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The Ultimate Guide To Chinese Trains

The train has been a consistently reliable form of travel across many nations for centuries, and one that’s still used by travellers today. China shares the same opinion too, with a considerable rail system that is spread over its vast territories. If you were told to picture the scene inside a typical Chinese train, odds are you’d see smoke-filled carriages, stacks of bodies piled on top of each other, chickens running loose and deafening yells of intensely ranting locals. But what’s it really like?

In this article, we’ll explore every aspect of Chinese trains and look at everything from comfort to speed. We’ll also look at the different types of trains available and the different types of carriages that they offer. More importantly, we’ll look at what kind of train you should choose for your own trip!

What Kind of Trains Are They?

Naturally a booming up and coming superpower such as China has plenty of choices when it comes to train travel. Though you might expect endless lengths of safety-lacking carriages swaying heavily from side to side, you’d be wrong.

The selection of Chinese trains are as modern as any other developed nation, and in most cases they’re even better! Not only does the country have the world’s second-longest rail network, but they have the most extensive high-speed network too!

Chinese trains are essentially broken down into two categories; High-speed trains and not-so-fast trains. The trains are further categorized by different letters.

High-speed rail ready to go

For the high-speed trains, they’re categorised as G, D and C trains, G being the fastest and travelling the furthest distances with fewer stops, C being the opposite.

The slower ones become more of a minefield to figure out. Starting with Z, T and K, Z trains travel directly, with more stops added as you go down the letters. You then have the less spectacularly labelled ordinary trains which will pull up at almost every station. There are also some special trains such as L and Y, which run during peak travel seasons.

How Much Ground Do They Cover?

Just to illustrate the extent of the railway’s coverage, the high-speed trains alone connect over 500 cities across 33 provinces. It is in fact the largest high-speed rail worldwide and even has the longest high-speed route from Beijing to Hong Kong.

Slower trains will cover much more ground and travel to more obscure locations, particularly the rural areas of the country.

An extensive railway map of Chinese trains. Photo by Howchou, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What Kind of Seats Can I Get?

Each type of train has their unique type of seating which range in pricing and comfort. Lets look at them in a bit more detail.

High-speed Trains

Typical seating on a High-speed train. Photo by Chris on Flickr

Each type of train has its own levels of luxury based on a price scale. The high-speed trains offer a nice basic 1st, 2nd and even Business class for the rich amongst you. Even the lowest 2nd class seats provide an ample amount of leg-room and a surprising amount of comfort.

Regular Trains

The slower trains on the other hand provide a more complex selection. Not only do they offer seats but also sleeper carriages. The beds are further divided into two options: soft and hard sleepers.

The soft sleeper is naturally the more luxurious and therefore the most expensive option on Chinese trains. These carriages consists of stacks of beds (two on either side) for each a cabin.

The hard sleeper as the name suggests lacks a certain level of comfort both with the beds themselves and the number of people you share a berth with (6 in total). You also sacrifice a certain amount of privacy as the berth is open to the walkway.

A typical hard sleeper bed. Photo by Yijun He on Flickr

Keep heading down the price scale and you’re met with the seating option which consists of non-reclinable seats in incredibly close contact with your fellow passengers and next to no comfort at all.

Both types of trains even offer standing tickets, which are precisely as they sound. Those lucky passengers simply have to find wherever there’s space available for the entirety of their journey. This will include individuals sitting directly in the middle of the walkway or crowded at the ends of the carriages. Confusingly these will be the same price as the seated tickets and undoubtedly the least comfortable option available.

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What’s the Price?

Well, the good news is that it’s definitely a hell of a lot cheaper than the equivalent flight, even for high-speed trains! For trips around 2 hours long the prices for the cheapest tickets might not even stray over 20 RMB.

Naturally, the price will depend on the type of train and class you choose. Let’s take a typical route as an example, Beijing to Shanghai.

Train TypeTime2nd Class1st ClassBusiness Class
High-Speed Trains 4½ – 6 hours553 CNY 933 CNY 1748 CNY
Hard Seat / Standing Hard Sleeper Soft Sleeper
Slower Trains 19 hours 157 CNY 284 CNY 456 CNY

Typically, the cheapest high-speed tickets will be around 3 times more expensive than regular trains. Though that seems a little steep, the trains are also 3 times as fast, so its a fair trade. Another important point to consider is these prices remain constant up until departure, regardless of the number of tickets remaining.

Which Train Should I Pick?

The differences between the two are quite self-explanatory. The high-speed option gets you there quicker but for a higher price. Bear in mind only certain routes will offer high-speed trains, really only between the major cities. If you want to go off route, a bit more rural, then the slower ones are your only option anyway.

The main point to consider is how much time do you have to spare. Yes, the high-speed trains are 3 times more expensive, however, in some cases, we’re talking about a ticket which will go from 20 RMB (about £2) to 60 RMB (about £6), so not exactly breaking the bank. When you’re facing 21 hours on a slow train when it could take you 8 hours in comfort on the high-speed option, it becomes tempting.

chinese trains
Shortstop on the slow train to Harbin

The other question is, which class? On the high-speed option, 2nd class is more than good enough. Spending any more on a higher class would be frivolous and a waste of valuable travel money. The slower trains are another story, which again depends on time.

The thing is, seats on Chinese trains are incredibly uncomfortable. With a near-vertical backrest, little cushioning and squished in incredibly close quarters with the other passengers, it isn’t exactly luxury. However, it’s not unbearable, especially for distances. If you’re the rugged type of traveller, it’s easily doable. It may not be the best journey you’ve ever had, but it will save you a lot of cash.

Final Opinon

If the train peaks over about 12 hours of travel time, especially travelling through the night, I’d highly recommend getting a bed. Despite it costing about double the price of a standard seat, the level of comfort and privacy is multiplied by 10. Without a doubt, it’s the most comfortable way I’ve travelled during all my time on the road.

Train vs Flight

When considering any alternative form of travel the real question becomes; is it better than taking a flight? Obviously, this would depend on the type of train and even the class, but in general, which is best? For this, we’ll compare the different aspects of travel; comfort, amenities, time, accessibility and ease.

Comfort

Well anytime you don’t have to come to the train station 2 hours in advance and wasting an hour on the other side picking up your luggage is an instant improvement. Even the cheapest seat is no less comfortable worse than an airline seat. To be honest, it’s as equally uncomfortable, but at least you have the benefit of getting out of your seat. So in that case it’s an easy win for Chinese trains.

It goes without saying that the standing tickets are a serious degree less comfortable. I myself found myself hugging my knees next to the carriage door for several hours, but still better than a god damn flight.

A packed seater carriage. Photo by N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It also goes without saying that getting a bed increases your comfort significantly. You have your own entire space where nobody can invade your space. Obviously not total luxury having to share the space with 3-5 other passengers each with their own level of snoring, loudness and general annoyance, but you get to lay down. Good luck trying to afford that luxury on a flight.

Time

In pretty much every case (except cross country flights), if you were to take the high-speed train you would be at your destination in the same amount of time as a flight, without a doubt. Particularly when you take into consideration the bullshit you go through before actually stepping on the plane and the hassle of getting to the city centre once you’ve landed. The high-speed train will get you there in just as much time without half the hassle.

The slower trains on the other hand as the name suggests would take a considerable amount of time, sometimes even more than day!

Accessibility

chinese trains
Train terminal awaiting boarding

This has to be another win for the train. It’s always the case no matter where you are in the world, trains cover more ground than flights. The railways will always pass through the most obscure locations, places which lack airports for miles around. A huge advantage for the adventurous amongst you.

However, if you’re keeping to the big cities and well-known hot spots during your travels, then there will be flights heading in your well-travelled direction.

Enjoyment

chinese trains
Travelling through the vast emptiness of Inner Mongolia

Transport is the must of travel, not the want. So if you have to do it, you might as well enjoy it! That’s why I personally love travelling by bus; the ability to sit for hours watching the world passing by, looking at the country you’re in through a whole new perspective. And on Chinese trains, there are plenty of jaw-dropping scenes out of the window!

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How Do You Buy a Ticket?

So you’ve decided on the route, your preferred train and seat, now what? You’ll need to buy a ticket, for which you have a couple of options, but only a few apply to foreigners. You could buy tickets both directly at the train station as well as via a phone call, but without a thorough knowledge of Chinese, you’re shit out of luck.

Honestly, if you have the courage and you have the info for the train, there’s no reason you can’t just head to the booth with the necessary information such as the train code and a simple scribble of “Beijing -> Shanghai, 2nd“. I’ve used that method several times, as its pretty clear what you’re asking for.

Tickets for Chinese trains. To the right of the date, you’ll find the carriage and seat number respectively

Its also possible to arrange trains through travel agencies which likely will have less of a language barrier, but will also expect a cut. My personal recommendation would be the absolute faultless website LY.com. Not only do they have a functional English version of their site, but it’s everything you’ll ever need to book the ticket. All the information, every route, every seat, all purchasable online. All you’ll have to do is turn up to a ticket booth at any Chinese station with the booking code and they’ll print off your ticket. They even have an option to refund your ticket up until the point of departure. If you ever want to book a train in China, this is the site to check out.

Conclusion

Whatever image you have of Chinese train travel, it’s not as bad as you expect. Also despite the admittedly comfort lacking option of the slow train seats, it’s hardly tortuous. Particularly when you consider the significant savings, the added freedom and the consistent entertainment of an ever-changing backdrop of China, personally I see it as a no brainer. After all, after surviving a 20+ hour train journey in a packed to capacity carriage during THE busiest time of the year, it was all been worth it just to be able to experience a journey on a Chinese train.

TravellingWelshman

A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.

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