Chinese railways offer a dramatic fusion of the hyper-modern and the rustic. Sleek "bullet" trains cruising at over 217 mph/350 kph in spacious luxury, contrast strongly with twenty year old traditional trains, ambling noisily to their destination amid frequent stops and with a diverse variety of ticket classes and food vendors.
China is simultaneously, far ahead and behind its western counterparts, with features which will amaze, intrigue and (occasionally), frustrate the foreign traveller. Although China saw a negative population growth in 2022, it still has to face an infrastructure challenge like few other countries to date, and tell-tale signs of this rapid expansion make each rail journey unique and packed with contrast.
Quirks and inconsistencies aside, modern railway travel is the firm first choice for Chinese nationals and foreigners alike. Tickets are modestly priced, travel times are reliable (usually), and it's by far the safest way to travel, but what are the key differences between Western and Chinese rail?
Chinese Railway Stations
Chinese rail station structures and procedures vary enormously between central megacity hubs and the single platforms of rural townships. This deviation includes station facilities, accessibility and ticket booking procedures among other aspects.
Below we've attempted to highlight some key features and obstacles to expect from a foreign traveller's point of view, along with a few tips to promote peace of mind on your travels.
Chinese Station Layout
Western railway stations are typically built more open-plan and allow greater passenger freedom than their Chinese counterparts. Chinese stations whether gigantic or tiny, will typically still insist on passengers obeying strict boarding procedures, often via multiple gates and holding areas.
The distances between gates and waiting halls vary station to station, but can be significant in larger cities and involve multiple flights of stairs/escalators. Lifts and disabled access are also usually available at medium-major hubs, but be aware that boarding gate closures are precise and usually deaf to excuses; it's safer to arrive well ahead of time.
Travelers may also find themselves frustrated by having to follow the sometimes eccentric boarding procedures; such as queuing to enter a ticket sale hall then having to exit and queue once again to re-enter the same building but via a different gate for boarding.
However, despite some procedural inconveniences, travel by train in China is usually fairly straightforward and stress-free. Booking and ticket areas are usually clearly marked in both Chinese and English and there's often willing help on hand to assist if needed (note however, conversational English ability is quite rare in all stations outside of the larger cities).
For extra help on navigating Chinese stations and boarding, please see the link.
As most Chinese stations have a far greater capacity than those in the west, they also typically boast a greater number of facilities and convenience stores on site.
Below is a list of what facilities to expect at Chinese rail stations and their frequency, depending on station size and location:
- Restrooms (all stations) - free to use but often unclean and with a strong smell of cigarette smoke. Generally no tissue paper is provided.
- Ticket Office (all) - all stations have some form of physical ticket sales/collections desk, the scale and complexity of this area depends on the station and its rail network access.
- Departures Seating Area (most) - almost all stations provide seating in one or multiple large departure halls. The seating is usually clean and reasonably comfortable but often passengers are left standing/sitting on the floor due to overcrowding.
- Taxi/Bus Booking Stands (frequent) - Common fixtures of all medium-large stations. These provide convenient transport onwards but expect to pay an inflated fee.
- Snack Shops (most) - Often a good range of modestly priced food and drink shops are available, with western and domestic brands well represented.
- Fast Food Outlets (major stations only) - KFC/McDonald's outlets are popping up all over china, you can expect to find these in/around most major stations. In addition to cheap, familiar food they also boast chilly air-conditioning and often free Wi-Fi.
- Book/Souvenir Stores (rare) - Only found at major transport hubs with a strong tourist market.
- Exchange Bureau (rare) - Generally only available at terminals near border crossings such as Shenzhen or Hong Kong.
Railway Station Security
Security on Chinese transport systems is a clear priority, with a significantly greater number of ticket checks, bag scans and body metal detection gates than their Western equivalents.
The complexity and scrutiny of these checks vary greatly across province and station size, but even the most rural townships will likely insist on multiple ticket/passport checks and a basic bag/body scan pre-boarding. However, while such systems have the potential to irritate, they provide no real cause for concern as most common objects are permitted, and it is very rare for objections over baggage to be raised.
Please see here for comprehensive details of baggage allowances and restrictions.
Tickets are also regularly checked beyond boarding, both during travel and on arrival, so it's very important to keep hold of your ticket to avoid fines, fare repurchase and/or lengthy delays.
Below is included a brief summary of what to expect in terms of security procedures at typical major Chinese rail stations.
Security Procedure Overview
- Bag check and body metal detection on arrival.
- Ticket and passport inspection on entry to departure lounge.
- Ticket check on boarding*.
- Ticket check during travel**.
- Ticket check on arrival.
* Major stations only - the same staff will also often assist with disabilities/heavy luggage if required.
** It is quite common for Chinese travelers to ignore reservations in the cheaper ticket classes and sit with family or friends until asked to move. Chinese nationals are as a rule however, fairly polite, simply show them your ticket and they should move without fuss. Failing this Chinese conductors are usually efficient, friendly and easy to find. That said, if you wish to swap seats yourself to sit near family, simply ask politely and many Chinese travelers will be happy to accommodate you, especially in China's more rural parts where foreigners remain a novelty.
Ticket booking in China operates under similar principles as in the western world. Tickets can either be booked via travel agencies, by yourself online with station collection, or purchased physically at the station you wish to depart from.
Unlike in the west however, your booking method can have a dramatic effect on your journey, in terms of quality, stress at the station and ticket availability.
Ticket Office Purchases
- Booking is straightforward, you can buy tickets up to 5-15 minutes time before a train or many weeks in advance.
- Some tickets may be only available for physical purchase and not online (this is unusual however).
- In most major stations you can expect to queue for 10-40 minutes depending of time of day, proximity to popular train departures and seasonal migrations.
- Prices are generally higher than with online booking.
- Communication can be a problem, especially when booking travel in more rural stations where spoken English remains rare.
Online Purchases and Collection
- Booking is slightly more complicated; the official site is in Chinese only.
- Foreigners can make bookings using their passports, but getting help from a Chinese native speaker is advised to prevent costly mistakes.
- Tickets are cheaper (sometimes significantly), than with physical booking.
- Collection procedures are quicker at most stations than ticket purchasing.
- Often more tickets are available online and with a greater degree of choice over seat/bed location.
Booking with China Highlights
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The China Rail Experience
Following departure procedures and boarding, the Chinese rail experience is usually very pleasant, with clean, fairly new and well-equipped rail cars being used on most major routes. Some key differences to consider from western rail travel are as follow:
Bullet Trains (CRH)
Following China's rapid expansion, high speed "bullet" trains have been a proud fixture of the Chinese transport system since 2011. These ultramodern trains can reach speeds of 217 mph (350 kph) and are a huge leap forward in terms of engineering, travel time, comfort and passenger expectations.
Bullet trains are more luxurious than their traditional counterparts with shorter departure procedures, more assistance on hand and a more executive feel to the experience. They also have stricter, more modern rules, such as prohibiting smoking, shouting and sleeping in the aisle. Standing tickets are also unusual.
For more information about bullet train travel, please see our China High-Speed Trains section.
Seating Class Choice
In the west, traditionally only few ticket types are offered per journey, and the difference in quality is often fairly moderate compared to the hefty price jump. This is far from the case in China and your ticket class selection will have a dramatic effect on your journey experience.
A traditional long-distance train will usually offer "soft" and "hard" forms of sitting and sleeping ticket, often with premier sleeping cabins and very cheap standing tickets also available. Ticket prices can vary from 1000CNY to 100CNY for the same journey and, as you might expect, the quality of travel ranges accordingly; from quiet, spacious comfort, to trying to sleep on your bags in a cramped, noisy carriage aisle.
"Bullet" train provisions are usually of excellent quality but limited and steeply overpriced. It's advisable to buy snacks beforehand to avoid a 50-100% mark-up.
Long-distance traditional trains provide the most choice in refreshments; from snacks, tea and pot noodles to hot, cheap meals at a very modest price. Quality, as you might expect, is quite hit and miss, but generally Chinese trains are well provisioned.
Smoking is common in the lower price carriages, although mostly restricted to the ends of the cars near the doors and toilet facilities. Swing doors are equipped to prevent the smoke from penetrating the central cabin, but in reality make only a moderate difference.
In higher ticket classes smoking is usually still permitted at the ends on carriages but these areas are better insulated from the carriage main body. Smoking on CRH and CR "bullet" trains is not permitted.
Wi-Fi is not typically available on most traditional trains. "Fuxinghao" high-speed trains however, are usually equipped with moderate speed Wi-Fi, but this is limited to First and Business ticket classes.
Traditional trains in China unfortunately do not have a great abundance of power sockets available as a rule. Higher class carriages are usually well equipped, medium priced seats often have two-five sockets available per carriage (check near the toilets), and cheap seats are often entirely unequipped.
High-speed trains typically boast a socket per seat regardless of ticket class.
Unlike in the west, large spaces to store luggage or carriages solely for large items such as bicycles are uncommon. Generally all luggage must be carried into the car with you and stored wherever you can find a space.
For this reason some passengers queue up well in advance of boarding in order to get a good space to store large bags, the need for this depends on your luggage size and ticket type.
Trolleys to aid bag handling are also very uncommon; for all these reasons it's advisable to pack light if possible.
Unlike in the west, seasonal fluctuations in railway travel can be huge and overwhelming. If you ever marveled at the seemingly unnecessary size of some of China's mega-stations, the wisdom behind them can become explicitly clear during national holidays.
During these periods, veritable floods of holidaymakers and home-goers put an intense, transitory strain on the national transport system, causing huge delays and crowding at population centers nationwide.
If you fail to book a ticket several weeks (or more), in advance of your travel date, you may well be stuck for the holiday. The worst times to travel in China in regard to ticket availability and crowding are listed in descending order as follows:
- Spring Festival - 4-5 weeks of absolute travel chaos around Chinese New Year as the entire population attempts to travel home or go on holiday.
- National Holiday - 1 week of intense travel (mostly vacationing, some homeward travel).
- Labour Day Holiday - Only a three day holiday but an important one in the Chinese calendar. Expect major crowding at most transport hubs and tourist attractions.
Please note: All Chinese holidays (save Labour Day), use the Chinese lunar calendar, causing their western dates to shift each year.
For accurate date conversions and more, please see the best dates to pick when planning your china tour.
Despite the hassles, and at times backward nature of traditional trains in China, there remains something romantic about these journeys. They're slower than their western cousins, less well built, and certainly less reliable, but also offer far a more interesting and immersive experience than any rail journey back home.
High-speed trains are at the other extreme; a luxurious and impressive modern marvel to eclipse the very best in the west. Travel time takes a fraction of that via conventional rail, and the stark contrast between executive and regular lifestyles in China is quite an eye-opener.
Whichever class or route you choose to travel, rail journeys in China will prove an intriguing and memorable experience.
Traveling by Rail with China Highlights
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