July 21--BEIJING -- The new high-speed rail between Beijing and Shanghai was supposed to kick off a titanic battle with improved jetliners for passengers on China's most lucrative and popular travel route.
Instead, it has become a feeble struggle to see who messes up less.
The trains have been hogging the headlines following multiple delays and malfunctions just weeks after opening on June 30. Major delays on July 10 were blamed on power cuts caused by thunderstorms.
But the flights serving China's so-called 'golden passage' have not done much better. Their delays were, however, due largely to freak weather systems, particularly rainstorms.
Singaporean Sean Bai was among those who plumped for the new-fangled train, but he got held up for more than two hours during his journey from Shanghai to Beijing last week.
"The high-speed trains were seen as a more reliable alternative to flights because they should not be affected by factors such as weather," said the Peking University master's student.
"There was also the impression that they would operate according to a time schedule like the Japanese Shinkansen," he added.
"It's really disappointing that breakdowns occurred so early and frequently."
Before the bullet trains began operating, they were seen as the perfect antidote to the poor service and high prices which have plagued flights serving the capital and China's financial centre for years.
By halving travelling time on the 1,318km rail route to about five hours, the 300km-per-hour speedy locomotive was regarded as a worthy competitor to the two-hour flights, which realistically took much longer because of baggage checks and so on.
For a while after its launch -- timed for the eve of the 90th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party -- it worked.
To compete, airlines vowed to improve punctuality by parking a spare plane in each of the two airports in Beijing and Shanghai, according to state media. Flights on the route would also get priority from air control whenever thunderstorms or military drills affected scheduling.
Air ticket prices were slashed to as low as 400 yuan (US$62), down by an average of 40 per cent to 50 per cent, to undercut the cheapest high-speed train ticket of 410 yuan.
Chinese airlines wanted to protect their trophy route, which is highly popular among business people.
An estimated seven million passengers travelled between the two cities last year.
The line is worth more than seven billion yuan a year in revenue to the airlines, Professor Li Xiaojin, of the Civil Aviation University of China, told The Straits Times.
But since the 221-billion-yuan high-speed rail links ran into problems, flight ticket prices have rebounded. And, alas, flight delays have returned.
"Beijing-Shanghai is the busiest line in the country," said Prof Li. "Once a flight is delayed, it creates a horrendous domino effect on the other flights."
The pressure is now back on high-speed rail to live up to expectations.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, has launched a safety drive, promising to sweep the rail route clean of "illegal structures that need to be demolished".
The Ministry of Railways has expressed regret for the glitches and promises to do better.
Said Prof Li: "Until they solve these technical problems, the high-speed rail will not be competitive... But if they can assure quality, they will take customers from the airlines and drive flight ticket prices down once again."
Otherwise, China's 'golden passage' remains deprived of a transport service compatible with its glowing name.
Additional reporting by Lina Miao
Copyright 2011 - The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network