Airlines hope to link with railways in bid to compete

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 December, 2010, 12:00am

Trains and planes - will the twain ever meet?

While the aviation industry looks to integrate airports with the ever-growing high-speed rail network to help boost its competitiveness, various factors from administration to planning mean the idea is a long way from taking flight.

Beijing has been examining integrated transport for over 40 years. The State Council set up a dedicated bureau, the Institute of Comprehensive Transportation (ICT), to study the model in Russia as early as 1959. The study encompassed everything from sea, rail, road and air transport to oil and gas pipelines.

'Back then, the thrust was on inter-modal transport between waterways and railways,' one ICT researcher said.

But it was not until 2007 that the State Council identified the target and strategy for developing integrated transport hubs across the nation. In a paper titled Medium to Long-Term Development Plan for Integrated Transportation, 42 cities were chosen as national hubs for integrated transport while eight cities - Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dalian, Wuhan, Xian and Chengdu - were selected for pilot programmes.

The study, however, did not specifically mention marrying high-speed rail with airports. According to the ICT researcher, the idea has only recently begun to gain traction as more high-speed trains have started operating between Shanghai and Hangzhou, and Guangzhou and Wuhan, posing a real threat to the aviation industry.

While the concept of integrated rail-and-air terminals has been around for a while - cities such as Paris, Geneva and Frankfurt have had such hubs for decades - mainland airport and airline operators have only just woken up to the merits of this synergy. There is only one such hub on the mainland - the Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai.

'We did not give it a thought when we planned Terminal 3 at Beijing airport,' Beijing Capital International Airport company secretary Shu Yong said. 'At that time, the prospect of trains running over 300km/h did not seem like a threat to us.'

Another obstacle to the idea is the political system in which the aviation and railway industries are supervised and regulated by different administrations. While railways are under the Ministry of Railways, airlines and airports come under the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), which in turn has been under the Ministry of Transport since March 2008.

'There has been no co-ordination between investment in railway and airports because the two administrations don't communicate with each other,' Shu said.

Hopes are now pinned on the proposed second airport in Beijing, which will cater for higher air traffic demand beyond 2015.

'The planned second airport will incorporate a high-speed train terminus,' Shu said.

Since the precise site has yet to be decided, the design of the integrated airport-railway hub in Beijing is still on the drawing board. It is impossible to merge a high-speed train terminus with Beijing's existing airport because it is far from the high-speed railway network. Analysts say the integrated hub model would benefit big airports such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou because its impact would be felt in neighbouring cities.

'For example, with Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport connected to a high-speed rail line, passengers from Hangzhou, Wuxi or Kunshan tend to fly from Hongqiao, which has better domestic and international connections,' Daiwa Capital Markets transport analyst Kelvin Lau said.

The multibillion-yuan investment in high-speed railway is part of Beijing's master plan to boost the regional economies in the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, the Bohai Rim Area, western China and the southwest coastal area, according to Liu Weimin, a professor at the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China.

Liu said that with a comprehensive rail network, outlying cities could be connected to major urban centres by train journeys as short as half an hour, increasing the mobility of people in less-developed cities and shoring up the economy. 'It would be logical for the Ministry of Railways to merge with the Ministry of Transport so as to rationalise the investment and development of integrated transport hubs,' Liu said.

But the integrated hub model may do little for airlines trying to fend off competition from high-speed trains, Lau said. 'Inevitably, short-haul flights below 1,000 kilometres are poised to lose out to high-speed trains, whether the train station is at the airport or not.'

Lau predicts that when the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train starts operating at the end of next year, it will divert at least 20 to 30 per cent of airline passengers.

'That is because the total commute times between a train ride and a flight are very similar, while trains are more reliable in terms of on-time performance,' Lau said.

All aboard

Number of rail links to airports around the globe: 187

Number of links planned: 388

According to the International AIr Rail Organisation the benefits of rail-air connections include:

Airlines provide a better journey for passengers. They also strengthen their competitive position.

Airports see a more environmentally friendly method of access. Stockholm Arlanda was allowed to build a third runway only if it built a railway to central Stockholm.

Railways see valuable counter-peak and off-peak business from wealthier travellers.

Neighbours see a quieter form of transport. Oslo's new airport trains are the quietest in the world.

Passengers see a more reliable, safer, less stressful form of access.

The environment sees a more benign means of surface access. Many airport railways are electrically powered. Vehicles last a long time and railways use space efficiently.



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