When I was in Singapore, we used to have this debate whether it is faster to fly to Kuala Lumpur or just take a coach.
On paper, it appears to be a no-brainer since it is merely a 45-minute flight but since 9/11, the whole airport checking + security process take a much longer time. Coupled that with the fact that airports are located further away from the city i.e. your final destination, the 5-hour coach ride up the North-South Highway may not be any slower.
We figured that it takes the same amount of time to get to KL via both modes of transportation. The coach's advantage is that of a more comfortable ride, mobile broadband access throughout and cheaper fare, while the good thing about taking to the skies is that air travel is the safest mode of transportation.
So anyway, I decided to put the same test on my Shanghai to Beijing trip back in November 2013.
To be honest, I was secretly hoping that the train will win with Ch1na being infamous for flight delays.
I booked the 10am train where the station is only 10 minutes away from me. However, due to the morning traffic, I needed 40 minutes to get to the train station.
Unlike airport where you are advised to arrive 2 hours before departure, the train boarding gate opens 15 minutes before departure and security check is only putting through your luggage through the x-ray which takes about 5 minutes.
Counting back, I booked a cab and left my place at 9am on the dot.
What I like about the train is that the seats, as you can see from the photos below, are more spacious and there is on-board power outlet even in second-class cabin.
Like the coach, there is cellular signal available for your mobile voice/data use. However, since the tracks are laid in remote parts of civilisation, signal coverage can be very spotty. I am not sure if the speed of the train has an effect on the quality of signal as well.
In short, voice call is terrible and data signal is few and far between. I gave up trying to pick up signal eventually.
The whole journey was 1200km and at a cruising speed of 300 km/h the journey was completed punctually in 4 hours 55 minutes.
The estimated arrival time of 14:55pm train was spot on as picture in the schedule above.
So we now move on to flying.
For the sake of comparison, I tracked 4 flights that I would take if I were to leave me place at 9am as well.
The cab ride to the airport is the same as the train station as both buildings are located side by side.
Following the 2-hour before departure rule, I should be taking the 11am flight. So the 4 flights that I earmarked were CA 1832 (departing at 10:55am), MU 5139 (departing at 11:30am), HU 7608 (departing at 10:55am) and MU 5107 (departing at 11:00am).
As it turned out, one of the four flights was canceled. So score one for the rail. Two were punctual (Surprise! Surprise!) and one was delayed albeit by a mere 20 minutes.
The punctual flights were about 1-1/2 hours earlier than the train and even the delayed flight arrive an hour ahead of the train. Factoring in the journey time from airport to final destination, flying still come up on top.
Anything above 4 hours (or 800km) and flying will have an advantage over rail, even with a slight delay.
Rail would only be the ideal choice if time is on par with flying.