Latest high-speed trains in Asia offer airline-like business class cabins

airlinetrends.com | July 13, 2011

The advantages of high-speed rail have been well documented. Compared with flying, travelling by fast train offers city-center to city-center connections, no need for checked baggage, or repeated queuing for security and boarding. Also, trains are not prone to delays caused by bad weather, slow baggage handling, crowded runways and air traffic. Research has shown that business travellers are willing to travel to destinations by rail for up to 4 hours, while leisure travellers are even prepared to use trains for journeys of up to 6 hours. 

In an effort to make rail travel even more attractive for business travellers, high-speed rail operators in China and Japan have recently introduced airline-like business class cabins on their latest fast trains. 

BeijingShanghai ‘Harmony Express’
China is in the process of building the world’s largest high-speed network in record time, with rapid passenger lines already criss-crossing much of the country. The recently opened Beijing to Shanghai high-speed railway is the latest portion of a network the government hopes will stretch 45,000 km (27,960 miles) by the end of 2015. Construction of the 1,318 kilometre (819 mile) high-speed rail connection between Beijing and Shanghai began in April 2008 and track laying was completed only 2,5 years later in November 2010. The USD33 billion rail line has been operating on a trial basis since mid-May and was officially opened at the end of June 2011. 

Onboard experience
Besides second and first class cars, the Beijing – Shanghai Harmony Express features a business class car with 24 lie-down seats with a nearly full recline. Each seat is equipped with a foldable LCD TV, a tray table, socket and reading lamp. Travellers are waited on by uniformed stewardesses and even the galley area and restroom have been upgraded. 

Competition with airlines
The sleek white and blue train – dubbed ‘Harmony’ after President Hu’s ‘harmonious society’ slogan – zips along an elevated track at 300 km (185 miles) per hour, halving travel time between Beijing and Shanghai from 10 hours to five hours, which is more or less the same time it takes to fly, if one includes check-in time and airport transfer. Furthermore, flights between the two cities are often delayed, as is one in every four flights in China. 

Tickets for the high speed train journey  range from RMB 410 (USD63, EUR45) to RMB 1,750 (USD270, EUR195) one-way, based on different speeds and seat classes. According to the Centre of Asia Pacific Aviation, the impact of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway on economy airfares has already been significant, with a slump in economy fares of more than 50 percent coinciding with the rail launch. The cheapest air ticket from Beijing to Shanghai now costs 368 yuan, which is less than the bullet train’s cheapest second-class seat ticket — 410 yuan. Air fares in the less price sensitive business class cabin appear to have remained relatively unaffected, however.

TokyoAomori ‘Hayabusa’

Known for their punctuality and high frequency, Japan’s ultra-fast bullet trains (Shinkansen) have become the preferred mode of transport for many Japanese travellers. In what is the first upgrade of the fleet in 14 years, East Japan Railways (JR East) in early March 2011 launched a brand new luxury bullet train from Tokyo to Aomori, the northernmost prefectural capital on Japan’s Honshu main island. After the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, the train restarted operations on April 29. 

Named Hayabusa – which means ‘peregrine falcon’ in Japanese – the new green and silver train is the first in Japan to offer a luxury 18-seat ‘Gran Class’ car, which features plush leather shelled seats that recline by up to 45 degrees and have personal reading lights and leg rests, similar to those found in business class on airlines. The cabin also features wool carpets, foldable dining and cocktail tables, power outlets and a dedicated cabin attendant. On board passengers can sample regional delicacies and free drinks, and are also provided with complimentary blankets, eye masks, slippers, newspapers and magazines (more images here). 

A one-way Gran Class ticket from Tokyo to Aomori costs 26,360 yen (USD320, EUR230), compared with 16,870 yen in regular seating. Demand for tickets for an GranClass seat on the first day of service of the Hayabusa on March 5 was so great that all GranClass tickets sold out in just 20 seconds. 

Related articles:
Asia High Speed Rail (UBS Investment Research)
Dedicated cars for families travelling on Japanese bullet trains (Springwise)
Meeting rooms on board high-speed trains in Europe (Springwise)