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Why the train sometimes beats a plane

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You can travel long distances for business and still keep your feet firnly on the ground.

You can travel long distances for business and still keep your feet firnly on the ground.

Think of travelling for business and for most people it's airports rather than train stations that spring to mind.

That's especially so in Australia, where a "high-speed train" is one that skips a few suburban stations on the morning commute.

In all likelihood, we'll never see an Aussie bullet train barrelling between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

It's a very different scene in Europe and some parts of Asia – notably Japan and China – thanks to the network of fast rail lines darting between major cities.

For journeys up to a handful of hours, hopping on a high-speed train becomes a true alternative to flying for business travellers.

That's the theory, at any rate. Late last year, on a visit to London, I had the chance to put this to the test.

I caught the Eurostar train from London to Paris for the weekend, and then flew back from Paris to London with British Airways.

The average time for BA's flights between London and Paris is around 75 minutes, compared to around 2 hours 20 minutes on Eurostar.

But it's not just about the time you spend sitting in your seat. It's about the total travel time of your journey.

And much of that is spent in the stop-and-go of catching a plane, especially with modern security screenings taking a large chunk of time at the airport.

For example, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 11am for a 12.15pm flight to London's Heathrow Airport.

Online check-in and travelling with only carry-on luggage meant I could skip the check-in counter and head straight to the departures zone, where a quick trip through the security lane saw me settling in at the BA lounge by 11.20am.

A half-hour later I hustled to the gate, with boarding for the 12.15pm flight closing at 12 noon, and we took off bang on schedule.

Upon arriving at London at 12.30pm local time I flashed a "fast track" pass to scoot through BA's Terminal 5, then caught the Heathrow Express to reach Paddington station and my nearby hotel around 1.30pm.

All up, without counting the time from my Paris hotel to Charles de Gaulle airport, the trip took around three-and-a-half hours.

It also included a lot of "hurry up and wait": busting through security in order to sit around at the lounge, waiting to be called to the boarding gate, then waiting to actually board the plane, and finally waiting for it to take off.

How does that compare to a high-speed train? My trip from London's St Pancras International station to Paris Gare du Nord began with an 8.40am arrival for the 9.17am train, although Eurostar's business class travellers can arrive as late as 10 minutes before departure (try doing that at any airport).

The station's design is that of a small and efficient regional airport, and the whole process of going through security and passport control took barely five minutes.

Boarding the Eurostar is much faster than boarding a flight, too.

Instead of queuing along an aerobridge to pass through a single door, you line up along the platform according to the carriage number on your ticket.

This all cuts out the stop-start nature of flying and replaces it with full-on productivity, if that's your thing.

For example, as soon as you take your seat you can start working on your laptop or tablet (some Eurostar trains will also have free Internet from the end of this year), use your smartphone, tune out with your iPod or do any of the things you can't do on a plane until it reaches level flight.

My standard economy seat on the Eurostar proved wider, more comfortable and with more legroom than on the BA aircraft, and of course I could wander around and stretch my legs any time I wanted to.

By the time the train rolled into Paris North station at 12.50pm my total travel time was still shy of three hours, giving me plenty of time to reach my hotel at Place de la Republique, straddling the edges of the 10th and 11th arrondissements.

On a stopwatch test, plane and train were almost equal, but the city centre location of the Eurostar stations gave it a clear edge over distant airports.

More noticeably, though, I found the train trip far less stressful and immensely more enjoyable. I arrived feeling more rested and awake, too. There was no cabin pressure or reduced oxygen flow to deal with, none of that ceaseless engine drone or even swelling of one's feet enroute.

The overall experience chalked up a clear win to Eurostar and made this an experiment I'm keen to repeat on other high-speed lines within Europe.

What's your experience with high-speed rail, and how does it stack up against flying for business travel?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Follow AusBT on Twitter.

129 comments

  • recently back from china, 430kms/hr meglev train sure is fast, approximately 400kms/hr faster than Sydney trains.

    Commenter
    Victorious Painter
    Date and time
    May 21, 2014, 8:25AM
    • And be prepared for a "what the ....." moment when the two trains pass each other at a closing speed of 800+kmph ........ the windows go Thump big time !!

      Commenter
      SteveW
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 21, 2014, 8:48AM
    • It's funny though, because every time I've been there the locals at the airport try and talk you out of the maglev, saying it drops you in the middle of nowhere, when in fact it connects to the main underground network and can get you to your hotel at least as quickly as a taxi or hire car and faster in peak hours.

      Commenter
      MotorMouth
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 21, 2014, 10:27AM
    • Try and take a photo of the approach Train, impossible.

      Commenter
      Dale
      Location
      Working
      Date and time
      May 21, 2014, 10:52AM
    • That 430km/h figure is only for the Shanghai Airport train into the city. It's all over in 10 minutes.

      @Motormouth, yes, I agree. It is much more expensive than the metro, and if there are more than two of you, it's more expensive than a taxi. But it's very convenient for B&Q if you want to buy a kitchen sink (there's one across the road from the Maglev station), and it does drop you straight on to the metro. And most importantly, it's fun - it's the fastest you can travel on the ground anywhere in the world.

      The normal high-speed trains "only" travel at 300-310km/h (it was 380 before the scandal).

      Even so, as the article says, it's a better option than flying. I travel between Beijing and Shanghai a lot. Door-to-door, it's five hours by plane (a two-hour flight), or 5 1/2 hours by train (a 4 1/2 to 5 hour train journey). But that's if the plane is on time, and flights on that route are typically between 1 hour and 6 hours late. The train is never late.

      And on the train, I have 4 1/2 uninterrupted hours to work or watch films on my laptop. There's a power socket under my seat, and loads of legroom, and everything is easy and comfortable. It's a no-brainer.

      Commenter
      200120
      Location
      Shanghai
      Date and time
      May 21, 2014, 11:08AM
    • @SteveW, first time it happened surely got everyone by surprise, the return trip we were expecting it. we went for a joy ride so did a return trip.
      @200120
      the exact reason i specified the train.

      Commenter
      Victorious Painter
      Date and time
      May 21, 2014, 12:37PM
  • Those sorts of Paris to London regional distances 450 km by crow in this example, high speed trains are a no brainer. Once you get to really big distances, say around double that or more, then air travel starts to win out..

    Commenter
    Mark
    Date and time
    May 21, 2014, 8:25AM
    • Can't argue with this for standard high speed rail. If they got maglev to run at ~600km\h, fixed issues with tunnels and passing noise then we should have this conversation again. I for one am waiting and watching to to see how the Japan Rail project goes.

      Commenter
      Sam
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 21, 2014, 9:13AM
    • Sydney to Canberra 249km, Canberra to Melbourne 467km. Why don't we have this already?

      Commenter
      Gozzy
      Date and time
      May 21, 2014, 9:45AM
    • They only do high speeds over a few sections of track so really it's about the convenience of not having to go to the airport, which is like saving three hours at each end plus taxi fares.

      Commenter
      bg
      Date and time
      May 21, 2014, 10:15AM

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