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Train Or Plane?

Updated on September 1, 2016
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Cedric earned a bachelor's degree in communications studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, mythology, and video gaming.

Nope, the question of train or plane is not just idyllic travel planning consideration. It’s a question that involves billions of dollars worldwide. The latest discussion being the arrival of the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train service in Hokkaido.

Whether it’s between London and Paris, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, or Tokyo and Sapporo, the world’s busiest travel corridors have for years been battlegrounds for train and flight operators. With the advent of budget airlines, cost is removed as a major decision factor, and operators now have to compete on other grounds. What are these? What should be on your mind when considering whether to go by train or plane? So far, this are the factors I’ve read about. Or experienced personally.

Train or Plane. Not a simple decision to make

Air travel. The fastest mode of travel currently available.
Air travel. The fastest mode of travel currently available. | Source
High speed trains. A beloved transportation veteran updated to suit modern needs.
High speed trains. A beloved transportation veteran updated to suit modern needs. | Source

Plane Versus Train Comparison Chart 1

 
By Plane
By Train
Journey Time
It’s still faster. Though only marginally in many cases. if you factor in the travel time to and from the airport, and the two/three hours before flights requirements, it might actually take longer.
Slower. But you arrive at the heart of town. No subsequent waiting for luggage. No dreary, expensive travel into town by taxis, special bus services too. This, incidentally, was a major promotional message used by the Eurostar. In my opinion, it's the Eurostar's strongest advantage.
Comfort
Even if you travel in business class, there’s still depressurisation and atmospheric dryness to deal with. And if you’re in coach, or worse, on a budget airline, well …. Sardine time.
Not that all trains are luxurious, but there’s at least more space to walk about during the journey. For some reason, it seems to me too that lesser people battle for toilets on trains. Maybe there are just more available.
Entertainment
You wouldn’t get personalised screens on all airlines, but even on budget carriers, there is usually be something broadcasted on (tiny) common screens. On full service carriers, entertainment could be an orgy of movies, TV shows, music and games. Keeps you enthralled for hours, if you’re into those sort of things.
Watch the beauty of the world roll by as you travel. That’s the key promotional message used by European train passes, by the way. True, except, it’s usually in flashes? You’re not going to have breath-taking scenery the entire trip too. And trains frequently cut across pretty desolate, filthy spots.
Journey Distance
Here’s where air travel shines. The longer the distance to cover, the more sense it makes to fly. Even the fastest trains in the world would not be able to get you from northern Europe to the Mediterranean without a whole day of travel. A plane, on the other hand, could zip you there in two hours.
You could cover vast distances by taking an overnight train. Some travellers consider this a major boon of train travel; you get to “save” on a night of accommodation. I only partially agree though, for comfort is a major factor in overnight train travel. It depends on the train, and what sort of carriage you’re paying for. Also, some overnight train routes are notorious for theft..

Entertainment on trains and planes

Airports & air travel could be a hassle. But many flights compensate by offering superior on board entertainment.
Airports & air travel could be a hassle. But many flights compensate by offering superior on board entertainment. | Source
The beauty of the world zips past you when in a train. Theoretically speaking.
The beauty of the world zips past you when in a train. Theoretically speaking. | Source

Plane Versus Train Comparison Chart 2

 
By Plane
By Train
Food
Many full service carriers advertise heavily about their cuisine. Personally, I’ve eaten some pretty great meals on planes, while in coach class. Still, no matter how wonderful the food is, it’s still pre-cooked and post-heated. Pressurisation also plays tricks on your taste-buds. You do get to enjoy limited free booze on full carriers, though.
Only premium train, such as The Thalys, offers meals with first class ticket purchase. For all else, you pay heftily for food on board. You could bring your own food though, as savvy travellers do. What I’m saying is, the days of romantic dining on trains are rather gone for good, unless you have a thick travel budget.
Group Travel
There's nothing to stop you from flying with a whole group of friends. However, you would only enjoy the company of one or two throughout the flight. For those with several young children, this could be an issue.
Many trains offer booths for groups. Unless you’re traveling in a group with well over ten persons, all of you could squeeze into that booth and party away. Party sensibly, that is. For those travelling with children and babies, this could be a major advantage.
Would meals, and whom to eat it with, be a deciding factor for you when choosing to fly or to ride?
Would meals, and whom to eat it with, be a deciding factor for you when choosing to fly or to ride?

Safety: Trains vs Planes

According to this feature, flying is ranked the safest mode of travel, followed by train. While reading that, please note what else was emphasised in the article. Despite the rankings, both air and train travel are equally safe. Far, far more people are injured by motor accidents yearly. Just that, air and train accidents tend to receive heavier media attention when they happen. This remains the case even if you take into account recent incidences of terrorist attacks.

Motor travel loses out to both air and train travel when it comes to safety.
Motor travel loses out to both air and train travel when it comes to safety. | Source

Do you prefer air or train travel?

Do you prefer to fly or to ride?

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If you're traveling in Europe and considering a railway pass, do visit my other page about the downsides of such passes, as well as what to expect from railway stations lockers in Europe.

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