The race to Guangzhou: SCMP reporters find out how high-speed rail compares to other transport options
Hongkongers now have one more way to get to the mainland and ahead of the opening of the new high-speed rail link the Post organised a race to test how quickly you can get to Guangzhou
Five writers set off from the newspaper’s Causeway Bay headquarters on the morning of September 11, ahead of the high-speed rail link’s opening on September 23, to make the 129-km journey by train, coach, bus and aeroplane. Their final destination: Taikoo Hui, the shopping and commercial complex in Guangzhou. We wanted to know who would take the shortest time, and how much it would cost.
On the launch day, some writers tested the much-touted Hong Kong-Guangzhou high-speed trains, which completed the comparison.
Sum Lok-Kei went by MTR and the mainland’s intercity harmony train. Danny Lee headed to the airport and caught a plane. Kanis Leung took the Kowloon-Canton intercity through-train. Jane Zhang took the cross-border coach. Michelle Wong went by coach and taxi.
On September 23, Kanis Leung and Peace Chiu then tested the high-speed trains with and without stops respectively.
Mode of transport: MTR and train
Total time: 3 hours 41 minutes
Total cost: HK$141
I had company on my railway-only race to Guangzhou, which began smoothly at 6.35am when two photographer colleagues and I left the office for the Causeway Bay MTR station.
The cross-harbour trip to Mong Kok was ahead of the morning peak period and relatively painless.
Things changed when we got to Kowloon Tong Station and had to change to the East Rail Line towards Lo Wu, as workers and students crowded the train compartments.
It was 8am when we reached Lo Wu, at the mainland border, and it took just 10 minutes to clear the immigration checkpoint and enter Shenzhen because it was a weekday and not the peak travel season.
We got to the nearby Shenzhen express rail station easily, found the ticketing booth quickly and bought high speed rail tickets to Guangzhou on the first train available, at 8.32am.
The place was not crowded, but we had only 10 minutes to get through the security checks and find our train platform.
I sighed with relief as I slumped into my seat and almost immediately, the train took off. It was 8.30am, two minutes ahead of schedule.
The train was quite packed, and included passengers on business trips. The final stop, Guangzhou East, is close to the Tianhe business hub.
Our route was not particularly scenic, as we went through mostly suburban areas. I ordered a coffee and was disappointed by the insipid drink that arrived. For 35 yuan (HK$40) they could have done better than serve a watery drink in a paper cup that started leaking.
We made three stops, at Zhangmutou, Changping and Dongguan, before reaching Guangzhou East Station at 9.45am. The ride took us one hour and 15 minutes.
Unlike Guangzhou South Station, where the new express train from Hong Kong terminates, the Guangzhou East Station is in the heart of the city.
But to complete this race, we had to get to Taikoo Hui and chose to take the Guangzhou metro. As we got off one stop away and took a short walk, it took us 11 minutes.
This journey was not hassle-free because of the frequent changes we had to make between MTR, metro and rail lines. Travellers with heavy luggage would find it cumbersome to go from platform to platform.
The new West Kowloon terminus has a joint checkpoint arrangement which the Hong Kong government says will shorten the time for clearing immigration to the mainland.
During our trip, there were no hold-ups at immigration checkpoints in Hong Kong or the mainland. The electronic checkpoints, such as the e-channel in Hong Kong, were efficient and reliable.
Overall, I’d say the rail-only route will remain appealing to those who want an economical ride to Guangzhou.
Mode of transport: Aeroplane, MTR and taxi
Total time: 3 hours 43 minutes
Total cost: HK$1,841.60
On paper, taking the one-hour flight from Hong Kong to Guangzhou gave me an advantage over everyone else in this race.
But there were drawbacks too: only two flights a day; the air ticket cost; and then the bother of getting to and from each airport.
To improve my chances, I travelled with hand luggage only, downloaded my air ticket onto my phone, and selected a front-row seat in economy class for a quick exit.
I set off from the Causeway Bay newsroom at 6.15am. The taxi ride to the Airport Express station in Central was easy because traffic was light, and the train got me to Hong Kong International Airport at 6:53am, a little over an hour from the 7:55am departure.
After a brief hold up at security, I had time to have breakfast before getting to Departure Gate 40 at the far end of the terminal.
I was the only passenger flying from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Everyone else on the relatively full flight came from New York or New Delhi and beyond, there were families returning home and business travellers.
Flight KA782 left Hong Kong at 8.13am and landed 15 minutes early in Guangzhou, at 8.40am – a mere 27-minute ride from take-off to touchdown.
All went well at Guangzhou airport until I saw the crowd of people with at least two suitcases each queuing at the “Nothing to Declare” customs area. I felt I had lost the race.
Fortunately, a second customs line opened and I made a beeline for that, cleared customs, dashed out of the terminal and jumped into a cab. My journey downtown began at 9.09am.
The taxi driver stuck to the rules, refusing to drive faster than the speed limit. The preferred route on my phone told me to go one way, but the cabby went another and we were slowed down by congestion, road tolls and bad drivers cutting lanes.
We reached my Taikoo Hui destination at 9.58am.
In all, I spent HK$1,525 for a fully flexible one-way ticket on Cathay Dragon, HK$37.60 on the taxi from Causeway Bay to the Airport Express station; HK$110 for the train to Hong Kong International Airport; and 148 yuan (HK$169) from Guangzhou Baiyun Airport to the final meeting point. The total: HK$1,841.60.
My total time of three hours 43 minutes was not the fastest, astonishingly two minutes slower than taking the MTR and the intercity Guangzhou-Shenzhen train, and taking the plane was certainly the costliest way to go.
Mode of transport: Kowloon-Canton intercity through train from Hung Hom to Guangzhou East
Total time: 3 hours 44 minutes
Total cost: HK$268
I bought my one-way ticket online, using my credit card to pay HK$210 plus a HK$12 service charge. One day before the race, I picked up the ticket at Admiralty MTR station, just in case there were long queues at Hung Hom station.
I would be riding the direct MTR Intercity Through Train from Hung Hom to Guangzhou East, which usually takes about two hours.
On the race day, I set off from our office in Causeway Bay at 6:24am and paid HK$16 to take the cross-harbour bus to Hung Hom station.
I need not have worried about crowds. I passed through the security and local immigration checks in five minutes and got into a quiet compartment with around 60 passengers.
The train set off at 7.25am, as scheduled.
Technical manager Kelvin Lee Kin-man, 49, on his way to his company’s mainland factory in Guangzhou, said he takes the through train every two to three weeks.
He said the border clearance in both Hong Kong and the mainland was usually smooth, and it was convenient that the train ended at Guangzhou East, which had easy connections to other places in the city.
He ruled out trying the new high-speed rail from West Kowloon because it ends at Guangzhou South, not close to his workplace.
High-speed rail passengers must pre-order their tickets at least 45 minutes before departure. Lee said it takes just five minutes to get a through train ticket just before the train leaves.
Another passenger, Judy Liang Dong-yue, 64, is keen to try the express rail link just to see how fast it goes.
“If it’s speedy and convenient, I will take it. But I won’t give up on the through train services,” said Liang, who works as a home helper.
The two hours passed quickly, with mainland TV shows featuring Hong Kong stars displayed on the train’s TV screens. We crossed the border at 8:15am, passing some factories in Dongguan, part of the Pearl River Delta economic zone.
We arrived at Guangzhou East at 9.29am, just four minutes behind schedule. I followed the crowd to the mainland immigration and customs area, and got through within minutes.
I called a taxi using the Didi Chuxing ride-hailing mobile application, and soon I was off to the final destination, Taikoo Hui.
My journey took three hours, 44 minutes and thought I did pretty well, but I did not win the race.
Mode of transport: Tram, cross-border coach and bus
Total time: 4 hours
Total cost: HK$114.90
The cross-border coach from downtown Hong Kong promised to get me to Guangzhou in time for lunch, and that seemed like a good idea.
Leaving the starting point of our race at 6:40am I took a tram from Causeway Bay and reached the Wan Chai coach station at 7am. There was time for breakfast at a nearby restaurant, because the first bus was leaving at 7.40am.
I took a coach operated by Trans-Island Limousine Service. You buy your tickets at the counter, because you cannot book online or over the phone. A one-way ticket to Guangzhou costs HK$112.6.
There were only nine of us on the 45-seater coach, and not everyone was going to Guangzhou. Some were heading for other cities in Guangdong Province, like Zhongshan and Dongguan.
Retiree Winnie Chu, 66, travels to different cities in Guangdong about once a month but has never been to Guangzhou. Today she is travelling with a friend to join a tour to Zhongshan, in the south of the Pearl River Delta.
“There is a tour bus waiting for us after crossing the border so taking a coach is more convenient,” Chu said. “If I go to Guangzhou in future, I will definitely take the high-speed train.”
Our coach took an hour to get to Shenzhen Bay, where I had to get off, go through the checkpoint and transfer to another coach.
It was a 10-minute wait for the earliest coach to Guangzhou, at 9am. Coaches leave every 30 minutes through the day, or whenever there are at least 14 people on board.
This coach was also relatively empty, with only 16 passengers, so I could choose my seat to take in the amazing views of the Zhujiang River Estuary along the Guangshen Yanjiang expressway.
The journey of more than three hours was smooth but a little boring. Passengers killed time by listening to music, watching films or having a nap. There was no television on board.
Housewife Angela Zhang, 50, has been to Guangzhou about five times over the past year and chose the bus every time.
“It’s more convenient for me since I live in Tuen Mun. But it also depends on the weather and traffic. If it rains, I will probably take a train,” she said.
Cross-border coaches depart from various parts of Hong Kong, and take passengers to different locations in Guangzhou, including Tianhe City Shopping Centre, Guangzhou Hotel and the Garden Hotel Guangzhou.
My coach moved slowly after it entered the central district of Guangzhou, and arrived at Tianhe City Shopping centre at about 11am. From there, I got to my destination of Taikoo Hui by local public bus and it took me 20 minutes.
In all, my journey took four hours. For travellers watching their budget, it was hard to beat.
Mode of transport: Coach and taxi
Total time: 4 hours 10 minutes
Total cost: HK$674.08
To get from Causeway Bay to Taikoo Hui by road, I planned a journey by coach and taxi.
I went online to book a seat on the 7:40am coach from Wan Chai to Shenzhen Bay Port, and was told to arrive 30 minutes early to collect my ticket.
It took me just 15 minutes to get from the SCMP office to the Wan Chai coach terminus on foot so we decided to take the earlier coach at 7:10am. I thought I would have time for breakfast, but the ticketing counter was closed.
It took 10 minutes before a coach company employee rolled up the metal gates, but then the ticketing system kept crashing and another 20 minutes passed before I got my ticket.
With no time for breakfast, I hopped on my coach five minutes past the scheduled departure time.
There were fewer than 10 passengers on the first coach of the day. Among them was office clerk Edmond Hau, 59, who travels occasionally to Foshan in Guangdong for work.
“This is the most convenient way for me to get to Shenzhen Bay, and my driver will pick me up from there,” said Hau.
He did not think he would switch to the new high-speed rail which promises to get travellers from Kowloon West to Shenzhen North in just 23 minutes.
“I live on Hong Kong Island and to get to the high speed rail station in Kowloon is too inconvenient,” he said.
Another passenger, consultant Frankie Yau, 60, who goes to Shenzhen occasionally for work will not be switching to the new high speed rail either, for the same reason.
“If I’m going on a long-distance journey it might worth the time going to Kowloon,” he said.
The coach was quite empty so I got a whole row of seats to myself. I put my bag on the seat next to me and reclined to have a little nap. The velvet seat was spacious and comfortable.
Our coach left Wan Chai at 7:15am, and took 40 minutes to reach Shenzhen Bay Port. Our route took us from Stewart Road in Wan Chai to the Hong Kong Port Area of the Shenzhen Bay Port. After getting off the coach, I spent 15 minutes crossing the co-location border.
I was still 116km from my Taikoo Hui destination and now had to find a taxi to get me there. This proved to be the biggest challenge.
I spent 35 minutes at the taxi station. The driver of a blue electric taxi driver refused to take me, claiming he did not have enough electricity. A red diesel cab driver said it was too far to go.
A bunch of illegal taxi drivers offered to take me to Guangzhou for RMB 550 (HK$628) but I worried about safety. I used the Didi app and got a cab, for a similar price.
I waited under the bright sun for 10 minutes before the Didi cab arrived. Traffic was smooth and, two hours later, I was at my destination.
Kanis Leung and Peace Chiu
Mode of transport: MTR, high-speed rail and taxi
Total time: 3 hours 28 minutes
Total cost: HK$369
Finally, after writing about it for months, it was time for our first trip on the new high-speed rail link from West Kowloon to Guangzhou South.
At 6.57am, Kanis began the long-awaited journey from the Causeway Bay newsroom with our videographer to catch the 8.30am ride – the first Hong Kong-owned train destined for Guangzhou South on debut day, the Vibrant Express, which stops briefly in Shenzhen North and Humen.
Peace separately tested the much-touted first non-stop train so that we will know the difference between the two choices on the route, one of the highlights of the rail project. However, it is harder to get a ticket on a non-stop train between the two destinations as there are only three return trains out of 34 a day.
Kanis and her colleague took the MTR to Kowloon Station and walked six minutes to the West Kowloon Terminus, which was packed with passengers and media at 7.38am on the B1 level.
We made our way through the crowd and entered the security checking zone after showing terminus officers our tickets, which we bought two weeks ago, and our personal documents.
Without long queues, we got through the security check zone within a minute and took an escalator to the B3 level, where local and mainland immigration and customs counters are set up.
After local border clearance, we saw travellers posing for pictures at the border mark which divides the local and mainland port areas. Under a joint checkpoint arrangement, mainland Chinese officials enforce national laws in their designated section of the terminal.
The whole border clearance process was faster than expected as there were only very short queues. The only place we found long queues was at the departure concourse on the B3 level, where hundreds of passengers were waiting to have their first ride.
We got onto the platform on the B4 level at 8.23am and took some photos with the brand new train, like many other travellers.
During the journey, we tried to connect to the free Wi-fi service on the train three times but failed.
Our train arrived in Guangzhou South at 9.31am, three minutes behind the rail operator MTR Corp’s schedule. After taking a few photos at the station, we hopped into a taxi right away and made it to Taikoo Hui at 10.25am.
The whole journey took us three hours and 28 minutes, at least 13 minutes faster than other modes of transport we tried. It was a comfortable and fast journey, but the cost was quite high.
For comparison, Peace took a non-stop high-speed train from West Kowloon to Guangzhou South at just after 10am, which promises a journey time of 47 minutes – the highlight of the project.
On the first non-stop train she was on, the journey was delayed. It departed at 10.02am and arrived at 10.55am, eight minutes after the schedule 10.47am arrival time. At least six of the 16 carriages were empty or nearly empty.