The experiment: Shanghai-Beijing. Which takes more time door to door? The plane, or the train?
The result: It’s closer than you might think.
Obviously jets are faster than bullet trains. Over a given distance, a plane will beat a train. But the actual journey also involves transits, and, especially in China, potential delays. Air travel also has more onerous security, so there’s more waiting around. Trains are slower, but the station security is less time consuming, and the trains are very punctual.
In the real world of Beijing-Shanghai travel, which is faster?
Parameters, or, comparing apples to apples:
To keep the contest as fair as possible, I picked afternoon departures from both cities and made it a door to door race. For the downward leg, the start was my office near Dongzhimen in Beijing, to a hotel near Hongqiao Airport and Train Station in Shanghai. The return leg started at the same hotel, and finished at my home in Beijing, which is the same distance as my office from Beijing Airport.
In this experiment, the Shanghai end of the journey is the same for the plane and train. The huge complex at Hongqiao has an airport and a train station, and the end/start point was the same hotel.
I timed the two journeys: from the moment I left the office until the moment I reached the hotel near Hongqiao; and from the hotel until the moment I reached my home.
Beijing to Shanghai is 1,318 km by rail and it’s the fifth busiest air corridor in the world. That’s 2015 data, based on passengers, so if the bullet train didn’t exist that number would be far higher. The bullet train entered service in 2011.
On any given day in 2017 there are 41 bullet trains heading south and a similar number coming back to Beijing. There’s a departure at least several times an hour during the day and in the two hours from 8am to 10am there are ten southbound trains. That’s better than the subway in many cities. The fastest trains, those with a single digit after the G, like G3, G4, take between 4h45m to 4h55m to complete the route with just one quick stop in Nanjing; the slower trains with more stops take between about five and half and six hours.
On any given day there are also 76 flights each way between Beijing and Shanghai. They start at 7 in the morning and continue departing until about 10:30 at night. In that same two hour morning period (8-10) there are 15 flights from Shanghai to Beijing: four separate departures at 9:00 alone. The nominal flight time is about two hours and 15 minutes.
Punctuality is a big problem on these air routes. Some of the online ticket services even show you the historical reliability of a given flight.
Beijing to Shanghai: Car from the office to Dongzhimen Subway Station. Subway from there to Beijing South Station. Bullet train from there to Hongqiao. Taxi from there to the hotel.
Shanghai to Beijing: Taxi from the hotel to Hongqiao. Plane from there to Beijing Airport. Taxi from there to home (the exact same distance and driving time as to my office).
Beijing to Shanghai by bullet train:
We left the office at 12:25pm aiming to catch the 14:00 G3 train. I set my stopwatch in the lift down to the basement car park. Our driver took us up to Dongzhimen Subway station. Line 2 to Xuanwumen, then Line 4 to Beijing South. We were there in 43 minutes, and we had time to burn. I chose to burn it by eating lunch at a noodle place.
One hour and 18 minutes in (01:18 elapsed time, ET), we were seated on the G3. We could have actually left the office 20 minutes later and still walked easily onto the platform. The line up for security to board the train took just a few minutes.
The train rolled out at 1:59pm, a minute ahead of schedule, and 01:32ET into our journey. At 01:45ET our tickets were checked, and we were already travelling pretty fast and leaving Beijing’s outskirts. I pulled out my laptop and my colleague and I finished up the budget we were working on. We didn’t need to wait like you do on a plane, of course, because devices are no problem on a bullet train. Once we finished, I set up a wifi hotspot on my phone and we e-mailed the budget. Couldn’t do that on a plane either, not in China anyway where you can’t even leave your phone in airplane mode. After three hours and 32 minutes, we were two hours into the actual train ride. Four hours into the full journey, I walked down the train and bought a coffee for 15 kuai. I drank it while watching the scenery zoom past; my colleague listened to music.
The train pulled into Hongqiao at 6:51pm, one minute late. Elapsed time was 06:24. Disembarking all those people – that train can carry about 550 passengers and looked full – took just seven minutes. After all, it has a lot more doors than a plane. By 06:31ET we were on the long concourse inside Hongqiao Station, and three minutes later we were lining up for a taxi. At 06:45ET we jumped in one, and at 07:04ET, which was 7:29pm, we arrived at the hotel.
Total journey time, seven hours and four minutes.
Shanghai to Beijing by plane:
For the return trip, I departed the hotel in time to get my plane based on the scheduled departure time. I cut it pretty fine – too fine, it turned out, had my plane not been delayed. I left the hotel at 15:42 in a taxi and reached the airport 28 minutes later. So far, so even: the previous night’s taxi to the hotel had taken 19 minutes.
My plane was scheduled to depart at 4:55pm. Four minutes after arriving at Hongqiao Airport I had checked in via the self-service machine, and three minutes later I was lining up for security. After 00:45ET, my plane should have been boarding, but I was still in the line for security. By then, though, I knew my flight was delayed, though no-one could yet say for how long. Ten minutes later I was through security and at the gate. Elapsed time, 57 minutes.
At 01:13ET, the plane should have been pushing back, full of passengers eager (or otherwise) to get to Beijing. Nothing was happening, and wouldn’t for a while. At 02:10ET, the plane actually arrived at the gate. A big one – Boeing 747-8 – the new version of the legendary big plane. Yes, you can save a bit of time if you choose a smaller plane, but the Jumbo has a similar capacity to a bullet train, and besides that I’ve never been on one.
Three hours into the trip, still only 25 kilometers into a 1,300 kilometer journey, I lined up to board the plane. I was one of the last to cross the jetbridge seven minutes later. Another three minutes and I was seated, compared to about ten seconds between leaving the train platform and finding my seat.
Nearly half an hour later, still sitting there, the pilot announced our departure would be still another half an hour away. Coincidentally, the estimated departure time was exactly the scheduled arrival time in Beijing. Oh well!
Three hours and 40 minutes into the journey, we were still sitting in the plane. They fired up the seatback TVs for us. This was another reason I chose a larger plane – they are more likely to have onboard entertainment. At 03:47ET we finally pushed back, two and a half hours late; by this time on the inbound journey we were already two hours into the train trip. At 03:58ET we were sitting at the end of runway 18R, four engines burning, while we watched three other smaller 737s depart ahead of us.
Then, at 7:50pm – more than four hours after leaving the hotel which was just 25km away – those four engines went to full thrust with an awesome surge that never fails to put a smile on my face. Four lots of 65,000 pounds of thrust: we were airborne in about 40 seconds. At 04:09ET the flaps came up, and we executed a big turn, and 21 minutes later we were served drinks.
Five hours and 22 minutes into the journey, we began our descent into Beijing. At this point on the way down from Beijing the previous day, we were still an hour out of Shanghai. I thought the race was probably over, in the plane’s favour. But it was going to be a close run thing.
I’d picked Air China because it flies into Beijing’s Terminal 3, the most modern and efficient terminal. Flying into Terminal 2 at the moment is a bit unfair, because it’s undergoing renovations that cause delays. At 05:48ET our wheels touched the runway; and at 06:06ET I got out of the plane. It took another 20 minutes to get from there to the taxi line, compared to the ten at Shanghai train station. I picked up a cab quickly, waiting just five minutes (not common at Beijing airport, where the wait can be up to an hour), and we headed down the relatively clear freeway towards home.
At the last intersection, had we turned left we’d have been at the office in three minutes. Turning right, we reach my house in about the same time.
When I opened the door, the elapsed time was 06:56, just eight minutes faster than the bullet train.
Had I timed my run better at Beijing South Station, I’d have beaten the plane by ten minutes.
Flying Beijing to Shanghai, delays are common. The train is cheaper, more comfortable, and you can predict your journey time much more accurately because it is so punctual.
Prediction: I will never again fly Beijing-Shanghai or back.