What advantages does High Speed Rail (HSR) have over the airplane in China?

  • There is more leg room and the seats and aisles are a bit wider. (Just a bit wider, less than you would think)
  • Flights have more delays than the HSR.
  • Often easier and faster to go through baggage check and other security procedures at the train station than at the airport.
  • The ability to locate in a downtown area so that passengers have quick and easy access to the core of the city.

However, as currently priced,  HSR in China does not offer much, if any, price advantage over the airplane. Tickets are not cheap and definitely not affordable by the great number of migrant workers. They will be taking hard seats on the slow rail (which nonetheless is of adequate speed and generally on time).

And most importantly, despite its name, HSR is slower than the airplane. From take-off to landing, a flight between Guangzhou and Changsha takes half the time as the 2.5 hour train ride.

Here is where China is making the mistake. Airports in China and most countries are located outside the city center, usually 30 -45 minutes away (maybe longer if traffic is bad). So while HSR can’t be faster than plane on the flight/rail time it has the potential to close the gap with the airplane in total travel time: (time of transportation to and from the airport or rail station) + (time of the flight or train ride) + (time spent checking in and going through security) + delays.That is why HSR is said to work best at distances of 800 km or less. At those distances the conveniences and total travel can outweigh the flight speed advantage of the plane. The problem is that China is locating these HSR rail stations outside the CBD, and in many case quite outside the CBD–increasing the total travel time for taking HSR. The HSR station is just as far way from the CBD as the airport is. Just off the top of my head:

  • Guangzhou’s HSR station is at the end of a long subway line–at the edge of town.
  • Changsha’s station is surrounded by farmland and is a twenty minute taxi ride from the CBD.
  • Urumqi’s is twenty minutes from the CBD.
  • Shenzhen is closer in than the other cities, but still outside the original Special Economic Zone area. (However, there also will be a more local HSR station connecting to Guangzhou and Hong Kong that is right in the middle of the Futian CBD.)
  • Beijing’s HSR station, Beijing West Station, is at least fairly close in (but see below).

I understand that land assembly is cheaper and easier with parcels of land outside the CBD. Engineering is much easier among greenfields rather than in built up areas. Good reasons. But the long term health and success of HSR depends on every advantage it can get over the plane. People are rational. They weigh the benefits and the costs, and if it is just as much of a hassle to get to the HSR station as it is to the plane, might as well fly.

One reason they are locating outside of the CBD of cities, way outside of the CBD, is to spur development in other parts of the city. That is an understandable objective, but one that minimizes the efficiency of HSR. There are other methods to spur development of city neighborhoods. Plugging the HSR station into an area of the city that doesn’t have the  density of links as the central core detracts from the very type of people who are most likely to use long-distance rail–those who use rail within the city.

Another way that planners and designers are treating HSR like the plane–and thus destroying the advantages of HSR over the plane–is in the design of the stations. HSR is not the plane. Trains stations are not airports. There is actually the potential to walk to places outside the train station, not so with airports. However designers are treating the new train stations as if they are airports–devoting excessive amounts of land to them and then letting highway engineers design the approaches to the stations. Trains’ convenience advantage disappears.

File:Beijing South Station.jpg

Beijing West Station: Trust me, no one will be walking or bicycling to this train station.

See an article by Frank Fuller at The Next American City on some High Speed Rail station designs that fit in with the surrounding community, ‘Designing the High-Speed Future’:

Although  the new Berlin Central Station is being created in a formerly undeveloped area, the station literally gets enveloped by the surrounding development. People from the surrounding flow through it. Offices encroach upon even the interior space.

In Liege, Belgium, the masterplan for the area surrounding a station design by Santiago Calatrava. The plaza in front is human scaled. They aren’t afraid to bring buildings up close to the station.

Masterplan and station perspective in San Jose , California, USA. Again, integrated into the community.

Admittedly, many Chinese cities will have to deal with greater traffic due to greater number of passengers, and will certainly have better local transit options than the American HSR stations. However the stakes are higher for creating a HSR station accessible to the pedestrian because the walk shed for a HSR is likely to be a half mile rather than the usual quarter mile. Put the density where the infrastructure is. Or put the infrastructure where the density is. Every single meter counts.

The equivalent in the US of the shortsighted planning was when Chicago constructed a line of its subway system in between the lanes of a highway. In taking the land needed for the highway and for the aboveground subway (they decided underground was too expensive, another shortsighted move) they found it would be easier to combine the two projects in one process. But really what it showed was that funding for highways was lager than the funding for transit at that times–and still is. But what is left are transit stations in the middle of the highway. Even to walk to the nearest building takes a walk of at least 100 meters, and even then the nearest building is not a commercial center, but most likely a house. There is not much of a walk shed when you put the subway between the highway lanes. Also, the transit rider has to walk across a bridge across the highway–not the most fun in the windy and cold Chicago winter. And then when you are on the train, you have a view of cars on the highway going by faster than the train–disheartening.

A line of the Chicago subway (‘El’) runs between lanes of the highway.

If you don’t spend the money now, you end up needing to subsidize transit in the future because of low ridership levels, and you also push people into cars.

A view of one station.


Lastly, I don’t even understand why there is the decision to extend HSR to Urumqi. The closest big city will be ten hours away by HSR, or about 3.5 hours by plane. Even if you were to live above the train station, taking the plane is going to be much quicker and thus rational choice unless there is a major difference in ticket price. But, then again, what is one rail line when China will be building 45 new airports?