Saturday, January 3, 2009

Jetset: "Is ABC really DOA?"

Catching a holiday flight is rarely a pleasant way to start the holidays. After paying top dollar for the tickets and cramming presents into your suitcases, you start dreading the huge crowds in the terminals and on the planes while trying to calm the screaming kids. So the last thing you want on your way to the airport is to get stuck in Beijing’s notorious traffic, which has returned with a vengeance following the easing of vehicle restrictions imposed during the Olympics.

The solution to your dilemma can be as simple as ABC, literally. Airport Beijing City, the rather oddly-named express train service of the capital’s subway system, has been whisking passengers from Dongzhimen and Sanyuan Qiao to the airport since late July. Our city’s fastest subway – though most of its tracks are above surface – travels at 110 kilometers per hour and covers the 27-kilometer journey in 20 minutes – an unimaginable endeavor for taxicabs during rush hour! Trains depart every 10 minutes between 6am and 11pm. At RMB 25, the one-way ticket is a bit more expensive than the 16 yuan airport shuttle bus, but still way cheaper than your typical taxi fare, which can easily top RMB 100 with toll included.

By all measures, ABC is likely to be the best ground transportation option for a Chinese airport, and wins hands down over Shanghai’s much-touted magnetic-levitation (Maglev) train, which has become a symbol of the country’s white elephant projects. Compared to the Maglev, ABC’s operating hours are longer and its service more frequent. It also actually brings you into the city. In contrast, while the Maglev trains can float above the tracks at a top speed of 430 kilometers per hour and complete a 30-kilometer trip in less than eight minutes, they unload travelers from the remote Pudong airport to an equally inconvenient suburban subway station. Although ABC may not have bragging rights to a “cool” technology, it’s definitely more reliable and affordable (with the ticket price only half of the Maglev’s).

So why hasn’t ABC turned into a success like its counterpart in Hong Kong? The challenges of modifying traveler habits and cultivating loyalty aside, ABC has some innate flaws that may drive away potential riders. Unlike the Airport Express in Hong Kong, you are not able to obtain your boarding passes at the two in-town stations. Airline counters are slated to open at these stations in the future, but even then, passengers will not be able to check their luggage. Also, the design of the Dongzhimen terminus seems to have focused more on aesthetics (nice red columns) than user-friendliness (no escalators or elevators from the platform to the ground level). And even the platform itself – at around three meters wide – is inexplicably narrower than those in other subway stations, making the place cramped with people and luggage during busy times; meanwhile, a lack of luggage space on the trains makes the ride equally as stifling. Finally, there have been complaints about noisy trains and the poorly ventilated Terminal 3 station. Why can’t ABC take a page from the impressive Airport Express service in Hong Kong? Alas, it’s “one country, two systems” after all. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 32 of the December 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

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