Fast trains to eat into China's flight growth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 October, 2010, 12:00am

The convenience and lower cost of high-speed trains will cut growth in mainland air traffic by as much as 15 per cent in the next two decades, France-based aircraft maker Airbus says.

But Airbus senior vice president Christopher Emerson said that even with the sprawling high-speed rail network being built in China, the country would lead worldwide growth in flights per capita in the next 20 years, driven by a rapidly growing middle-class and the robust pace of urbanisation.

'High speed trains are a challenge to the domestic travel sector,' Emerson said during an official handover ceremony of a new A330-300 aircraft to Cathay Pacific at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse. 'We don't see any high-speed train going from China to Europe.'

However, some analysts said high-speed railways could become a greater threat than Emerson forecast, with some trains capable of speeds of up to 350km/h compared with 900km/h by air.

Trains also eliminate time-consuming transfers to and from airports that often far from city centres - and government-subsidised train tickets are cheaper.

A mainland Ministry of Railways blueprint calls for the building of 16,000 kilometres of high-speed rail links by 2020, connecting 70 per cent of the country's key cities with a combined population of more than 50 million people.

This means that by then China will have rail services covering 80 per cent of airlines' existing routes.

High-speed trains look set to ride into neighbouring countries as well, with China and Thailand in talks to build a rail line from Guangxi, via Laos to Bangkok.

Even so, mainland airlines are expanding their fleets. Emerson anticipates that by 2028 China's demand for passenger aircraft will jump 198 per cent to 3,434 and demand for airfreight carriers will grow by 123 per cent to 810.

The demand for new aircraft translates into a US$447 billion market, of which Airbus wants to retain at least half. Last year, Airbus accounted for 54 per cent of gross aircraft orders while US-based Boeing accounted for the balance. As the end of last month, Asia Pacific orders represented 31 per cent, or 1,067 aircraft, of Airbus's total backlog. Of this, China accounted for 270 aircraft, or a quarter of the Asia Pacific's total.

Emerson said demand for air travel had recovered strongly since the end of the global financial crisis. He anticipated that China would have the highest growth in trips per capita, at almost one trip per capita by 2029 compared with 0.2 trips at present. Hong Kong had three trips per capita in 2008 and in the US the ratio was two trips per capita.