- Feb 4th 2010, 16:46 by M.A. | BEIJING
A NEW rail link that is causing problems for China Southern Airlines could indicate the kind of competition that many Chinese carriers will face in the future. The high-speed Guangzhou-Wuhan service, which opened in December, cuts the 660-mile (1,070km) journey from 11 hours to three. China Southern, which has China’s biggest fleet, responded at first by adding flights, slashing prices and speeding up check-ins, but many customers nonetheless switched to the train. And now the airline is reportedly considering scaling back its new flights and selling bundled air and train tickets. That would be “Round One” to the high-speed trains.
As The Economist recently reported, China plans to extend its rail network by almost 19,000 miles by 2015. Eight thousand miles of this will be the high-speed tracks that pose the most potent threat to airlines. China already has the world’s fastest long-range passenger train (the “Harmony” averages 220mph on the Guangzhou-Wuhan route, compared with 170mph for France’s TGV), and soon expects to have the world’s largest high-speed rail network too.
Even the chairman of China Southern has been fulsome in his praise. “High-speed rail has three advantages over air travel,” Si Xianmin is reported to have said with refreshing frankness. “It is more convenient, more punctual and has a better safety record. This could help erode the airlines’ market shares.” Mr Si reckons that about a quarter of China Southern’s routes will compete with the trains.
Carriers will hope that those suggesting China may run out of money before the railway network’s completion prove prescient. But passengers will have a different bias. Pressure on airlines to cut fares and improve service should mount as the new lines come into service. It will be interesting to see what happens when the high-speed Beijing-Shanghai leg of the high-speed network is completed, perhaps as early as next year.
Gulliver can’t help but note, though, that rail travel Chinese style won’t be to everyone’s liking. The old cliché has it that China is good at hard infrastructure, but less attentive to the softer frills expected by Westerners and, increasingly, more affluent Chinese. Until now, this has held largely true on the trains.
Most Chinese are able to brush off the physical discomfort and limited privacy that would make many Westerners squeamish. Nobody batted an eyelid, for instance, when a toddler in Gulliver’s cabin on one trip made deft use of a plastic bottle to avoid using the less sanitary facilities provided on board. It is customary, moreover, for those sharing a cabin to while away train journeys chatting on the two bottom bunks, which is likely to jar with many Westerners’ narrower conceptions of personal space and ownership (especially if they have paid top dollar for the prized bottom bunk).
Gulliver enjoys the collegial atmosphere and taste of the real China on occasion, but admits preferring to fly. Still, things seem to be improving with the advent of high-speed railways.
On a (low-speed) soft-sleeper journey from Beijing to the Canton Fair in Guangzhou last year, Gulliver’s relief at boarding the spankingly modern, clean and above all no-smoking train—remarkable, considering that a third of the world’s tobacco is smoked in China—rapidly gave way to exasperation as it became clear that the ban was to be ignored en masse by traders off to the show. This being a no-smoking train, the windows were sealed.
But on the newest high-speed rolling stock, in contrast, smoking is apparently not being tolerated. Hundreds of passengers were inconvenienced just days after the launch of the Wuhan-Guangzhou service when a smoke alarm, triggered by someone having a quick puff in the toilet, delayed departure by 2½ hours. Progress of a sort, perhaps.
(Photo credit: Reuters)