Travel topics > Transportation > Rail travel > Rail travel in China
China has recently built a high-speed passenger rail network and is continuing to expand it rapidly. While there were no high-speed lines as late as 2006, China currently boasts the longest high-speed network in the world. The trains are similar to French TGV, German ICE, or Japanese Shinkansen. The overall plan calls for 20-odd thousand km of lines in a national high-speed passenger network by 2020. Over 10,000 km (6,000-odd miles) were already in service as of 2013.
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/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, just 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 European Alstom (manufacturer of the TGV) have been involved. More recently 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.
See China#Get_around for more general information on rail travel in China.
Types of train and services
The letter prefixes on train numbers indicate the type of train. From fastest to slowest, the fast trains are:
- G: often latest generation CRH, all with top speeds of 300+ km/h, long distance trains serving fewer stations, mostly major cities
- D: often earlier generation CRH, with top speeds of 250 km/h (155 mph), long distance trains serving more stations & intermediate cities
- C: intercity high-speed rail, only found on a few lines, all over short distances. Top speed normally up to 200 km/h with some exceptions 300 km/h.
While many lines are built for speeds up to 350 km/h, no train currently runs at more than 300 km/h due to safety and cost concerns. Lines built to a 250 km/h standard will run at 200 km/h.
The slower conventional speed trains are:
- Z : express trains, conventional speed with fewer stops
- T : intermediate-speed non-CRH trains. Some of these get up to 160 km/h (100 mph)
- K : slower, cheaper and more crowded trains
- L : special additional services added during periods of great demand, such as Spring Festival
- Number only : Slowest local services serving the smallest of stations
Classes of Travel
Most routes will give you the option of First or Second class seats, and some have Business class as well. Business class has seats that fully recline into a lie-flat bed. The first class is larger and more comfortable, although second class is still pretty good. If your journey is less than 2 hours then most people won't really notice much difference being in Second class although longer journeys will be less tiring in First class. Large folk may prefer First class because the seats are noticeably wider. There is no baggage car, all luggage is carried on board. However couriered luggage services are available
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. 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 bi-lingual too. Some services feature multiple overhead video display units along a carriage, mostly featuring CRH promotional videos and light entertainment shows.
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 located immediately behind the drivers 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 meals are served directly to the seats, included in the fare. Slippers are also available for passenger use. Power sockets are available at each seat.
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 located on the seat base or overhead on the underside of the luggage rack.
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.
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, plus 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.
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/Sightseeing Class which can be double in price. Sleeper services have a single class for the entire train, normally set at the equivalent of a Second Class ticket. The price difference between a high-speed and conventional train however can be quite substantial. As an example, the Fuzhou-Shanghai D train (seven hours and well over 1000 km), for example, second class is ¥262 and first class is ¥330. There is a K train for only ¥130 for a seat, but it takes 17 hours on a indirect route and is very crowded. 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.
Booking your tickets
Bring your passport
New regulations as of 2011. 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. A Hong Kong Identity Card is acceptable even for foreigners, although it is recommended to carry your passport just in case.
There are four methods to book tickets. Purchase at the ticket office, purchase from an automated ticket machine or purchase from a website:
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, as well 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 your needs, due to their strict following of their guidelines. Railway station ticket offices can now sell tickets departing from other stations all across China and operating in other railway bureau areas but this can attract 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. Thus, it is probably worth carrying the right amount of cash just in any case.
Purchase from a train ticket agency/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. Locating 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.
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 located 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.
Purchase from a website
Tickets can be booked online on various websites and picked up from the train station. If picking up tickets for a service not departing from the station you are collecting them from, a fee of ¥5 will be charged by that station, so have cash on hand to pay for this.
When having a Chinese friend or concierge arrange tickets for you, they will need your passport number to make the booking and you will need to present the same passport to pick up the ticket at the station.
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 CHR stations, and checking the schedules and free capacity will help you choose the best one for your destination.
- CTrains.com. 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.
- China Rail website. It is possible to book tickets via this site, and there is no charge for the service. However, the site is in Chinese only and it accepts only UnionPay so you need a Chinese bank account to use it.
- CTrip website. CTrip can provide train ticket bookings online in English.
Lines in service
Due to the size of the country and the large number of destinations served by high-speed rail, all lines are consolidated in the following diagram:
In addition, Hong Kong is currently building a high-speed rail station that will connect to the mainland's network in a few years' time. Macau has no rail connection at all, although Zhuhai over the border is connected to a fast line.
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, as well as passing all your bags through an x-ray machine. There are no restrictions on bringing drinks.
Your train will be clearly designated with a gate or hall, these are generally easy to find. Be aware that 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. Bear in mind that 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/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. Bear in mind that 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 it's 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. Hot water 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. 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.
Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the train. 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. Be aware that 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.
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 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 Transferring Passengers, directly from the platform or in some stations from the Arrivals Hall before the exit barriers. You will need to 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 cause was blamed on a lack of safety controls and was seen as an example of safety being sacrificed in favour of rapid development.
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. As of late 2014, rumours that the speed restriction would be lifted soon have been circulating for months but there has been no definite announcement.
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.
Plans to build an extending Maglev line between Shanghai and Hangzhou have been cancelled, given that new HSR services can connect the cities in just 45 minutes.
Future International Routes
There are currently (March 2016) 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.
- Hong Kong will be connected to Shenzhen and Guangzhou with the high-speed network, with services planned for late 2018 (although the project has been experiencing significant delays). This will be the first 'cross border' high-speed connection in China. It is already possible to get to Shenzhen by high-speed train, take the Shenzhen metro to the border, walk across it and take the Hong Kong metro downtown.
- A further stretch of line from Beijing directly to Hong Kong has been approved and will cover the 2,400 km distance in around 8 hours
- A 7,000 kilometer high-speed rail connection between Beijing and Moscow has been announced, and will cut journeys from the current 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.