Chinese Travelers Flock to the Rails

Written By Henry Scherck

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With new equipment and hundreds of miles of dedicated right of way, Chinese high-speed rail has begun to cut into airline profits.

Earlier this year, China’s Xinzheng International Airport became the site of a massive riot. Angry airline customers swarmed the airport, removing machines and strewing them about the concourse. Police struggled to keep the crowd in check as customers scrambled over ticket counters and entered staff offices. The riots occurred following the end of the Lunar New Year Celebrations in response to the exceptionally poor service Chinese airlines provided to customers on their return journeys. Yet, the airlines’ substandard accommodations were not just a result of a greater number of customers traveling via air; in fact, poor service is a daily occurrence throughout China.

In recent years, Chinese air service has been on the decline—nearly 25% of all flights out of Chinese airports depart late and the country’s major airports have the lowest on-time departure rate on the globe. Passenger flights sit idle, waiting for a departure approval from the Chinese military. Travelers spend countless wasted hours waiting for these approvals, not to mention the time spent in routine airport lines and passing through security checkpoints.

Chinese passengers are looking increasingly to high-speed rail as a viable alternative to the woes of air travel, and passenger rail has risen to meet that demand. Chinese high speed trains run at nearly 200 miles per hour, feature state-of-the-art equipment and run punctually. The system already comprises 6,000 miles of dedicated right of way, and is planned to serve 90% of the Chinese population by 2020.

The results of the Chinese investment in high speed rail are tangible. Two of the three major airlines in the country lost money last year, despite increasing ridership and government subsidies. Even new equipment meant to provide increased capacity has failed to help airlines battle the increasing competition from rail.

Passengers in the United States often face similar problems regarding air travel. For relatively short, domestic trips, airlines require a disproportionate of pre-boarding time—time travelers could be spending working, eating, or simply resting onboard the train. Traveling via train also eliminates the need to turn off electronics, check baggage and the need to remain in the same seat, all restrictions that plague the air commuter.

The problems in China’s airline industry serve to highlight the benefits of an invigorated rail system, and it shows that when a swift, modern and effective passenger train system is in place, consumers will choose rail.