As the Harmony Express pulls into the grimy railway station in China’s ancient capital of Xi’an, an army of blue-uniformed attendants busily begin polishing its gleaming, sleek exterior.
This is the face of modern rail in China and the latest addition to a burgeoning high-speed network that will be the biggest in the world within five years, according to the government’s blueprint.
The expansion plans are staggering: 30,000km of new track to be laid by the middle of the decade at a cost of as much as Rmb4,000bn ($586bn). The results are so impressive that the airline sector is looking on with trepidation.
China’s state-controlled carriers are emerging from years of losses and have refocused on the booming domestic travel market, but they are are faced with a potentially crippling threat from another arm of the state – the railway sector, led by the Ministry of Railways.
Liu Shaoyong, chairman of China Eastern Airlines, estimates that with high-speed lines under construction throughout China’s most populous and economically developed regions, as much as 60 per cent of the domestic commercial aviation market will be affected to some degree.
“[The high-speed rail network] will have a serious impact on the aviation market and will place direct and enduring pressure on the development of China’s airline companies,” Mr Liu says.
The effect has already been felt on the newly-opened route between Xi’an and Zhengzhou, 505km away in neighbouring Henan Province.
Joy Airlines, a subsidiary of China Eastern, and Kunpeng Airlines, a subsidiary of Air China, both previously offered regular flights but cancelled all services between the two cities within weeks of the maiden Harmony Express journey in February.
“The airlines have all cancelled their flights to and from Zhengzhou because there aren’t enough customers since the high-speed rail line opened,” says an official airline ticket vendor in Xi’an airport.
A trip on the Harmony Express (all of the country’s new 350km/h high-speed trains are part of the harmonious network) between Zhengzhou and Xi’an makes it clear why China’s airline bosses are so worried.
China’s railway stations are old and dirty and attract an array of thieves, pickpockets and scam artists but they are usually in the centre of town instead of far beyond the outskirts of a city where China’s cavernous airports are invariably built.
In the case of Xi’an and Zhengzhou and most other major cities in China, travellers who arrive at the airport must either wait for erratic bus services or stand in line for a taxi to drive more than one hour into town on a newly-built toll road.
Flights in China are almost always delayed and passengers must arrive early so that they can pass through rigorous security checks.
Once on the aircraft, the service is perfunctory, the toilets often filthy and the food barely edible.
In contrast, China’s shiny new high-speed trains are clean, fast, smooth and almost always on time. There are no excess baggage fees for heavy luggage, security checks are perfunctory and passengers can use their mobile phones.
Probably most concerning for airlines is that train tickets are significantly cheaper than airline tickets, especially when the additional costs of taxis and toll road fees are taken into account.
As the high-speed rail network grows, analysts expect airlines to pull off routes of 500km or less, while up to 40 per cent of air passengers travelling between 500km and 800km will switch to rail. This mirrors a similar trend in Europe over the past two decades as high-speed rail networks have expanded.
The potential impact on the Chinese airlines also raises questions about the viability of dozens of new airports under construction across the country.
As part of Beijing’s Rmb4,000bn economic stimulus package to battle the global economic crisis last year, China built and upgraded 22 airports. This year the government has budgeted at least Rmb90bn to expand and build a further 25 airports this year.
Plans to build another 60 airports over the next decade are partly a response to official predictions of passenger volume growth that starts to look wildly optimistic when the rise of high-speed rail is taken into account.
In 2009, about 230m people caught flights within China but the country’s civil aviation authority predicts that number will rise to 700m passengers by 2020 and double again to 1.4bn people by 2030.
But a significant proportion of those passengers could soon be catching the Harmony Express instead and wondering why they should ever put up with the inconvenience of flying in China again.
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