Bookings for high-speed rail service plunge following fatal train tragedy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2011, 12:00am


Passengership numbers of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line seem to have fallen sharply, according to a Ministry of Railways website.

Trains departing Beijing for Shanghai today have plenty of surplus tickets, with as many as 924 seats available on a train.

That implies many near-empty carriages, according to the train ticket booking website.

That is a sharp reversal of fortunes from the initial feverish demand for the service (which was launched on June 30), which subsided following frequent breakdowns and the train disaster in Wenzhou .

More than 70 per cent of tickets for first- and second-class cabins of the Beijing-Shanghai route remain unsold since a string of power cuts caused long delays and the deaths of 40 people in the Wenzhou tragedy on July 23, Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post reported. The expensive business class seats were almost empty, the newspaper said.

However, the railways ministry said in a statement yesterday that the passengers on the Beijing-Shanghai line averaged 170,000 passengers per day in its first month of operation, and has an 'average daily attendance rate...[of] 107 per cent'.

For the airlines industry, demand for air travel between Beijing and Shanghai rose steadily near the 90 per cent level last week, amid concerns about the safety of high-speed rail travel, according to tourism consultancy firms.

Hou Tao, vice-president of Beijing-based consultancy ENTravel, said that passenger travel rates at major airlines were gradually returning to previous levels from a low of about 4 per cent early last month - the initial period after the start of the high-speed rail service.

Prior to the railway problems, many mainland airlines had predicted that it would capture some 20 per cent of the market, but the latest data suggested a smaller impact, Hou said. 'We expect flights between Beijing and Shanghai to hit high attendance rates in the next four to six weeks,' he said. Hou also said he believes that the high-speed train service is less likely to succeed in grabbing market share from the airlines by the end of the year before its problems are resolved. 'But high-speed trains will remain a big threat to the airlines in the coming decade.'

Meanwhile, the airlines are cashing in on the public's shaken confidence in the high-speed rail service. eLong, an air ticket booking website, shows that more than 34 out of 46 flights departing Beijing for Shanghai are now being sold at the full fare of 1,130 yuan (HK$1,363) for economy class seats. Previously, air fares had fallen between 10 and 20 per cent due to competition from the high-speed rail service.

The aviation route between Beijing and Shanghai is among the most lucrative legs for mainland carriers because the two-hour flight attracts many business travellers. That is despite the cost, which is twice that of the five-hour high-speed rail service.

The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train service has often declared emergencies after its launch, citing power failures or other problems. It has drawn heavy criticisms for wasting passengers' time and money.