  • Graeme Bray


    12 Jan, 2018 01:27 pm

    The nature of rail-air competition in China is not as straight forward as laid out in this report. In the 10 years that high speed rail has started, the country as a whole has grown economically allowing more people to travel on either mode of transport. By building more capability, more people are now capable of travelling than they were before, unlike long term established travel markets in Europe or North America. High speed rail has dramatically changed the method of doing business in many parts of China, going to city centre to city centre. The rail fares are priced on a fixed per Km rate, unlike flexible airfares, however air travel is hamstrung by delays and inflexible air traffic controls. Making rail travel reliable and attractive despite the sometimes higher fares.
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  • percysmith


    16 Jan, 2018 08:32 am

    1. Many Chinese HSR stations are not near city centre - Guangzhou South or Futian.

    Nor are Eurostar stations - St Pancras nor Gare du Nord are not city centre. You can say they're like positioning a high speed rail station at Parramatta, rather than Wynyard or Central

    C.f. Shinkansen where the Japanese have old trunk lines which can be cannibalised to build new high speed rail lines.

    Do we have any trunk lines in Australia that we can cannibalise?

    2. Back to China, you have the added factor of the PLA Air Force restricting airspace to 10% of national airspace, creating an artificial airborne traffic jam and increasing attractiveness of rail.
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  • Traveller14


    12 Jan, 2018 06:27 pm

    Even Turkey has embraced high speed rail, but in Australia, we still don't have it from Brisbane to Sydney to Canberra and then Melbourne. If we did, on all but Brisbane - Melbourne and Coolangatta - Melbourne, of the major routes there, it would kill the airlines. Politicians just don't listen to the community who know how good high speed trains are.
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  • percysmith


    13 Jan, 2018 04:28 pm

    Building a high speed rail costs a xxxxload. We've just spent over A$13 billion building our connection to the China HSR system from West Kowloon in Hong Kong.
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  • Nick  Sydney 348

    Nick Sydney 2

    13 Jan, 2018 08:14 pm

    High speed rail is a bit like Badgerys Creek. Report after report and then something to happen decades ahead. Meanwhile Asia moves ahead...at speed
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  • Frank Chiodi


    14 Jan, 2018 02:54 pm

    Ahh the fast train magic pudding BS. Coal fired of course!
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  • Traveller14


    16 Jan, 2018 06:01 am

    Naysayers don't realise we have lots of places in between Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Newcastle and Sydney, and Sydney - Canberra - Melbourne that would grow far more if we had high speed trains. Shepparton, Wagga Wagga, Goulburn, Taree, Coffs Harbour, Grafton, Ballina. It's been incredibly successful over similar distances overseas. We have the population to warrant it.
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  • Orus Picarous


    18 Jan, 2018 11:01 pm

    Even India is getting one by 2022, but Australia?
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12 Dec, 2018 11:40 pm


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