How Will High Speed Trains Affect Flights Between Hong Kong And Mainland China?

Filed Under: Travel

If you’ve even flown either domestically within mainland China, or between China and Hong Kong (in either direction) you’ve probably experienced delays. Chinese airspace is so crowded, and I understand certain airlines are given priority in terms of take off and landing slots, and that delays are the norm, not the exception.

Of the 100 busiest airports in the world, the seven airports with the worst delays are all in China.

I’ve flown on the Shanghai to Hong Kong route several times on Cathay Pacific, and each time the plane has sat at the gate at Shanghai, fully boarded, for at least an hour after the scheduled departure time, waiting for ATC clearance to take off.

You just build expectations of delays into your travel plans when flying between the two cities. I’ve even had Cathay Pacific check in agents advise me:

Every flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong is delayed today, including your flight. There’s an earlier flight (also delayed) I can move you to, which should take off around the time your original flight was scheduled to depart?


High Speed Trains

China has an excellent network of (domestic) high speed trains across the country. I’ve taken the train between Shanghai and Beijing before and it was an efficient, comfortable, smooth, and fun way to see parts of the country I would never have seen otherwise.

The best part was there were no delays.

China doesn’t have the laser focus on extreme punctuality that Japan does with their rail network, but for a network the size of China, their train punctuality is still excellent.

So how is this related to flying?

Previously, the high speed rail was restricted to mainland China (with over 25,000 kilometres of track), with a much slower rail continuing on from Guangzhou across the border to Hong Kong.

But last week Hong Kong’s first bullet train service opened, making connections to mainland China much faster.

This additional 26 kilometres of rail will allow trains to travel at up to 200 kms/120 miles per hour, and potentially change the efficiency of traveling between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Comparing flights versus trains

I’ve seen some analysis of the traveling times, comparing flights with trains, with some analysts simply saying the flight time is less than the train travel time, but I think this is a far too simplistic comparison given both the ATC delays I’ve discussed above, and the fact that, as we all know, flights don’t leave from the middle of the city as you wander on to the platform.

Looking at, say Hong Kong to Changsha as an example, Cathay Dragon flies direct in one hour and 40 minutes.

The new rail provides a service from Hong Kong to Shenzhen in around 40 minutes, followed by a further journey from Shenzhen to Changsha in around three hours.

So let’s say it takes four hours by train. While this does seem a lot longer than flying in under two hours, remember that:

  • The trains leave from the CBD of each city, rather than the airports, so there is less travel time at the start and end of each journey
  • There are far less onerous check in times for the train journeys compared with flying
  • Train journeys are not subject to the ATC delays so many flights in China are

So, say you add an hour ATC delay to your flight time, plus arrive at the airport an hour early and take (say), 30 minutes to travel to and from the airport at each end.

This would be a total travel time of over four hours, so a similar time to the train, so this new train route may really challenge flights between the same cities.

Of course, there are a number of factors and variables you would need to consider in comparing the fastest train time. When I’ve arrived at major train stations before I’ve been overwhelmed with their size and chaos, and it has taken me some time to work out where to collect my ticket, how to find my platform, etc. If you’ve never taken a train from a major station in China before you certainly can’t just wander in off the street 15 minutes beforehand, and expect to make the train.

I guess if I did undertake frequent train travel from the same stations, I would become much faster passing through them as I would know where to go, and what to do, like I already do when flying.

I can certainly zip through Hong Kong airport quickly, because I know it like the back of my hand. But I don’t have extensive enough experience with the Chinese rail system to know if these train routes will truly create competition for airlines.

For anyone know flies extensively from Hong Kong to China I’m very interested to hear if this new extension of the rail network will change your mind about flying each time.

Bottom line

I’m not saying these train journeys will be faster than flying the same route, door to door, every time. There are plenty of variables in taking either journey, and my calculations are simplistic, and only comparing one route.

On longer distances (like Hong Kong to Beijing), flying will still be much faster, because the train will still take many hours to travel by land between the cities.

But ATC delays are something you can’t control, so if passengers are wanting more certainty, then trains may be a more reliable option for cities that are relatively close together, with this new high speed link connecting Hong Kong with the rest of the high speed network in China. There are also many smaller cities in China that have no direct flights from Hong Kong, so the new network will be great to connect those cities with Hong Kong.

I would certainly miss the incredible oneworld lounges at Hong Kong airport, but for business travellers, time is money, and they can’t always afford to have an unknown ATC delay every flight.

Have you taken a high speed train in China? How did it compare with flying?

  1. I don’t see the high speed train picking off a lot of HK-China plane travel, because even considering the trip to the airport, the total travel times and hassle are still not comparable. Taking your example of Changsha, you would need to connect with your bags in Shenzen (a pain) and then wind up not in the middle of Changsha but rather at the high speed station at Changsha South, which is not meaningfully less distant from downtown than the airport. The calculation to Shanghai is even worse in comparison, 8 hours, and not to downtown but to Hongqiao which is still 20-30 minutes from the Center by cab, and even further from Pudong.

    The High Speed Train is more a political device than a practical one. I can see it taking away ferry and bus passengers to Southern Guangzhou and towns along the Pearl River Delta, but nobody was flying to these places anyway. I imagine I’ll still take the ferry to these places, especially since I can get one right from the airport without even needing to go to Kowloon.

  2. High-speed rail is a great way to travel in China – clean, comfortable, efficient, punctual, reasonably priced. (I recommend paying for first class – wider seats 2-2 instead of 2-3, and usually far less crowded. Business class is actually the highest class of service.)

    As for the new high-speed line to Hong Kong, I think it’s a good development but not as revolutionary as the Beijing-Shanghai line, which made train travel competitive (time-wise) with or superior to the plane between the country’s two biggest cities. By contrast, nobody was flying to begin with between HK and Shenzhen; the new line just speeds up the trip. The HKG-CAN flights may be endangered, but that’s only two flights a day. And HK/Shenzhen/Guangzhou are still too far from the big cities in eastern and northern China to make high speed rail a realistic form of transport for frequent or business travelers.

  3. I was in HK last week and for National Day on October 1st, and it was claimed in the local media that 60,000 mainlanders used high speed rail to get to the city that day and inbound trains were ‘near capacity’. So, someone definitely sees the benefit of high speed connectivity 🙂 The city was busy, even by HK standards.

  4. James, the biggest mistake you make about Chinese trains is that the stations are in the city. Most Chinese High-speed stations are separated stations located far from populated areas, just like airports. In fact, shanghai’s High speed rail station is located at shanghai’s Hongqiao airport (connected with tin walking distance). Further more, prices for high speed rail are extremely expensive compared to flights as of now, as HK-Mainland routes are ultra competitive, low prices are common nowadays. For example, you can easily fine 1500HKD RT HKG-PEK fares in y but high speed rail will cost you 2400HKD plus three times the time on trains.

  5. 1. During National Day you’ll have any forms of transport in China operating at full capacity
    2. The HKG-CAN flights are timed for connections rather than point to point traffic so they are kind of comparing apples to oranges at this point
    3. A LOT of older Chinese people, including the wealthier ones, absolutely refuse to fly and would take an 9 hour train from Beijing to HK rather than a 3 hour flight.
    4. I think people outside China always seem to underestimate the sheer amount of people (i.e. demand for travel) there is in China. Adding the rail network will not only add more demand from all the people who refuse to fly, but also (hopefully) push down airfare prices which further adds demand. Add government contracts which often only allows to rail transport, and you have a solid market for rail travel.
    5. For a businessman who absolutely needs to make it to a meeting the following day, they would 100% choose to travel by rail for the guaranteed arrival time. I’ve missed a fair number of engagements because of limitless delays from air travel in China and simply don’t have the trust in the system anymore whereas rail travel still has that trust.
    6. For a list

  6. The high-speed rail does provides great connectivity to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, however it won’t affect most other cities. However more options for travelers are better than none.

  7. The growth in internal travel in China means that it isn’t a question of train vs plane, the government is committed to advancing both systems. Sure, with a travel time of 8+ hours, it’s not likely first choice for SHA-HKG travel, but it isn’t meant to be. It will connect other smaller cities along the line and reduce, if not eliminate the need for air connections between them, freeing up aircraft, airport slots and airspace for longer haul domestic travel. Remember that HKG is near capacity at the moment, so moving passengers to rail can help make room for at HKG for flights to further away destinations.

    Two issues with this article though. One is that, as a resident in China, I can say that many of the HSR stations are not in the center of town a la Europe (although usually closer than the local airport and connected by subway systems). The other is that a further factor not mentioned in favour of rail vs air travel is weather, especially during typhoon season, which doesn’t actually need a typhoon to make landfall to cancel countless flights mainly from the southern half of the country.

  8. Might be a good choice if I were to go to these small places in the Mainland close to HK…
    I’d just take the plane if I want to go to Beijing or Shanghai.

  9. I have traveled a fair amount by train and high-speed rail. i will say that I had a much more productive work experience on the train versus flying.

  10. The railroad map shown must have been taken directly from a Chinese government site. Although many countries outside of China have a “One-China” policy, most wouldn’t say Taiwan is part of China. (For-profit airlines may have been bullied into saying so for fear of retaliation but that’s another story.) Also, the dot dot dot rail connection between mainland China and Taiwan is nothing but a fantasy of the Chinese propaganda machinery. An underwater tunnel there would not survive any major earthquake typical of that region.

  11. You forgot to factor in that you are flying instead of traveling by land, and that instantly makes it worth the extra time

  12. Europeans love trains.
    Americans hate trains.

    For rookie travellers, first thing in mind for European who visits LA is to take Amtrak to SF.
    Americans who visit Rome will think about renting a car to go to Milan.
    Not that many would do it, but still the first thing on their minds.

    It’s the comfort zone of passengers not the rationale behind it.

  13. It is basically airport travel for most big cities in the case of high speed trains: the station is far, so you have to plan your travel ahead and around peak hours; the security is gonna take you time to complete, sometimes twice around the station; the long walks from city transport to the actual check-in counters; foreigners have to actually line up, usually 20+ min, to pick up a pre-booked ticket; THEY WOULD NOT SELL YOU ANY TRAIN THAT DEPARTS WITHIN 40 MINUTES shall you decide to book on the spot, even though you are literally a stone’s throw away from the platform. If this is not air travel on the surface, I am not sure what is…

  14. There is one more comparison to consider: safety. They have “borrowed” the technology from Japan but not the safety standards.

    China high speed rail has had several terrible accidents and construction standards are typically lax, as we are seeing now in HK on almost a daily instance on all the major rail projects.

    You may want to consider how this compares to flying through the tightly crowded air corridors controlled by the air force in terms of risk.

  15. Love that you used Changsha airport as the example as I flew CSX to HKG just yesterday. Changsha Airport seemed to have oodles and oodles of spare capacity and they are renovating to make more so I doubt that flights are very delayed there. But I disagree with the above commenter about not being further from town than the station. It definitely is, by Maglev that’s 20mins plus a good 10 walk to where the intl check in and gates are, then 25 mins on the Hong Kong to downtown airport express. Definitely a 3.5-4hr trip. And only one flight a day.. so yes it should be pressured by the train

  16. For high-speed trains departing Hong Kong, there is actually a “check-in time” – you need to pick up your tickets at the counter/kiosk at least 45 minutes before your train departs.

  17. The Hong Kong high-speed rail is definitely more about politics than real convenience for Hong Kongers – if you want to go to GUangzhou, you’re better off using the old train from Hung Hom because the high-speed train doesn’t go to Guangzhou proper, you still have to transfer to get to the central part.
    More importantly, some of the land at the new Kowloon station is effectively Chinese territory, which violates the Basic Law.

    Now to wait for the wumaos…

  18. What people have failed to see in the article is that it does not take 40 minutes to go from HK to SZ on the new high speed rail. There are two stations in SZ connected on this link. It stops at Futian and Shenzhen North Station.

    It only takes about 15 minutes to get to Futian. I do not think it would require an extra 25 minutes to get to the next station located within the city on high speed. I think he meant to say that it takes forty minutes to go from Hong Kong to Guangzhou South which is located in the Panyu area of GZ. Regardless, from HK to the first stop in SZ, it just takes fifteen minutes.

    Only Futian is more centrally located. SZ North and GZ South are located much further out from the central part of either of the two cities. Also, this link will continue to expand to 44 cities in total in China.

  19. “The trains leave from the CBD of each city…”

    This is not true. To use your Changsha example, the high speed train leaves from the Changsha South Railway Station, which is a 20-30 drive from the city center.

  20. While many pointed out that in China rail stations are typically far from the city center, none seem to have picked up on the fact that the new station in Hong Kong is also quite inconvenient, despite appearing to be geographically central. It is located in the wastelands of West Kowloon, not very well connected to the city’s otherwise excellent public transport system. From the real CBD of Hong Kong – Central – it is almost as fast, and arguably more convenient, to get to the airport than to the new railway station.

  21. Don’t think HKG-CAN will be endangered. Cathay Dragon now flies A330 rather than A321 on this route twice a day, given that how many transit passengers there were, I’ve flown this route a few times, and every single seat including business class was taken.

  22. Rail lines are not just about the endpoints. Unlike air, a train stops at lots of cities in between. The new rail extension to HK improves availability to HK from dozens of inland Chinese cities. Many of these previously had limited access to HK either because of few numbers of flights or because they are not hub cities and require transfers.

  23. Another factor that needs to be taken into account — luggage. I was planning to take the HK-Guangzhou HSR for an upcoming trip. Based on what I’m reading online, you’re restricted to 20kg of luggage (44lbs). If you exceed that, you can’t’ simply pay a fee — you need to find a company to transport it for you. That makes it inconvenient for international travelers — where most airlines have a max of 23kg (50lbs) for econ or about 70 lbs for business/first. You’ll have to factor in the additional cost for this, as well as factor in the time figuring out how to get your luggage to your destination, and how to get it after you get there.

    Does anyone have any tips on how to go about transporting heavier luggage on HSR?

  24. @Wash – There are both size limit and weight limit on hand luggage only. You will need to check in those bags above the limit, but those bags won’t be arriving the same day, or the next day, as you do.

    afaik the rules are loosely enforced on southbound trains from China and trains within China, but they are strictly enforced on northbound trains from Hong Kong.

    James seems to be thinking about Eurostar instead of HSR in China. The HSR stations are far away from the city centre or, in some case, the city it says it is in. Think Ryanair airports. From Hong Kong, you will need to factor in at least an hour for immigration and another hour (or two) for ticket collection.

  25. Now that you live in London, you should have a look at Eurostar, and how much it’s reduced both the number of flights, and the price of air travel between London in Paris. In France, the high speed trains are faster (300kph), and the rail company reckons they would get 80+% of the market for route up to 3h30. After that, the plane takes back market share. London-Amsterdam on Eurostar is just above 4hrs so they need to price down to get market share. For a 45-minute flight from LCY where you can go through security up to 30 minutes before the flight, it’s a hard sell. But if you have to trek out to LHR, it starts being appealing.

  26. There’s quite a few things wrong with this article, for example, the articles implies that there is no direct train from HK to Changsha. Whereas there actually are direct trains, i.e. G80 which takes 3 hours and 12 minutes.

    Also, as others have pointed out, HSR stations are actually pretty far from the CBD.

  27. James,

    One thing you didn’t mention was in Hong Kong HSR station you need clear immigration before boarding and there is a minimum check in time of 45 minutes.

    Furthermore as most people have mentioned, stations in Mainland China are not in the city center. Take Guangzhou for example the HSR station Guangzhou South is an hour’s subway ride to the city center. So taking the regular cross border train from Hong Kong Hung Hom which goes to Guangzhou East station is almost as comparable; they’re both similar priced too.

  28. Train travel in China is a pain. They’ve basically put up the same barriers that make air travel inconvenient. Specifically, many stations are outside of the city center and there are rigorous security checkpoints. In fact in some train stations you have to pass through multiple security checkpoints just to board the train, not to mention that you have to go through security to visit a ticket office.

  29. As someone that stayed in someone home in Sheung Shui many time, I know how full the East Line Rail (MTR) is. Many of the passenger are China people. (Yes, there’s a way to know if they are Hong Konger or Mainlander which is another topic) I can see many people from the Guangdong Province using HKG as their main airport in the near future. The high speed line is going to make it easier to get into Hong Kong faster, easier and on time.

  30. @B Every Hong Kongers I know personal are very much against the high speed line to Hong Kong. China is playing the long game of taking Hong Kong freedom away.

  31. @Dan No idea what you are talking about. I have been to numerous train stations in China and its nothing like airports. The wait to go through security at a train station has never been massive in comparison to some long waits I have had at airports.

  32. The Guangzhou South station is basically equally inconvenient as the Guangzhou (CAN) airport for getting to the city. If it were a lot closer, then the train would be a no-brainer.

  33. @Nate what does this article have to do with freedom? Freedom to do what? Freedom to take a regular train or high speed rail?

  34. We took the high speed train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. It was amazing. You go through 2 customs at West Kowloon. The train itself was not very full and quite comfortable. Not cheap though. While traveling in China we also preferred taking high speed trains because they were comfortable and convenient. It’s easier IMO to do trains than having to go through the whole airport process. Same for many parts of Europe.

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