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Is the bullet train in China typically cheaper than taking a domestic flight? (assume the passenger is flying economy)

I read some conflicting reports, e.g. https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g294211-i642-k8194341-Train_vs_flying_in_china-China.html:

High-speed train tickets are often more expensive than flying. For all longer routes, I flew, save time and money. I found flyIng in China to be on time and efficient, prices are very cheap, US$60-$120 one way on most routes, bottom line, flying is cheaper and faster.

vs. https://www.thechinaguide.com/blog/traveling-by-train-in-china:

China's high-speed trains are super fast and comfortable, making them a good alternative to flying when traveling in China, especially as domestic flights are often more expensive and subject to delays.

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    I can buy train tickets Amsterdam to London for €45, I can also look for other trains and only find prices of €200. Most times there are flights available around the same prices on those same date between the same locations, sometimes more expensive, some times cheaper. So how do you want to set the price requirements for your China price comparison? – Willeke Jan 7 at 17:23
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    @Willeke let's look at median and stdev. – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 7 at 17:29
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    @Willeke I expect someone with some experience traveling within China to be able to give a decent approximation (perhaps including factors that impact the comparison) – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 7 at 17:35
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    I often travel Amsterdam - London and I have never found a given 'cheaper' option between train, train-ferry and flights. Only the bus/coach is mostly cheaper but even then you can find a cheap flight and a day the bus is expensive. – Willeke Jan 7 at 17:37
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    But the overnight sleepers travel at night, when you are asleep anyways. Also, the sleepers have kitchens and serve tasty stir-frys. These are factors one want to take into consideration! – xuq01 Jun 11 at 23:08
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This depends a lot on the specific route: let's look at a typical example: Shanghai to Shenzhen. In early February that's about $93 for most trains and you can get one way flights at around $94, so it's basically a wash.

At this point it really comes down to travel time (10+ hours on the train, 2.5 hours on the plane), convenience of departure & arrival locations (train station vs airport) and schedule. Maybe the train is better if you take a sleeper car and save one night in a hotel.

On the other hand if you look at Shanghai to Wuhan the train will be lot cheaper since it's shorter and not a particularly popular flight route.

Keep in mind that flight prices have almost nothing to do with distance anymore. Wuhan is only half as far from Shanghai but the flight is almost 3 times as expensive. It just turns out that SHA->SZX is more popular and has more competition which keeps the price low.

Any "general" statement about flight prices is bound to be wrong and you should always check your specific route and dates.

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    It's a minor quibble, but 2.5 hours isn't really a fair estimate when comparing to the train. You need to add on at least a couple of hours for all the extra delays that come from flying (checking in, security, disembarking, border control, etc.). Plus the travel time to and from the train station and airport respectively. But +1 for a good answer. – JBentley Jan 8 at 11:53
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    Good answer also because it reminds that any generic price comparison where one term is air travel rarely makes sense nowadays, because flight prices have almost nothing to do with distance anymore as the answer mentions, and also don't have much to do with some other aspects that normally would be compared, e.g. it would be very normal if adding a return flight to the intended one-way ticket would make the total cost lower instead of higher. – SantiBailors Jan 8 at 13:42
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    "it's basically a wash" - that's a new to to me me. Always learning :-) – Mawg says reinstate Monica Jan 8 at 14:56
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    Also, Chinese flights are almost never punctual (a bit better nowadays, but not too much) due to severely restricted and congested civilian aviation space, e.g. only about half of the flights to PVG arrived on time in 2015, whereas D/G trains are almost always on time (98% for departure and 95% for arrival at final destination; an impressive 99+% for the new Beijing-Shanghai trains, a necessity for a long-distance route with a train departing sometimes less than 4 minute after the last.). – xngtng Jan 9 at 6:41
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    @FranckDernoncourt Sorry, you should have at least hinted to how. For what I know, comparisons so generic do not make sense because when one term is air travel any generic price comparison should somehow account for the extremely higher day-to-day volatility of air fares due to the several reasons being mentioned here, which make air fares almost completely unrelated to things like distance or being one-way vs. two-ways, extremely more unrelated than train fares. "How much does it approximately cost to go from A to B by train" is a much easier question than if you replace train with plane. – SantiBailors Jan 9 at 15:37
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https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/transportation/plane-or-train.htm claims that the price comparison bullet train vs. flight depends on the length of the journey:

Airplane Bullet Train Explanation
Fares Expensive Less Expensive For short distances, flights are more expensive than bullet trains.
Discounts Often Never Bullet trains, therefore, may be more expensive than flights for long distances.

Also, from the 2020 study {1}:

With the development of more high-speed railways, HSTs [high-speed trains] have played an increasingly important role in the inter-city transport market because of their advantages in saving time compared with conventional trains and lower price compared with air tickets, as well as their punctuality, comfort, and energy cost. HSTs are have been regarded as a competitor to air travel especially in short- to medium-haul transport (Campos and De Rus, 2009Clewlow et al., 2014Martín et al., 2014Yang et al., 2018aYang et al., 2018b).


References:

  • {1} Wang, Jiaoe, Jie Huang, and Yue Jing. "Competition between high-speed trains and air travel in China: From a spatial to spatiotemporal perspective." Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 133 (2020): 62-78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tranpol.2019.06.010
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In my experience, which is Beijing to Shanghai, the train has always been a little bit cheaper.

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I mean, yes, the sources you cited are generally right. I'm speaking from experience here, so I don't have data, but I believe my experience to be generally reliable. For long distances, there are a lot (I mean a LOT) of discounts on flights, but hardly any for the railways.

I picked a random date and a random pair of large cities that are quite far away from each other, say Changsha and Beijing, June 18th. The cheapest flight is 500 CNY and cheapest bullet train is 649 CNY, so indeed the flight is cheaper.

In fact, I originally chose Guangzhou to Beijing, but due to the current epidemic situation in Guangzhou, the flight prices were negatively influenced (the flights are as cheap as 300ish yuan, due to very low demand perhaps).

But for mid-ranged trips, e.g. Shanghai to Beijing, the cheapest bullet train is 498 yuan and the cheapest flight is 568 yuan, so it does not really make a huge difference here. However, the cheap flights fly into Daxing, which is really far from the city center.

Time wise, even if one add the time required to travel to/from the airport, and the extra time required to board a plane, the airplane is still almost always faster. HSR stations are often also far from the city center, and there's also a line for security, so there isn't much of a difference here.

But often, for medium distances, the best deal is (at least used to be) the sleeper train. Sleeper trains are quite fast (the Z and T trains can run up to 160km/h), and since they run at night, you don't "waste time". I used to be a frequent passenger on the T32 sleeper train, travelling from Nanjing to Beijing W. It's dirt cheap and there's a kitchen on board for late-night cravings.

Unfortunately, like many other Z/T trains, T32 has been replaced D32, operated using CRH trains. The D sleepers are more comfortable but more expensive, making them less competitive than their Z/T counterparts (but you still save lodging!).

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  • For Changsha-Beijing, I think you meant that the flight is cheaper? – lambshaanxy Jun 12 at 15:00
  • Yes. Typo spotted. – xuq01 Jun 12 at 21:15

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