Train travel is the main method of long-distance transportation for the Chinese, with an extensive network of routes covering most of the country. Roughly a quarter of the world's total rail traffic is in China.
China now has the world's largest network of high-speed railways (similar to French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains), the CRH trains, and expansion continues at a frantic pace. If your route and budget allow then these may be the best way to get around.
Types of trains and services
Chinese trains are split into different categories designated by letters and numbers indicated on the ticket.
The letter prefixes on train numbers indicate the type of train. From fastest to slowest, the fast trains are:
- G-series (高速 gāosù) – 300 km/h long-haul high-speed expresses - on a number of high-speed mainlines, including Beijing–Zhengzhou–Wuhan–Guangzhou–Shenzhen, Zhengzhou–Xi'an, Beijing–Nanjing–Shanghai, Shanghai–Hangzhou, Nanjing–Hangzhou–Ningbo. These trains could serve with top speed of 300 km/h (186 mph) by HeXieHao (white or silver color with blue belt) or 350 km/h (217 mph) by FuXingHao (white color with yellow belt or silver color with red belt, CR400AF, CR400BF), long distance trains serving fewer stations, mostly major cities.
- C (城际 chéngjì): C-series (城际 chéngjì) – 200 km/h short-haul high-speed expresses - only on Beijing–Wuqing–Tianjin–Tanggu line and Shanghai South-Jinshanwei line. C-series numbering is also used for commuter trains on the Wuhan–Xianning lines. Top speed normally up to 200 km/h, with some exceptions 300 km/h.
- D-series (动车 dòngchē) – 200 km/h high-speed express trains - These trains could serve with top speeds of 250 km/h (155 mph) by HeXieHao (white color with blue belt) or FuXingHao (blue color with yellow belt or silver color with red belt, are named as CR300AF/BF), long distance trains serving more stations & intermediate cities. Some of D are served with top speed of 160 km/h (100mph) by FuXingHao (Emerald green color with gold belt, CR200J) which most of its journey are not on high speed rails.
While many lines are built for speeds up to 350 km/h, most trains run at more than 300 km/h for safety and cost reasons. Lines built to a 250 km/h standard will run at 200 km/h. Since September 2017, trains running between Beijing and Shanghai have operated at up to 350 km/h, and more lines have been gradually restored to their design speed.
There are also some G trains whose routes include lines built to different standards. In this case, they run at a speed of 300 km/h on lines of a higher standard, and 250 km/h or 200 km/h on lines of a lower standard. The ticket price is also at different rates in each part of the route according to the speed. For example, the route of G trains from Beijing to Taiyuan include the first part form Beijing to Shijiazhuang, and the second part from Shijiazhuang to Taiyuan. The first part is part of Beijing-Hong Kong High-Speed Railway, and the train runs at a speed of 300 km/h. However the second part of Shijiazhuang-Taiyuan High-Speed Railway is built only to a 250 km/h standard, so the train runs at a lower speed and the price per kilometer is lower than the first part. And if you take this train only for the second part (for example, getting on at Shijiazhuang and getting off at Taiyuan), there will be no difference form a D train in either speed or price.
Faster services usually means higher prices, but Z, T and K series trains are priced on the same basis. Number-only trains have the lowest price. Some number only trains and a very few K trains are not equipped with air conditioners, and their prices are notably lower.
- Z-series (直达 zhídá) – Direct express trains, conventional speed with fewer stops with the top speed around 160 km/h (100 mph). Some trains offer soft-sleepers only.
- T-series (特快 tèkuài) – 140 km/h intercity trains calling at major cities only. Similar to Z–trains although they usually stop at more stations.
- K-series (快速 kuàisù) – 120 km/h slower, cheaper and more crowded trains with more stops. The most-often seen series, calls at more stations than a T train and has more hard-sleepers and seats.
- General fast trains (普快 pǔkuài) – 120 km/h trains, with no letter designation, four digits starts with 1–5. These trains are the cheapest, although slowest long-distance trains
- General trains (普客 pǔkè) - 100 km/h short-distance trains with no letter designation, four digits starts with 5, 6, or 7. Slowest trains, stop almost everywhere.
- Commuting trains (通勤 tōngqín) / Service trains (路用 lùyòng) - four digits starts with 8, or five digits starts with 57, slow local trains, mostly used by rail staffs. Not likely sells ticket to passengers.
- L-series (临时 línshí) – seasonal trains suitable to K- or four-digit-series.
- Y-series (旅游 lǚyóu) – trains primarily serving tourist groups.
- S-series (市郊 shìjiāo) - trains run to/from suburbs around big cities.
High-speed train classes
The CRH trains usually have five classes:
- Second class (二等座 erdengzuo) (3+2 seat layout). Seats are a bit narrow, but there is plenty of leg room.
- First class (一等座 yidengzuo) (2+2 layout)
- Three VIP classes (2+1 layout just behind the driver's cabin):
- "商务座" (business class). Seats that fully recline into a lie-flat bed.
- "观光座" (sightseeing class).
- "特等座" (deluxe class).
商务座 (business class) is better than "一等座" (first class) on CRH trains. 商务座 (business class) and 观光座 (sightseeing class) priced the same, while 特等座 is usually more expensive than "一等座" (first class), but cheaper than 商务座 and 观光座.
If your journey is less than 2 hours, you won't really notice much difference being in Second Class, although longer journeys will be less tiring in First Class. Large people may prefer First Class because the seats are noticeably wider.
Second Class: Slightly firmer but not uncomfortable seats in a 2+3 layout. Slightly less room between seat rows. More likely to feature standing ticket holders in the aisles but not as many or crowded as conventional trains in China. Power sockets may be available. Food trolleys do service these carriages but may not be as frequent. The difference between First and Second class is minor and it is reflected in the smaller difference in ticket price.
First Class: These feature comfortable seats in a 2+2 layout with mostly forward facing seats. However some seats can be found in a face to face arrangement across a table. Compartmented seating is available on other services. This varies across the train types. Seating positions can not be chosen when purchasing your ticket. The seat rows feature greater leg room and larger seat back tables. Food trolleys frequent the car often for purchases with the buffet car also being close by. Power sockets are usually available on most services but not all, they may be on the seat base or overhead on the underside of the luggage rack.
VIP Class: These seats are sold by a variety of names on various lines, Sightseeing, VIP or Business Class being the most common names. They are not available on every line and only a few seats are available. Many are based on lie-flat modern airline business class seats, but some are just First Class standard seats in a more privileged position, they are normally immediately behind the driver's compartment, with a glass wall allowing a view forward of the train. However this glass is often frosted over to avoid passengers distracting the driver. Seating is normally arranged in 2+1 layout, but 2+2 seating can be found on some services depending on the space available on the various train types. Compartmented Business Class seating is found on only a few trains. An attendant is provided solely for the needs of business class passengers and a meal, snack pack and non-alcoholic beverage are served directly to the seats, included in the fare. Slippers are also available for passenger use. Power sockets are available at each seat.
Sleeper Class: There are a few slower D numbered high-speed sleeper trains operating overnight across the Chinese network. Typically, these services are between major population centres with 5 to 8 hours of travel time between them, they feature few stops. The trains are compartmentalised into 4-bunk cabins, furnished to a soft sleeper standard of conventional Chinese trains, with bedding provided. There are no other seating or level of bunk available on these services. It is not possible for single occupancy of a compartment, and all tickets must be bought with an ID card or passport, making it difficult and not worthwhile to purchase extra beds in a compartment for the sake of privacy. These services have proven to not be as popular as other high-speed services but several promotions and an increasing number of available services are slowly changing this around. One service in each direction typically runs between Beijing & Shanghai, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Six overnight services run each way between Beijing to Guangzhou with some continuing to Shenzhen and one continuing to Zhuhai. Extra services are often scheduled to other cities during peak demand periods, such as Spring Festival.
Conventional train classes
On the conventional (non-CRH) trains, there are five classes of travel:
- Soft sleepers (软卧 ruǎnwò) are the most comfortable mode of transportation on most trains and are still relatively cheap by Western standards. The soft sleeper compartments contain four bunks stacked two to a column, a latchable door for privacy, and are quite spacious. Even this class is not as comfortable as a hotel room.
- Hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò), on the other hand, have three beds per column near the opening to the corridor. The highest bunk leaves little space for headroom. Taller travellers (190 cm/6'3" and above) may find this to be the best bunk since when sleeping your feet will extend into the passageway and they will not be bumped. The top bunk is also useful for people with things to hide (e.g. cameras). When placed by your head they are harder for would-be thieves to reach. The "hard" sleeper is not "hard"; the beds have a mattress and are generally quite comfortable. All sleepers have pillows and a blanket.
Note that for any sleeper class, getting on the train from a middle station means that you might have to sleep on the same bed used by the last passenger without cleaning service. Bringing some disposable blanket cover may be a good option.
- Soft seats (软座 ruǎnzuò) are cloth-covered, generally reclining seats and are a special category that you will rarely find. These are only available on day trains between destinations of about 4–8 hours of travel time.
- Hard seats (硬座 yìngzuò), which are actually padded, are not for everyone, especially overnight, as they are 5 seats wide, in a three and two arrangement. It is in this class, however, that most of the backpacker crowd travels. With the "no smoking" signs in the main part of the cars, there is invariably a crowd of smokers at the ends of the cars and the smoke will drift endlessly into the cabin. On most trains, particularly in China's interior, the space between the cars is a designated smoking area, although the signs for "designated smoking area" are only in Chinese so this fact may not be clear to many travellers. Overnight travel in the hard seats is uncomfortable for just about everyone and you are likely to have trouble getting much sleep.
- Standing (无座 wúzuò) allow access to the hard seat car but give no seat reservation. Consider carrying a tripod chair in your backpack to make such journeys more comfortable. This is usually the only class provided on a suburban train. You can choose to take a seat when there's one available but you should give the seat back to the owner when needed.
Some other possible classes on trains areː
- High-class Soft Sleepers (高级软卧 gāojí ruǎnwó) are the highest classes available on non-CRH trains. The compartments usually contain two beds (sometimes only one), a latchable door for privacy and sometimes a closet, an armchair. Few of them contain toilets inside compartments. Usually as comfortable as a hotel room. However, most trains don't have this class.
- Not Reserved (不对号入座 búduìhàorùzùo) allow access to the train but not reserved to a seat. This is usually seen on a Suburban train which seat numbers are not featured. Just choose a seat you like and sit in or stand in a safe and comfortable position.
Most trains are air-conditioned. Non air-conditioned trains are rare and are mostly general trains.
The sale of train tickets usually starts 20 days in advance, either online via the China Rail booking site or at the major train stations' ticket offices. Two days later, tickets can be bought at private agencies.
Nationals and foreigners alike must present ID in order to purchase a ticket (e.g., national ID card or passport). The purchaser's name is printed onto the ticket and each individual is required to be present, with ID, to pick-up their ticket. One way to get around the ID restriction if one of the passengers is not present is to ask a Chinese person to buy the ticket online. You then only need to input the passport number, presenting the passport when picking up the ticket.
Especially around festivals, tickets sell out very quickly, so it is advisable to book tickets as far in advance as possible. It is illegal to buy second hand tickets so if you are offered "discount" tickets at the train station, do not buy them.
Bring your passport
In order to purchase train tickets, foreigners must now show their passports and Chinese citizens must show their ID cards. Travellers from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan must show entry ID used when entering the mainland.
You can purchase a ticket:
- from a website.
- at the ticket office at the train station
- from an automated ticket machine
- at a ticket agency
The first option is recommended for convenience.
1. Purchase from a website (recommended)
Tickets can be booked online on various websites. Bookings require your passport number. After booking the tickets you must either collect the printed ticket at the ticket office at the train station before departure or have the printed ticket delivered to your location in advance. The downside to obtaining the ticket in advance is the departure time can't be altered after the ticket has been printed. However, it is highly recommended to get the tickets in advance to spare the stress of waiting in a long line at the station to collect the ticket just before departure. Services like Trip.com add ¥40 to have the ticket delivered in advance by express mail.
Even if you plan to buy your tickets from the ticket office, it is worth checking these sites for planning purposes. Many cities have multiple CR stations, and checking the schedules and free capacity will help you choose the best one for your destination.
Official booking site
China Rail website is the official and only definitive online source for train schedules, ticket availability, and online booking.
It is possible to book tickets via the site; however, you must have a Chinese bank account to pay them. While you will probably not be able to book tickets yourself, asking a Chinese friend to do it for you is one of the most convenient ways of getting tickets in advance: the tickets first become available online before being sold at agencies, and you don't need to present every passenger's passport while booking (just have all the passport numbers ready). The tickets can then be picked up at any time, while presenting your passport, at any train station or ticket agency.
It is only available in Chinese, but not hard to use if you can read some Chinese characters. To inquire train schedules or ticket availability, click "余票查询" (yu piao cha xun, remaining ticket inquiry) on the front page. Enter origin, destination, and date (the interface will accept pinyin and show you the corresponding Chinese characters to select), then click "查询" (cha xun, query).
You are then shown a matrix of the trains making the journey on that day and the remaining tickets.
- 车次: This column shows the train number.
- 出发站/到达站: Origin and destination of the train. There may be a suffix added to each city indicating the train station. This is usually one of 北 (bei, North), 南 (nan, South), 东 (dong, East), 西 (xi, West). E.g., 北京西 is Beijing West railway station. These suffixes are especially common with CRH trains, as they often stations separate from regular trains.
- 出发时间/到达时间: Departure and arrival time.
- 历时: The duration of the trip, shown as "XX小时YY分" where XX is the number of hours and YY the number of minutes. Below it, the number of days is indicated: 当日到达 (arrival on the same day), 次日到达 (arrival on the next day), 第三日到达 (arrival two days later).
- The rest of the columns correspond to different classes and display the amount of remaining tickets. "No tickets available" is displayed as "无" (wu), otherwise the number of remaining tickets is shown. Clicking it will reveal the price for the ticket. Check the information above to make sense of the various available train types and classes. When searching far ahead, a time of day may be shown, which then indicates at what time tickets become available for purchase.
The site has a bit of a reputation for being slow and unreliable. However, this mostly relates to times like the Chinese New Year, where tickets sell out in seconds and loads are generated that would bring almost any web site to its knees.
- MTR High Speed Rail website. Hong Kong MTR provides tickets of high-speed trains to/from Hong Kong West Kowloon Station. It accepts Visa, MasterCard or Union Pay, and tickets bought from this site must be collected at Hong Kong West Kowloon Station. No charge.
- PandaTrips.com. China train tickets online booking website in English, 3 steps, easy for booking tickets.
- Trip.com website (formerly Ctrip). Train ticket bookings online in 19 languages.
- CTrip. A Chinese travel site with an English version and English mobile app which allows you to view timetables, book conventional and high-speed trains from 20 days to 30 minutes before departure. You will need to register your passport details in the app. A purchase voucher for the train ticket will be sent to the app 2 hours after purchase. Show this to the station staff at the ticket desk with your passport to collect the train ticket. Accepts international credit/debit cards, including American Express.
- CTrains.com is the first China train ticket online booking website for English users. Travelers can book China train tickets online in realtime for 24/7. It also doesn't charge any booking fees.
- The Man in Seat 61 website has a good section on Chinese trains.
- Absolute China Tours or China Highlights have English time and fare information (while extremely useful, these sites' lists are not 100% complete)
- OK Travel has more schedules. This site is mostly in Chinese, but includes romanized place names and you can use it without knowing Chinese. On the search page, simply choose from the lists provided: the left-hand side is the place of departure, the right-hand side is the destination. You must choose the provinces or regions in the drop-down box before the corresponding list of cities will appear. You choose the cities you want, then press the left-hand button below (marked 确认, "confirm") to carry out the search. If you can enter place names in Chinese characters, the search function can even help you plan multi-leg journeys.
- CNVOL has an extensive (pretty much exhaustive) and frequently updated list of all the trains that travel in China. Just enter the names of the places you with to start and end your trip in, and you will find a list of all trains that ply the route (including all trains that are just passing by your selected stations), listed with their start and end cities and times. Click on a train number you like, and you can find the prices for all the classes of seats or berths that are available by clicking check price further down the price. The most important thing here is to get your town names right in "pinyin", the characters are never separated by a space, i.e., Lijiang, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Kunming etc.
2. Purchase from a railway station ticket office
Each station will have one or more ticket offices where you can queue up and buy a ticket. It can be expected to have a security checkpoint to scan your baggage on entry to the ticket offices in the largest of stations. They can be very crowded, with long queues and little signage in English. However large electronic signs, above the ticket windows, will display the next trains scheduled at that station, and the still available seats in each class for the next few days. The officer will just want to know your destination and provide you with the next trains and the class of seat available. At the largest of stations, a dedicated ticket window for foreigners may be provided. Special lines can be dedicated for ticket refunds, exchanges or just for elderly citizens with little English information to explain which line is which. It can be possible to join the wrong queue and have the staff refuse to serve you. Railway station ticket offices can now sell tickets departing from other stations all across China and operating in other railway bureau areas for an extra fee of ¥5 per ticket.
Typically cash is paid for tickets, although some counters accept UnionPay cards. Foreign credit cards are only useful in major stations in the largest of cities.
In general, if you go to a counter to buy tickets, you will save everyone a lot of hassle if you have your train number, date and time of departure, seating class and number of tickets, as well as origin and destination cities all written down in Chinese, or at least in Pinyin. Staff will not generally speak English, and at the train stations they will not have a lot of patience as there are usually long queues.
3. Purchase from an automated ticket machine
Shorter queues can be found at the automated ticket machines. Despite having an English option to display information, it is only able to sell tickets Chinese identity card holders. Machines can take although many only accept UnionPay cards or cash. They are usually next to ticket office. Some automated ticket machines are only for a specific line or regional area of the network but this is normally clearly labelled and displayed on the machine. Despite their limitations, they are still useful for finding train schedules and ticket availability in English quickly before joining a ticket queue.
4. Purchase from a train ticket agency or office
Many cities and towns will have a several separate train ticket offices or agencies. They can be like a large shop, typical in many travel agencies or large hotels, but can more often be a simple hole-in-the-wall arrangement. Typically they are not crowded, normally no lines at all, and more conveniently located than many railway stations. However the language skills of these agencies will be lacking. Finding an office can be difficult, due to their often small size and only Chinese signage, look out for a CRH or China Railways logo or simply for list of train numbers next to the window. They operate in the same manner as a railway station ticket office but will charge an extra ¥5 per ticket as an agency fee. This is a small price for the convenience.
The small ticket window shops scattered around cities are labeled "售火车票" (shou huo che piao). Travel agencies will accept money and bookings for tickets in advance but no one can guarantee your ticket until the station releases them onto the market, at which point your agency will go and buy the ticket they had "guaranteed" you. This is true of anywhere in China.
Replacing lost tickets
If you have lost your ticket, to obtain a replacement, go to the ticket office with your passport or ID. Locate the specialized ticket office window dealing with lost tickets (挂失, guàshī). The window clerk will cancel your lost ticket and you will purchase a new replacement ticket for the same price. On board inform the conductor that your ticket is a replacement. The conductor will open an electronic record (记录, jìlù), enabling you to obtain a refund at your destination station. Within 24 hours of arrival at the destination station personally go with your passport or ID and replacement ticket to the ticket office window handling refunds (退票处, tuìpiào chǔ). The refund is paid at the window in cash minus a fee of ¥2.
- If you fail to buy a direct ticket (especially when the trains are crowded), try to split your journey into 2 pieces or more. Going by trains is a really popular way of short-distance traveling in China, and the tickets for shorter distances are usually much easier to buy than the long-haul ones. However, unlikely train delays may stall you on a train and can easily make you miss the connecting one. If you are traveling a long distance on the next train, missing the train can be quite a eye-wateringly expensive experience. So consider the risk of missing trains, and try to make the connecting journey shorter than the first one.
- If you are going to a small city in the middle of the line instead of at the ends of it, the booking system will decrease the number of tickets at those stations and more tickets for bigger ones. The railway system allows a passenger to get off or on at a middle station. So you can extend your ticket to make a shorter journey, or "Buy longer and ride shorter" known by Chinese frequent passengers and railfans. It will slightly cost more, but much better than fail in getting a ticket.
- If you are traveling as a group (with your family, friends and so on), the system will only arrange you in the closest seats. So when you fail to get a ticket in this way (usually on website), try to split a group into single persons and it will be much easier. As you may be separated on the train, you can change the seats with other passengers. Most of them will not mind to change seats, but some may ask you to pay the price gaps (for example the gap between a upper bunk and a lower bunk). See the prices shown on his/hers ticket, and be expected to a probable little extra money. Always be grateful if someone agrees you to change the seats, and help them if they are trying to move their luggage which will show people you are friendly and you are more probably to get a "Yes" answer. Try not to let a older person who looks over 55 to change to the upper bunks which may be hard to climb onto.
- If you are getting to a city with CRH connection, try to book for a CRH service rather than ordinary trains which means a more expensive fare but much easier tickets to get. There are much more intercity high-speed services rather than ordinary ones. Sometimes a ticket of CRH will be cheaper than the ordinary train in discount seasons. When doing this you should firstly choose a CRH served station (for example when you are booking from Beijing to Shanghai, change the stations into Beijing South and Shanghai Hongqiao which provide high-speed services only.
Many cities have different stations for normal trains and high-speed trains. High speed station names usually consist of the city name and the cardinal direction (for example Héngyángdōng "Hengyang East").
Chinese train stations function more like an airport than like a train station in another country. So do not count on catching a train on the last minute – gates close a few minutes prior to departure! To be safe, be there at least 20 minutes early, or 30 minutes if you are entering a big train station.
You must pass an initial ticket and security check to enter the station. Once in the departure hall, follow the digital indicator boards to find the right boarding gate (they should be in both English and Chinese, at least at CRH stations; if Chinese is available only, you will still be able to find the train service number which is printed at the top of your ticket). Wait in the waiting area close to your gate until boarding is announced about 10–20 minutes prior to departure. You will then pass a ticket check (have your passport ready as they may want to see it) and follow the crowd to the platform. There are two types of tickets: red paper tickets which are issued at ticketing agencies, and blue magnetic tickets which you get from the station's ticket office. Blue tickets go into one of the automated ticket gates, while red tickets are checked manually; be sure to go through the gate at the right place.
On the platform, the train may already be waiting; otherwise, look for your car number written on the platform edge and make sure you're waiting in the right place, because often the train will only stop for a couple of minutes. If there are no such indications, show your ticket to staff and they will show you where to wait. Some newer stations have higher level platforms that are level with the door, but at smaller stations the platforms are very low and you have to ascend several steep steps to board the train, so be prepared if you have a large suitcase. Generally passengers are friendly and will offer to help you with any bulky luggage.
At your destination, you leave the platform through one of the clearly indicated exits, which will not bring you into the waiting area but outside of the station. Your ticket may be checked again and may or may not be kept.
Finding your train station
While conventional trains typically stop at older train stations, in the urban cores, high-speed train use new routes that bypass cities central areas. Although in some cities (e.g. Shijiazhuang) high-speed trains may use the same station with the conventional trains, it is more common for them to call at a new purpose-built station on the city's outskirts. It is therefore essential for the passenger to pay attention to the exact name of the station where his train is to be boarded. For example, in Xi'an, conventional trains stop at Xi'an Railway Station, while high-speed ones do at Xi'an North (Xi'an bei) Railway Station; in Kunming, the conventional trains are at Kunming Railway Station, while the high-speed ones are at Kunming South (Kunming nan). Sometimes a city served by three parallel lines (an older "conventional" one, a long-distance high-speed line, and an "intercity" [commuter] high-speed line) may have three stations used by the three types of service! (e.g. Xianning, Hubei).
Sometimes a train stops at two or more stations within the city (e.g. Nanning and Nanning East (Nanning dong)), in which case you can buy a ticket to or from the station more convenient to your destination.
As China's railway network, and in particularly its high-speed component, develop rapidly, it's not unusual for a new station to open before proper access roads to it have been constructed. Having chosen what appears to be a direct route to the station, you may find it interrupted by a construction site, a fence around a strawberry field, a field of mud, or a complicated (and poorly sign-posted) detour via a residential neighborhood. (Examples, as of 2016-2017: Yuxi; Hekou North; southern approach to Fangchenggang North.) Due to the same rapid development, it is not unusual for a slightly older printed map of a city to show only the older station (service to which may have been reduced or altogether discontinued), and not the recently opened new station.
Local bus and taxi drivers should, presumably, be aware of the most sensible routes available, but out-of-towners are occasionally led astray by their GPS navigators.
When a new station opens, bus and taxi service to it starts immediately (or almost immediately); so getting from the station to the town by public transportation usually is not a problem; but to get to the station from town by bus, you may want to find out in advance which bus routes run there, and where their stops are in town. In large cities with subway systems (Xi'an, Wuhan, Suzhou, Fuzhou...) building a subway line to the new station usually becomes a priority for the local transportation planners; still, it may take a few years for the line to be completed.
CRH trains are top-notch, even internationally, in terms of equipment and cleanliness. This includes the toilets, which reliably have toilet paper and soap available – a rare thing in China. The toilets on non-high-speed trains also tend to be a little more "usable" than on buses or most public areas because they are simple devices that empty the contents directly onto the track and thus don't smell as bad. Soft sleeper cars usually have European style toilets at one end of the car and Chinese squat toilets at the other. On non-CRH trains if the train will be stopping at a station, the conductor will normally lock the bathrooms prior to arrival so that people will not leave deposits on the ground at the station.
Long distance trains will have a buffet or dining car, which serves not very tasty hot food at around ¥25. The menu will be entirely in Chinese, but if you're willing to take the chance then you can eat very well (try to interpret some of the Chinese characters, or ask for common dishes by name). If you are on a strict budget then wait until the train stops at a station. There are normally vendors on the platform who will sell noodles, snacks, and fruit at better prices.
Every train car normally has a hot boiled water dispenser available so bring tea, soups and instant noodles in order to make your own food. Passengers commonly bring a thermos bottle, or some kind of closeable glass cup, to make tea.
Be careful with your valuables while on the train; property theft on public transportation has risen.
On most higher-level trains (T, K, Z and CRH trains) recorded announcements are made in Chinese, English and occasionally Cantonese (if the train serves Guangdong province or Hong Kong), Mongolian (in Inner Mongolia), Tibetan (in Tibet) or Uighur (in Xinjiang). Local trains will have no announcements in English, so knowing when to get off can be harder.
Motion sickness pills are recommended if you are inclined toward that type of ailment. Ear plugs are recommended to facilitate uninterrupted sleep. In sleeper cars, tickets are exchanged for cards on long distance trains. The cabin attendants return the original tickets when the train approaches the destination station thus ensuring everyone gets off where they should even if they can't wake themselves up.
If you have some things to share on the train, you'll have fun. The Chinese families and business people travelling the route are just as bored as the next person and will be happy to attempt conversation or share a movie shown on a laptop. All in all, the opportunity to see the countryside going by is a neat experience.
Smoking is not permitted in the seating or sleeping areas but is allowed in the vestibules at the end of each car. On the new CRH trains, the Guangzhou-Kowloon shuttle train and the Beijing Suburban Railway smoking is completely forbidden. Smoking is banned inside station buildings apart from in designated smoking rooms, although these places are often unpleasant and poorly ventilated.
If you bought your ticket online, make sure to arrive at the right station as many cities have more than two or more stations that are far from each other.
Checked luggage and parcels
Chinese railways allow you to take large suitcases (at least up to the size of the standard airline check-in luggage with you) aboard your train; depending on the class of service, on how full the train is, and on how much luggage other passengers have, it may or may not be easy to find a way to stow you luggage in the railcar without it being in everybody's way. There is normally no way to transport your bags as checked luggage on the same train with you, the way airlines do. However, if you need to transport large or bulky items (e.g. large boxes or a full-size bicycle), or want to send things separately from you, you can have them sent to your destination using China Railway Express (CRE). See the detailed discussion under High-speed rail in China#Checked luggage and parcel service.
China has built a high-speed passenger rail network and is continuing to expand it rapidly. The trains are similar to French TGV, German ICE, or Japanese Shinkansen. Over 30,000 km of routes are in service, making China's system the world's largest high-speed network.
These are easily the best way of getting around China where available. The trains are clean, comfortable and modern. Seating is comparable to that in an airplane or even better. Most tickets are for assigned seats; no-seat tickets are sometimes sold in limited numbers but, unlike regular Chinese trains, there is never a mad crush with more people sitting in the aisles than in seats. Also unlike other trains, no smoking is allowed, not even between carriages. Prices are reasonable by Western standards and, on most routes, departures are frequent.
Although China has a well-developed and advanced airport infrastructure, the country suffers from notorious flight delays whereas the high-speed rail network is very punctual. Although the flight from Beijing to Shanghai (for example) is shorter than the train ride, once you take travel time to and from the airport and the likelihood of long delays into account the rail connection is far more appealing.
The fast trains are called CRH, China Railway High-speed. At some train stations there is a separate CRH ticket office or even vending machines; at others, CRH tickets are sold at separate counters in the main ticket office. In either case, look for the “CRH” signs or logo.
The speeds attained vary considerably from line to line. The technology used also varies. Nearly all the rolling stock is now manufactured in China, but much of the technology has come from abroad. The Canadian company Bombardier, Japanese Kawasaki, German Siemens (manufacturer of the ICE) and French Alstom (manufacturer of the TGV) have been involved. Some new lines have adopted individual interior colour schemes and decor to highlight the region they operate in, however most trains follow a standard palette.
Luggage racks can be found at the ends of most cars, otherwise oversized luggage can fit behind the last seat at the carriage end. Train staff are very strict on how luggage is placed on the overhead luggage racks, poking any loose straps away or rearranging any bags they deem to be dangerous. Overall, due to fewer passengers per car and more space given for luggage, luggage arrangements on high-speed trains are much more adequate than in "hard-seat" cars of ordinary trains (where passengers' big suitcase often end up blocking the aisle and inconveniencing everyone).
According to the rules printed on the back of each ticket, a passenger on Chinese trains is allowed to carry up to 20 kg of luggage for free (10 kg on a children's ticket); the sum of length, width, and height of each piece should not exceed 160 cm on ordinary trains or 130 cm on high-speed trains. In practice, no one usually checks the weight of your luggage, so if you can handle its weight, you can take it along. However, reports from Hong Kong's new Hong Kong West Kowloon Station (opened 2018) indicate that size is checked at this station.
Other than the checks reported from Hong Kong, any suitcase that satisfies the standard size restrictions for check-in baggage on international airlines appears in practice to be OK for carry-on on China's high-speed trains. However, if a train is full, finding space for your large bag may sometimes be difficult. A collapsible (folding) bicycle, properly folded and packed into a suitably large bag, will be permitted as well.
Checked luggage and parcel service
Items too large to carry on (including full-size bicycles, or electric scooters) or containing certain items prohibited in carry-on luggage (e.g. knives) can be sent (托运 tuoyun) as checked luggage. This service is operated by China Railway Express Company (CRE) (中铁快运), so this is the name you'll see on the signs.
The CRE web site (in Chinese) has a list of their drop-off and pick-up office locations; look for the 服务网点 link on the main page. The form will ask you for your location, in terms of China's three-level administrative division (province, prefecture-level city, county or district) and the street address (if you don't know one, you usually can enter a station name instead, e.g. 上海南站), and it will show you the service locations on the map. Most major stations have a CRE office (which serves as the station's baggage department), usually in a building somewhere near the main station building. There are some exceptions though: for example, even though you can send a parcel from the baggage department at the Wuchang Railway Station in Wuhan, parcels sent to Wuchang Station will most likely have to be collected in a shed in a construction material market some 5 km away from the station.
There is no requirement that the sender travels to the same station where the baggage is sent (or that s/he travels at all); one can use the service to send a parcel to another person. The service seems to be fairly popular with small businesses.
Checked luggage does not travel on the same train with you, and is likely to arrive to its destination a few days later. The service standard is 3 days for distances up to 600 km, and an additional day for each full or partial 600 km beyond that. (For example, the service standard from Guangxi to Jiangsu, on a route that would involve several transfers, is 6 days). In practice, of course, your parcel may arrive much faster than that, especially if being shipped between two stations that are connected by some slow passenger train that includes a baggage car.
The cost of a shipment is computed as the per-kg rate based on the distance (as per the official railway mileage) multiplied by the weight of the item being shipped. For shipping a bicycle, the cost is computed as for a 25-kg item.
For a distance of around 1000 km (e.g. from Beijing or Fuzhou to Wuhan or Nanjing), the rate is around ¥3 per kg, which amount to ¥70-80 for a 25-kg piece of luggage or a parcel, or for a bicycle (as of 2018). From Fangchenggang on the South China Sea to Yangzhou near Shanghai (over 2000 km) the cost for a 25-kg item was ¥137 as of 2016.
The CRE web site has a cost and travel time estimator tool. Follow the 价格时效 link, and enter the origin and destination location (in terms of province, city, district) and the shipment's weight in kilograms.
Dining cars with full restaurant service are rare on most high-speed services. Typically buffet cars serving light meals and drinks are provided with standing benches and tables. Large and well-maintained western-style toilets are to be found on all services. A centrally located compartment houses the train manager, to help with passenger issues or ticketing.
Electronic signage will display information such as the time, train speed, next stop and indoor/outdoor temperatures in Chinese and English. Most announcements will be bi-lingual in Chinese and English and most staff are bilingual too. Some services feature multiple overhead video display units along a carriage, mostly featuring CRH promotional videos and light entertainment shows.
Unlike hard-seat cars in conventional trains, in which passengers sit facing each other (convenient for card games!), on high-speed trains everybody's seat faces forward. (Seats are rotatable and if your train changes its direction en route, all passengers will be asked to rotate their seats!)
The price structure is at a set rate per kilometre according to the class of travel and G, D or C numbering of the train. The price difference for the classes is not enormous, except for Business, VIP, and Sightseeing Class which can be double in price. High-speed sleeper services, where available, have a single class for the entire train, called 动卧, which is different from (and considerably more expensive than) the hard sleeper 硬卧 and soft sleeper 软卧 on a "conventional" train.
Different high-speed trains may take different routes between two stations; e.g., some trains traveling from Nanjing to Hangzhou (and points further south) take the direct Nanjing-Hangzhou line, while others travel via Shanghai. As the fare is based on distance, the (usually faster) trains using the shorter direct route are less expensive than the (slower) trains that travel via Shanghai. Similarly, as of 2018, the 2nd-class HSR fare between Chongqing and Shanghai varies between ¥556 and ¥1078. The lowest fare is on the shortest route along the Yangtze, via Wuhan (Hankou), Hefei, and Nanjing; somewhat more expensive is the southern route, via Guiyang, Changsha, Nanjing, and Hangzhou; the most expensive route is the northern, via Xi'an, Zhengzhou, Xuzhou, and Nanjing.
The price difference between a high-speed and conventional train can be quite substantial. As an example, for the Fuzhou-Shanghai D train (seven hours and well over 1000 km) second class is ¥262 and first class is ¥330. There is a K train for only ¥130 (for a hard seat), but it takes 17 hours on a indirect route and is often very crowded, and a ticket does not always guarantee a seat. Unless your budget is extremely tight or you cannot cope with several hours in a non-smoking train, the fast train is hugely preferable and easily worth the cost difference.
As the ticket price of trains would not vary based on the demand, out of high seasons and in some long journeys such as Beijing to Guangzhou the airfare may be cheaper than a Second Class G train. Check the airfare if you are traveling for more than 1000 km between major cities and are looking for a cheaper or faster option.
Boarding your train
High-speed rail stations are designed in a similar manner to modern airports. In order to enter the departure area you will require your ticket and ID, and have to pass all your bags through an x-ray machine. While knives, fireworks, easily inflammable liquids, etc. are prohibited, there are no restrictions on bringing drinks.
Your train will be clearly designated with a gate or hall, these are generally easy to find. From a large single hall, there may be quite a few gates, with large crowds waiting for various services other than your own. Sometimes the gate that a particular train is using is not displayed until just prior to departure but more typically as the previous service departs. Gate and hall numbers will bear no similarity to the platform that the train will use. Typically people will be allowed to access the platform 15 minutes before departure. The departure area can be extremely large, so like an airport allow time to get to your platform.
The departure area will have a few restaurants and shops. The larger stations will often feature western fast food chains. Small supermarkets and shops typically sell drinks, instant noodles and other snack foods. Some stations have a counter that provides one free bottle of mineral water to each ticket-holder. Lounge areas often exist for business class and VIP passengers, plus for passengers associated with several bank and mobile phone programs.
First call for your service will be often be made for elderly passengers, families with babies or infants and the disabled first. They will be processed manually by station staff before access is opened to other passengers.
The queue will be quite long at a terminal station (such as Shanghai Hongqiao) and there will be a tendency for plenty of people to push in ahead of you. You are not going to miss your train with no need to panic or rush in most circumstances. Although you can also push through if the timing is getting tight.
At the gates at the newest and more modern stations, put the blue train tickets into the slot of the automatic gate, the barriers will then open, ensure that collect your ticket again from the machine and have your ID ready before descending to the platform. Otherwise, if you have the alternative styled tickets or it is just manually controlled gate, simply hand your ticket over to station staff.
Most modern and refurbished stations have a single gate leading to a single platform. If the gate does not lead directly to the platform, the stations will use a common overpass passageway with stairways or escalators leading to their respective platforms, however train services are clearly signposted for each platform and often blocked when not in use. It is thus very difficult to take the wrong direction, despite this, older stations may have several steps up and down along its route which may be difficult for frail passengers or those with heavy luggage.
On the train some people tend to take any seat they want, although they will move if you show them your reservation for that particular seat. A diagram on the wall depicts which seat is closest to the window or aisle.
During the journey
A buffet cart is available throughout the journey in all classes, which is normally more expensive than regular prices. A free hot water dispenser is provided in every carriage for passengers to use with their tea or instant noodles. A buffet car is open for the duration of the train journey with a selection of drinks, meals and snacks that can vary greatly depending on the service; you are also likely to see vendors walking through the train selling similar food products and drinks. Full restaurant style service is limited to a very few long distance trains. Complimentary bottled water and snacks are provided in First Class on a few services. Business Class passengers benefit from a free breakfast, lunch, or dinner, depending on the time and generally only for long-haul travellers. Many stations have vendors on the platforms as well. However time can be very limited at some stops to effectively purchase anything.
Passengers are able to order take-aways from local restaurants or fast food chains inside stations via the China Railways official website and their official app. 27 stations, including Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin, Guangzhou and other major cities, offer this service and it is rolling out to other stations gradually.
Smoking is illegal anywhere on the train. Smoking on trains will trigger an emergency brake of the train and lead to a fine of ¥1000 or more and maybe 5 days in jail. It is also not allowed on the platform, although it seems to be standard practice for people to take a quick smoking break just outside the train doors if the train stops for a few minutes.
In Second Class you can recline your seat a little bit. In First Class you can greatly recline your seat and shut the blinds if you want a nap. In Business Class you can fully lie down when equipped with airline style seating but only recline on some other train types. Sleeper trains have four berth cabins, equipped with bedding with passengers seated on the lower berths.
Arrival at your destination
Arriving at a destination, exiting passengers are directed to a separate exit from entering passengers on the platform that will lead to a common passageway or hall. Larger stations might have two exits either side of the station so be aware of which one is needed as the distance between either exit can be quite far, often around the entire station complex. Tickets are needed again to leave through any automated exit gates. Crumpled tickets may not work. Most exit barriers are manned for manual inspection of tickets if needed. If you have a light red ticket (not the blue ones), it will need to be checked manually upon exiting the station, as the machines will not be able to read them. There is another ticket office in this area so that you can pay the difference in case you travelled further than the ticket you originally purchased, so do not throw away your ticket!
Larger stations will feature more restaurants or shops in this area, maybe some tourism services. There is often a clean restroom before the exit gates. Probably worth taking advantage of after a long journey and before venturing out into a new Chinese city.
Often the station has a metro station located close by, then queues for the metro ticket machine can get very long after a high-speed train has just arrived. Another common feature for new high-speed stations are for long-distance bus stations to be co-located there, these can take passengers to many regional centres surrounding that city. However, do not expect buses to go to every destination you might expect (Chengdu East Station's bus terminal just serves cities mostly to the East of Chengdu for example), you might still need to travel to the older bus station in that city. Local bus services and taxis will be signposted. Beware of taxi touts and illegal operators harassing passengers as they leave the station. Only use taxis leaving from the designated area and insist on using the taximeter.
If connecting to another train service at the same station, it is possible sometimes to go directly to the Waiting Hall without having to exit the station and then re-enter through security. Do not follow the crowds getting off the train and follow signs on the platform for Train Connections (Transfer), directly from the platform or in some stations from the Arrivals Hall before the exit barriers. You must show your ticket and ID for the connecting service to station staff. However it is possible for this access to not be manned or opened at many stations, thus exiting and re-entry of the station is required.
China suffered a devastating accident in 2011 when a CRH train collision killed 40 and injured nearly 200. The accident was blamed on a lack of safety measures and was seen as an example of safety being sacrificed in favor of rapid development. However, speed was not a factor as the crash happened while one train was stationary and the other ran at speeds common for older trains. China has made a massive effort to recover from this, by reducing speeds by 50 km/h and completely restructuring the Chinese Rail Company. Since then there have been no further accidents or fatalities. However, given that speed was not a factor in the crash and speeds are still limited to 300 km/h instead of 350, many observers say the speed reduction had economic rather than safety reasons.
There aren't so many thieves on board the trains. But travellers are suggested to keep their valuables with them and all luggage in sight. You can also lock your larger items to the luggage compartments if you feel unsafe (though few riders do this), but you have to bring a small lock with you unless you are travelling on one of the "Fuxing" branded trains where you can lock your bags or suitcases to the compartments using your tickets.
Even faster — Maglev
Shanghai has a magnetic levitation train from the downtown Pudong area to Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The top speed is around 431 km/h (268 mph) during daytime hours and the 30-km trip takes around 8 minutes and costs ¥50.
A proposed Maglev line between Shanghai and Hangzhou has been cancelled, having been made redundant by regular high speed rail.
- See also: Hong Kong#High speed rail
Hong Kong is connected to Shenzhen and Guangzhou with services running all the way to Shanghai and Beijing. This is the first 'cross border' high-speed connection in China due to Hong Kong's special status, having started public operation on 23 Sep 2018. Alternatively, one can get to Shenzhen by high-speed train, walk across the border (or connect by Shenzhen Metro) and take the Hong Kong metro (MTR) downtown.
For trains to and from Hong Kong, payment can be either in yuan or Hong Kong dollars, with the HK$ price being updated every month to be in sync with yuan pricing.
Future international routes
As of September 2018, there were no high-speed rail connections to other countries. There are plans to connect with many of China's neighbours, although the large amounts of capital required as well as political realities may delay some (or all) of these plans. Many high-speed routes were announced in South East Asia but were later downgraded to conventional lines when the financing became clearer.
- A 7,000-km high-speed rail connection between Beijing and Moscow has been announced, and will cut journeys from 5 days to only 2 days or less. The route will also pass through Kazakhstan. It is likely to take up to 10 years to construct.
- North Korea, South Korea and China are in discussions for a high-speed line from Beijing. The line would connect to the Chinese border city of Dandong, and then the North Korean border city of Sinuiju followed by the capital Pyongyang and finally the South Korean capital of Seoul. The line is scheduled for completion by 2030, with a Beijing-Seoul journey time of 6 hours. Given the continued problems between North and South Korea, it is doubtful that the obvious economic benefits can overcome the difficult political roadblocks.
- Iran is the subject of an official Chinese proposal for a 'Silk Road' high-speed route. It would begin in Urumqi, stop at Almaty in Kazakhstan, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan and Ashgabat in Turkmenistan before finally reaching the capital Tehran in Iran.