I recently flew back to Shanghai from Beijing. I left my hotel at 9 a.m., got into a taxi, checked in and waited in the airport lounge. We boarded on time but got stuck in the tarmac queue. I ultimately reached my office at 1:55 in the afternoon.

A journalist from Shanghai Daily apparently did the reverse 1,318 kilometre trip. He took the new high-speed train, which is on its test run before opening to the public at the end of the month. His station-to-station ride took one minute more. That’s it.

There was one more important difference: his ticket would cost half of mine.

Kunshan South Station by ROSS HONG KONG via Flickr

China (literally) in motion

The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link is the next big thing in China’s rapidly expanding transportation network. Already, you can do the Wuhan – Guangzhou leg in three hours, Shanghai – Hangzhou in 43 minutes. These are high-volume business routes: the former trip would previously take about 11 hours, the latter two and a half.

The landscape is a blur at 300 kilometres an hour, but you have much more legroom and you don’t have to switch off all your electronic devices at takeoff and landing.

When this route gets fully operational in late June, 63 trains a day will glide along the newly laid tracks. Top class tickets, which get you fully flat beds, are priced at US$270, first class at US$144, second class at US$85.

The train goes from zero to 300 kilometres an hour in four minutes flat. Touch a button and the windows turn from transparent to frosted; it‘s apparently the same technology used in a Rolls-Royce.

How will the airlines ever compete? Apart from slashing prices, that is.

Free massage chairs at Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai

Children’s art exhibition at Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai

The experience factor

I bet airlines will compete through service. Not just in flight, but more importantly, on the ground. On short sector domestic routes, passengers often end up spending as much time on the ground in the airport as they do in the air.

Chinese airports may be shiny new, but there is often little for the Chinese business people, tourists and expats who populate these flights to do. That is beginning to change.

A painting exhibition by schoolchildren around the world on the theme of the environment welcomes passengers as they enter Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai. I wasn’t the only person stopping to take a look.

Luxury brands such as Hermès, Chanel and Ferragamo beckon wealthy travellers with new, fully stocked stores. There are enough free computer terminals for those who don’t want to boot up their laptops. Wi-Fi is free but best of all, so are the massage chairs.

Still, the next time I travel to Beijing, I will take the train. My carbon footprint will be smaller and our CFO will be happy.