Trains are classified by speed and service in China, represented by a train code. A train code is comprised of a letter (G, D, C, Z, T, K) or no letter (number only), which indicates a train's type.
There are usually many trains running between two cities with different schedules, prices, and, of course, with different facilities. Read on for help choosing between the various train types in China. From fastest to slowest…
The facilities and appearance of G/D/C trains are similar in that they are all new and modern. The bullet-shaped trains are white.
The G train operates for the CRH (China Railway High-Speed) service. It's the fastest train in China, and the prices are the highest.
It is popular because it provides frequent services between first-tier cities, many provincial capitals, and major cities, such as routes from Beijing to Shanghai, Beijing to Xi'an, Beijing to Guangzhou, Shanghai to Hangzhou, and so on. It only stops at a few major stations along the way, although some G trains provide non-stop services.
Mind that business class seats are only available in certain G trains, e.g. from Beijing to Xi'an they are only available on afternoon trains, and from Xi'an to Beijing they are only available on morning trains.
A D train's speed and price is next in line to that of a G train. The facilities of a D train are similar to a G train, being new and modern.
Soft sleepers: For some long-distance overnight D trains (sleeping car service is not provided on G trains), such as D trains from Beijing to Shanghai, soft sleepers (four bunks in an enclosed compartment) are available, and some have deluxe soft sleepers cars (D313 and D314), an enclosed compartment with two bunks, which is perfect for traveling couples, though the price is twice that of a soft sleeper.
A C train is also a high-speed train, operating frequently between two cities in the same province or ones that are not too far away from each other. The journey is short and sleeping cars are not provided.
Price comparison: Taking a G train from Beijing to Xi'an as an example, the price of a second-class seat is $86, a first-class seat $133, a superior-class seat $159, and a business-class seat $262.
The China Railway online booking system has a seat class selection but doesn't currently have a seating position selection. When passengers book tickets online, the system distributes a random seat in the selected class of coaches.
This is the most common and cheapest ticket class for high-speed trains.
Seats In a second class car there are three seats on one side of the aisle and two seats on the other side.
No seat tickets (无座wúzuò/woo-dzwor/ 'no seat')are sold in a small quantity for some high-speed train journeys. If no-seat passengers can't find an unoccupied seat in second class they lean against the walls of the inter-car corridors. This is your last resort for a high-speed rail journey, and is only advised for short journeys.
It has a more comfortable and quiet environment than a second class car.
Seats: In a first class car there are two seats on each side of the aisle. First-class seats are wider than second-class seats.
Not all high-speed trains offer superior-class seats, and if they do there are only 16 of these seats — eight seats at each end of the train.
Superior-class seats are also called sightseeing-class seats. The most special feature of the superior class cars is the large windows, giving the best scenic views. If your train happens to have superior-class seats, you are recommended to try them.
Business-class cars are the most luxurious cars on high-speed trains. The field of vision allows for great views.
Business-class seats are spacious with two meters (6.6 feet) of space between the rows. There are three seats in a row — two on one side and one on the other side of the aisle.
There are only soft sleepers on overnight high-speed trains, and no hard sleepers. The price for soft sleepers on high-speed trains is quite expensive, and can sometimes be higher than the price for a discounted flight for the same journey. However, it's a good choice for a comfortable overnight journey. See below for "luxury soft sleeper" details.
Facilities: inside soft sleepers on a high-speed train are complete and convenient.
Bunks are wider and the sleeper back is adjustable for a more comfortable experience if you would like to sit up to read and chat. There is an LCD TV for each bunk, and also a wired headphone and a bedside lamp. What's more, passengers can adjust the temperature of the compartment.
Washrooms are cleaner than those on normal trains. Both Western-style and Chinese-style toilets are available. If you need help, you can push the button inside the restroom.
Normal trains have a longer history than high-speed trains; however, they have a lower standard of facilities. They run to nearly every city in China. Usually, they feature a square locomotive and are blue, white, yellow, or green in color.
Z trains are usually overnight trains, so most Z trains usually only have sleeping cars available. There are 220V AC recharge sockets available in the sleeping cars. Although their Chinese name means 'non-stop train', some of them do stop at major cities along the way.
You are recommended to take a Z train if you want to save time and money. You can sleep overnight on the train, so that you have more time during the day at your destination to explore it.
A T train covers longer distances and usually only stops at large stations. All the major cities with railways can be reached by taking T trains.
K trains stop at more stations than T trains. Besides stopping at cities, they will also stop at main counties along the way. The coaches are not as modern and clean as those mentioned above, and air-conditioning is not always turned on, but they are still tolerable. If you really have to choose this train, don't buy hard seat tickets, which can be overcrowded, noisy, and smelly.
Number-only trains run at the slowest speeds, stop at every station, and have the cheapest tickets. If two trains meet, this type of train always has to wait until the other train leaves. Therefore, number-only trains can sometimes be behind schedule.
You are not recommended to choose this type of train during your trip.
Trains numbered from 1001 to 5998: 40% of these trains have air-conditioning, and the rest just have electric fans. The top speed is 120 kph.
Trains numbered from 6001 to 7598: the top speed of these trains is 100 kph, and only electric fans are available.
These are the cheapest coaches and they are usually overcrowded. It is not advised to buy a hard-seat ticket when there are other options available.
Conditions The seats are actually thinly padded, the coaches are not very clean, and the toilets on a hard sleeper car are usually in poor condition. There are frequent thefts of baggage, with thieves casting their covetous eyes on passengers' luggage.
No seat tickets (无座 wúzuò/woo-dzwor/ 'no seat') are also available for hard seat cars, so you will find people leaning on anything close by, or sitting on their luggage, in the aisles and corridors when the train is full. These tickets are cheaper still, but shouldn't be considered except for the shortest of journeys.
Soft-seat cars are normally seldom provided on older trains in China that run at normal times. They are suitable for traveling in for several hours.
Soft-seat cars are clean and the washrooms are much better than those found in a hard-seat car. Seats are also larger and more comfortable. There is air-conditioning. Smoking is not allowed in the coaches, but it is in the corridors between the cars.
Please be aware that soft sleepers or hard sleepers may be changed for soft-seat cars during peak seasons, such as during the Chinese Spring Festival. During these times, three or four people usually sit on a two-person seat facing the same number of people on the opposite seat. It is not very comfortable to travel in this situation, as there is no ergonomically-designed backrest for you to lean on.
A hard sleeper is the basic budget option for an overnight or long-distance train journey.
Conditions: There is a small TV hanging in each compartment, air-conditioning, and the washroom is fairly clean. Smoking is not permitted in the coach, but you can smoke in the corridor between cars.
A hard sleeper compartment is communal and opens onto the aisle, with three tiers of bunks (upper/middle/lower) on both sides. A pillow, sheet, and blanket are provided for each bunk. It is noisy during the day but much better when the lights of the car are switched off by the train staff after 9.30pm or 10pm.
There is a small difference in price between the bunks, with the upper bunk being the cheapest and the lower bunk being the most expensive.
An upper bunk is not recommended as there is only about 60 cm (2 feet) of vertical space to accommodate you, and it may be difficult for you to climb onto. Middle bunks are not much better, with only about 75cm (2½ feet) height of crawl space. You can slouch there, but not sit up.
A lower bunk is more comfortable, as you can sit up on it to read a book or play games on an iPad, or to talk with friends. It is customary for upper and middle bunk passengers to sit on a lower bunk during the daytime if the lower bunk passenger is not lying on it.
There are two hinged seats, either side of a small shelf table, on the narrow aisle wall opposite the compartments. You can sit on one to admire the scenery outside (if the bottom bunks are occupied).
A soft sleeper is recommended for overnight and long-distance journeys. The fare is almost twice as much as that of a hard sleeper.
Each soft sleeper compartment has a door and contains four bunks, with two on each side. The bunks are wider and more comfortable than hard sleepers', with decent bedding. There is an LCD TV for each bunk. Soft sleeper compartments may vary between trains. You may have both overhead and under-bed storage, or just under-bed storage.
A lower bunk is more expensive than an upper bunk, but it is worth the extra cost. On the lower bunk you can admire the scenery along the route through a large window while the upper bunk is windowless. This feature may be of less importance when taking an overnight train. If you need to spend the daytime on a train, however, a lower bunk is a better choice.
It can be interesting to meet various "roommates". As a soft sleeper is more expensive, passengers who travel in this class tend to be businessmen, richer couples with a child, and richer students. Many of them can speak English.
The washrooms are clean, and both Western-style and Chinese-style toilets are available. Some trains have immaculate toilets with soap and towels — it just depends on the luck of the draw.
This is the top level sleeper, and the fare is much more expensive than that of soft sleepers. It is perfect for traveling couples, as it has the most privacy and security. It is only available in some Z trains, T trains, and overnight D trains.
Each enclosed compartment contains two clean and comfortable bunks. The floor is carpeted and other facilities include an LCD TV, a table, and a wardrobe closet. The layout and facilities may vary: some have two bunks on one side with a sofa on the other side of the compartment; some have one bed on each side.
Western-style washrooms in this type of car are immaculate. Some trains even have in-room sink and toilet facilities as well as a shower cubicle. It all depends on which train you take and your luck.
High-speed trains run twice as fast (or faster) than normal-speed trains, and equivalent ticket class prices are around twice as expensive on China's HSR.
Prices roughly double between ticket classes too. A first-class/soft seat is roughly twice the price of a second-class/hard seat.A sleeper ticket can be twice as expensive as a seat ticket. A soft sleeper is about double the price of a hard sleeper.
High-speed trains are sometimes pricier than flights, but you usually get more for your money in terms of comfort and convenience, though a few hours' longer journey. For example, a high-speed sleeper from Beijing to Xi'an will get you there early in the morning well-rested and fresh for a day of touring, whereas taking an early morning flight will probably mean you start the day jaded.
See the bar chart below for a ticket price comparison for trains from Beijing to Shanghai. It takes 5 hours for G trains from Beijing to Shanghai, 12 hours for D trains, and 15 hours for T trains.
If you want to experience train travel during your China trip, please see our recommended tours below, for inspiration:
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