The railway is the first choice for domestic travel for most people in China, as it's cheap, convenient, and safe. China train tickets are often sold out, especially during holidays such as weekends, summer vocations, Chinese New Year and National Days; therefore book a train ticket in advance as early as you can.
Seeing the sights outside the window along the route is a bonus. The differences between railway travel in China and Western countries are worth noting, however, if you plan to use China's railways.The major differences lie in five aspects: railway stations, seating, luggage considerations, the environment on the trains, and buying tickets.
Western railway stations are relatively opener, and passengers don't wait in designated aisles like in China. Western railway stations are usually more concise in design. If you need to transfer, you don't go out of the station building and come in again, like in China. In China there is a check-in hall, but in the West the ticket inspector checks tickets on the train. Railway stations in China are usually huge buildings, and you have to walk a long way using platform bridges and escalators to get to your train. It's common practice that a lot of people stay for hours at the waiting hall or even stay overnight to wait for a train. Before making their way to the train, in China all passengers wait in lines for a ticket check.
In the West, unless a reservation is made, there is no fixed car number or seat number on the ticket, whereas in China it is always specified. When you get on the train, you should take the seat specified on your ticket. In China there are also tickets for standing room, though standing is a tiring option.
At peak times trains get excessively crowded, and you can hardly find a space to stand, especially as you have to make room for passengers and train staff walking around and vending-carts. All of this makes train travel in China more stressful. It is not advisable to buy a hard-seat ticket during high seasons when there are other options available, as hard-seat cars will be overcrowded, noisy, and smelly. A soft sleeper is recommended. See How to Choose Train Types And Seat Class in China.
In Western countries there is sometimes a car for large items of luggage, like bicycles (which are not typically taken on the train in China unless fold-up), and plenty of room is provided in the cars for large suitcases, wheelchairs, etc. However in China there are just the narrow steel racks above the seats and below the seats for luggage. If your luggage is overweight / oversized, you might need to pay extra.
There is Wi-Fi and there are catering cars on many Western trains. But in China there is no Wi-Fi on trains. A dinner car in a train only serves simple and plain Chinese food and most menus are in Chinese only. And staff will push a cart with food and drink along ailses. During meal times there are preheated packaged meals sold from the carts. You can buy one and eat on your seat or go to the dining carriage (if there is one) to have meal. The meals are simple and at a higher price than would be paid in the street.
Food on A Train
Trains in China are divided into two kinds: traditional trains and High-Speed Railway (HSR) trains.
The stations for traditional trains are usually located in city centers, and are easily accessed. Nonetheless, there are many shortcomings of traditional trains. The most obvious one is speed: it might take 24 hours or even longer when you go to somewhere remote. Running late occurs frequently in China inconsiderate behavior, mess, smells, and smoking can be expected on traditional trains, but those kinds of things won't happen on the HSR. The HSR is similar to the French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen "bullet trains", but larger. They are clean and tidy, and the seats are roomier and cosier than on traditional trains. See what does a bullet train in China look like ?
It only takes 6 hours from Shanghai to Beijing, compared to 14 or 20 hours on a traditional train. The disadvantage is the stations of high-speed trains are usually far from the city center. Driving 1 or 2 hours there is just like going to an airport, and the ticket price of high-speed trains is not much cheaper than taking a plane.
In China train tickets are sold out sometimes, especially during some significant festivals, especially during the Chinese New Year mass migration and the golden weeks in May and October; whereas in Western countries train tickets selling out is almost unheard of.
Despite the hassles, and at times backward nature, of traditional trains in China, there is something romantic about taking these trains, and they are a cheap and convenient way to travel. High-speed trains, on the other hand, are a comfortable and impressive modern marvel to rival the best in the West. In China taking a train will be an unforgettable experience, whatever train you choose.