When the train beats the plane

By David Flynn, July 11 2014
When the train beats the plane

We compare a British Airways flight against the high-speed Eurostar train on the London-Paris route.

Think of travelling for business and for most people it's airports rather than train stations that spring to mind.

That's especially so in Australia, where a "high-speed train" is one that skips a few suburban stations on the morning commute.

In all likelihood, we'll never see an Aussie bullet train barrelling between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

It's a very different scene in Europe and some parts of Asia – notably Japan and China – thanks to the network of fast rail lines darting between major cities.

For journeys up to a handful of hours, hopping on a high-speed train becomes a true alternative to flying for business travellers.

That's the theory, at any rate.

Late last year, on a visit to London, I had the chance to put this to the test.

I caught the Eurostar train from London to Paris for the weekend, and then flew back from Paris to London with British Airways.

The plane: British Airways

The average time for BA's flights between London and Paris is around 75 minutes, compared to around 2 hours 20 minutes on Eurostar.

But it's not just about the time you spend sitting in your seat. It's about the total travel time of your journey.

And much of that is spent in the stop-and-go of catching a plane, especially with modern security screenings taking a large chunk of time at the airport.

For example, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 11am for a 12.15pm flight to London's Heathrow Airport.

Online check-in and travelling with only carry-on luggage meant I could skip the check-in counter and head straight to the departures zone, where a quick trip through the security lane saw me settling in at the BA lounge by 11.20am.

A half-hour later I hustled to the gate, with boarding for the 12.15pm flight closing at 12 noon, and we took off bang on schedule.

Upon arriving at London at 12.30pm local time I flashed a "fast track" pass to scoot through BA's Terminal 5, then caught the Heathrow Express to reach Paddington station and my nearby hotel around 1.30pm.

All up, without counting the time from my Paris hotel to Charles de Gaulle airport, the trip took around three-and-a-half hours.

It also included a lot of "hurry up and wait": busting through security in order to sit around at the lounge, waiting to be called to the boarding gate, then waiting to actually board the plane, and finally waiting for it to take off.

So how does that compare to a high-speed train?

The train: Eurostar

My trip from London's St Pancras International station to Paris Gare du Nord began with an 8.40am arrival for the 9.17am train, although Eurostar's business class travellers can arrive as late as 10 minutes before departure (try doing that at any airport).

The station's design is that of a small and efficient regional airport, and the whole process of going through security and passport control took barely five minutes.

Boarding the Eurostar is much faster than boarding a flight, too.

Instead of queuing along an aerobridge to pass through a single door, you line up along the platform according to the carriage number on your ticket.

This all cuts out the stop-start nature of flying and replaces it with full-on productivity, if that's your thing.

For example, as soon as you take your seat you can start working on your laptop or tablet (some Eurostar trains will also have free Internet from the end of this year), use your smartphone, tune out with your iPod or do any of the things you can't do on a plane until it reaches level flight.

My standard economy seat on the Eurostar proved wider, more comfortable and with more legroom than on the BA aircraft, and of course I could wander around and stretch my legs any time I wanted to.

By the time the train rolled into Paris North station at 12.50pm my total travel time was still shy of three hours, giving me plenty of time to reach my hotel at Place de la Republique, straddling the edges of the 10th and 11th arrondissements.

On a stopwatch test, plane and train were almost equal, but the city centre location of the Eurostar stations gave it a clear edge over distant airports.

More noticeably, though, I found the train trip far less stressful and immensely more enjoyable. I arrived feeling more rested and awake, too. There was no cabin pressure or reduced oxygen flow to deal with, none of that ceaseless engine drone or even swelling of one's feet enroute.

The overall experience chalked up a clear win to Eurostar and made this an experiment I'm keen to repeat on other high-speed lines within Europe.

Also read: Review – Eurostar Business Premier class, London to Paris and Eurostar: Business Premier vs Standard Premier vs Standard class

What's your experience with high-speed rail, and how does it stack up against flying for business travel?

Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

12 Jun 2011

Total posts 148

Don't forget that BA does now allow for electronic devices to be in flight mode throughout the flight and in your hand. 

For me, I'll generally choose whichever is cheaper, with a slight preference for the train (unless I'm connecting you/from a flight). 


Singapore Airlines - The PPS Club

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 50

While I generally find the Eurostar a far more enjoyable experience, if you are planning on heading to/from Canry Wharf or the City to southern Paris (south of the Seine) the London City (LCY) to Orly (ORY) is a very good alternative. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

05 Jun 2014

Total posts 210

Was just about to suggest LCY myself. :)


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 967

Trains are good in Europe just the border guards in the Eastern parts can make you a bit wary.

NZ Elite

03 Jul 2014

Total posts 109

It'd be interesting to see cost included in the comparison.

Thai Airways International - Royal Orchid Plus

15 Jan 2013

Total posts 465

In Europe it works and on the USA East Coast as well but as for Australia Not Yet.It would be nice if they would have an Adelaide to Melbourne limited stop train that does the trip in five to six hours similar to Acela or Eurostar but that won't happen.I did the math already we left our home around 1pm for the Airport to get a 3:30pm flight and arrived at the other end at 5pm and got to my brothers home just before 6pm for the mentioned journey.The existing Overland that left way before us was still somewhere between Ballarat and Melbourne as we were about to commence landing.In our land the plane wins even if the cost of transport to and from town has to be taken into account

12 Jun 2013

Total posts 735

If you're comfortable with cutting it moderately fine at the airport I reckon you can do Melbourne CBD to Adelaide (or Sydney) CBD in about 3 hours door-to-door. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2204

I laughed at the Overland being at Ballarat as you approach ADL. By the time you finish MEL-SYD door-to-door, the train would barely have reached Albury.

Assuming it hasn't derailed like it did very recently on the RRL.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Jun 2013

Total posts 366

I have traveled Paris to Cannes ,Frankfurt to Paris ,Milan to Rome all on fast trains all in first class ,much better than Euro business provided by BA or Alitalia airways you can enjoy the scenery and have the use of WI FI at a small charge ,I find it Quicker and more convenient to use the trains as it eliminates the time and stress at airports plus you arrive feeling 100 percent and not dehydrated as you do when flying ?I would recommend the train over flying anywhere in Europe 


Air NZ Airpoints

12 Mar 2014

Total posts 36

Glad you mentioned Japan - it is best navigated by Shinkansen high speed rail. From Tokyo, the only places you'd fly to are the other islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku or (of course) Okinawa. Anywhere on Honshu (i.e. Nagoya, Osaka, etc.) you'd take the Shinkansen, faster and far more pleasant. (the Shinkansen is even faster to distant Hiroshima, the airport there is way out of town).

No security of any sort, turn up one minute before departure if you want (and in disorganised moments I have) and jump on. And the food (for purchase) is great - there's nothing quite like a variety bento (box meal) to experience new flavours and old favourites.

And if you have lots of gear, another great thing about travel in Japan is the cheap and utterly reliable overnight couriers. Send your bag ahead, travel with a small bag on the Shinkansen. Easy.

Icing on the cake is the Japan Rail Pass, ride as much as you like on (almost any) train, including most Shinkansen. Gold.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Mar 2013

Total posts 132

Agree about the stress-free factor for rail. TGV and ICE services become even more competitive on shorter journeys like Lyon to Paris, both on time and price. SNCF often have specials, reducing 1st class to be cheaper than 2nd. And some of the rail passes (especially JRpass and the Swisspass) are still better value than the Star Alliiance Airpass. Food on the TGV is excellent, and there's power in every 1st class seat. I do find that the pressure created going into tunnels, especially on the faster Shinkansen services, does play havoc with your ears. Under 3 hours, and HSR will win hands-down. 


17 Dec 2013

Total posts 47

There's a sleeping car attached to the overnight XPT between Syd - Mel and vice versa. About once every six months I do it. I quite like the service. It runs from CBD to CBD, won't break the land speed record but the times (8.30pm dep and 7.30am arr) are convenient.

Accomm is in twinettes, but I always book on the day of travel and ask to be allocated an empty cabin, always get it, take a bottle of wine on board and put myself to sleep by Goulburn and wake up around Benalla, have a shower, a coffee, and get off at Southern Cross ready for a full days work

It's a service with a lot of potential but the NSW government has zero interest in putting on the necessary single accomm cabins and actually marketing the product.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2204

I think the overnight SYD-MEL-SYD train was once upon a time running a great business, but has since derailed.

It has a lot of potential but it's become the state's classic 'too hard' project (because it requires the whole railway to be fixed, not just the trains themselves).

The day service is hopeless.

Thai Airways International - Royal Orchid Plus

15 Jan 2013

Total posts 465

That's True.Such a service might have worked in the days before the Budget Airlines even existed but not anymore.And who in their right mind would at the moment want to sit close to half a day on a Train when you can fly it in 80 minutes.

10 Aug 2015

Total posts 113

Yes I have taken this too. It is fantastic service, the freedom to finish work "sometime around 6pm", have a decent meal at a full sized table and then wander down to Southern Cross to board. Depart at 8pm and I was waking up to breakfast being served at Goulburn,  a shower onboard and on with my day. So happy to avoid the journey out to Tullamarine. Note they sell wine onboard the XPT too:)

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

14 Jan 2014

Total posts 340


In the interest of fairness, I really feel you should include the time it took you to get Charles de Gaulle in these calculation (especially since you include the Heathrow Express bit on the London end of your journey). 

When you stack up the travel time from your hotel to the train station, and then compare it to the travel time to the airport. The train wins hands down everytime due to the central location of the stations.

For this reason alone, a potential Sydney to Melbourne high speed rail journey could really give flying a run for its money. 

01 Aug 2012

Total posts 30

There are quite a few routes in Europe where the train easily beats the plane: Frankfurt-Brussels (2:50 hrs), Paris-Marseille (3:20), Milan-Rome (2:55), Madrid-Barcelona (2:50), Munich-Vienna (4:00) etc. And the scenery can be stunning.


12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1519

I use Eurostar and fully agree with article. Basically I cannot get why they still flying inside Europe.

10 Aug 2015

Total posts 113

I've also done this comparison,  it was for a corporate team challenge,  two of us flew and two of us travelled by Eurostar. We all set out from Central Paris with a destination of Central London. Being the one allocated to fly I was terribly embarrassed at just how much longer it took us to get to the finish line in London, around an hour longer to fly than to train.  And yes just not comfortable. For sure the article above is missing out the time to travel out to CDG airport, which is normally  horrendous day and night.

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