Trains in China – A guide for travelers
China’s train network is extensive to say the least, with nearly every city and town connected via over 90,000 km or tracks. The size is set to grown with the Chinas continuing domestic growth, plus proposals for inter-continental lines that could extend from China into Russia, Germany and even to London and from China through south east Asia as far as Malaysia.
Currently train travel in China is a reasonably efficient means to get around, clean comfortable and in most cases cost effective. The train network is also going through a process of growth in terms of coverage but also in speed and quality. The new HSR (High Speed Rail) network features super-trains capable of least 200km/h and some 380km/h.
China’s High Speed Rail Network (HSR)
Currently there’s something close to 10,000 km of High Speed Rail line (200km/h and above) in China which is reportedly set to reach 25,000 km of line by 2015. The trains are built in China under technology transfer agreements with foreign train-makers including Siemens, Bombardier and Kawasaki Heavy Industries. The latest train, the CRH380A in testing has reached speeds of 487km/h but in service operates under 350km/h.
The fastest train in service is still the maglev in Shanghai, which on it’s 38km of track reaches an in service top speed of 430km/h and has reached speeds in excess of 500km/h in testing.
See the map at the bottom of page for routes with fast trains.
Types of Train
The train type is designated by a letter which precedes the route number eg. the G1102 is the high speed train that runs between Guangzhou and Wuhan at 7am.
G train – the fastest of all the trains and usually operates at speeds between 200 – 350km/h. These trains have a first class and second class seat option.
C train – Intercity high speed train as fast as G train. These trains have a first class and second class seat option.
D train – it runs during the day and has a top speed of 250km/h. These trains have a first class and second class seat option.
Z train – overnight express train with a top speed of 162km/h. Z train runs on popular tourist routes like Beijing-Xian, Shanghai – Xian, Beijing-Harbin. Most Z trains have soft-sleeper, soft-seat, hard-sleeper and hard-seat options.
T train – Top speed of 142 km/h - These trains normally have soft-sleeper, soft-seat, hard-sleeper and hard-seat options.
K train – Top speed of 122 km/h has more stops then T train. These trains normally have soft-sleeper, soft-seat, hard-sleeper and hard-seat options.
L train – temporary express, operates during busy periods.
A train – temporary train.
Y train – temporary tourist train.
Hard Seats – go on, rough it up! Actually they’re not wooden planks but cushioned chairs. Crowded and often not the cleanest, but the cheapest.
Soft Seats – More leg room, less crowded and usually cleaner but costs a little more.
In D, C and G trains there is first and second class seating. Either section is clean, modern and quite acceptable. First class seats are a little bigger, more leg room and only two seats per row as opposed to second class which may have 3 seats per row. First class has power sockets for laptops/mobile etc. You can sometimes find a power socket at the very front of second class cabins on the wall in front of the first seat.
Hard Sleeper – door-less compartments with three bunk style beds up each wall. Features bed sheet and pillow. The cheapest sleeper option.
Soft-Sleeper – Each compartment is separate and features a closing door with four beds, two lower and two upper berths. Some trains feature small TV’s and headphones, but programming is in Chinese. They do have a nice pillow, sheets and blanket. Costs more and in some cases as much as a plane ticket. At the end of the soft sleeper car there is wash basin and hot water.
Deluxe soft sleeper – features only two bunks plus a private toilet, wash basin, small sofa and cupboard. It’s the most expensive ticket. But surprisingly not greatly more expensive than soft sleeper on the Hong Kong-Beijing/Shanghai line at least. It’s only available on selected lines.
Buying Train Tickets
In most cases you will need your passport. Each city usually has a phone reservation line and ticket windows throughout the city, or you can buy tickets at the station. Avoid traveling during holiday periods and especially during Chinese New Year.
If it’s a short distance intercity train then there is usually no need to buy tickets in advance. For example the Shenzhen-Guangzhou service has regular trains and you simply go to the ticket window (there’s normally an English speaking window) and state where you want to go and which class, you’ll be given a ticket for the next departing train.
You should try to buy long distance train tickets in advance as there is only a limited number of sleeper cabins, if it’s not a holiday period then a few days may be enough, if it’s around holiday time then as early as possible. See the resources listed at the bottom of the page for more on buying tickets in advance.
Also, some cities have more than one train station, be sure which station you are arriving at and how to connect to your final destination. One drawback of the HSR network is that the stations are a long way from the city centre.
Rules state that carry on luggage should not exceed 20 Kg (44 pounds) for Adults and 10 kg (22 pounds) for Children. The maximum width or height should not exceed 160cm or 130cm for D, C or G trains. You can check your baggage in and if the train has a luggage car you’ll be able to get it when you arrive or your luggage will be put on the next train with a luggage car.
Trains vs Planes
In many cases it can be more convienient to take a train than plane and usually cheaper. If you weigh up the waiting time, check in time, waiting for baggage, flight delays and connections to where you want to go, then in many cases the train can look attractive plus you get to see more of the country.
Train tickets don’t go on sale, but flights do. Prices for off-peak time and low season flights can be really cheap and even cheaper than the soft sleeper train ticket, and of course faster if it’s a long journey.
Train Network Map with high speed lines highlighted
More resources for planning train journeys in China
cnvol.com – easily search for train schedules between any city in China, plus fares.
Seat 61 – a big one page guide to the popular tourist routes in China including schedules, fares and reviews.
High Speed Rail in China at Wikipedia – lots of info on the network.
MTR Intercity – Hong Kong MTR site for information/booking Hong Kong > Guangzhou/Shanghai/Beijing services.