Taking the Train in China

Trains in China

When you think about taking the train in China you may imagine overcrowded, old worn out relics. You couldn’t be more wrong! I have traveled extensively while living in China and have spent many a long journey on one of China’s awesome high speed trains. China has spent billions investing in its national railway network. As a result, high speed trains in China are now the fastest worldwide, with top speeds of 350 km/h or more!

Taking the Train in China
High speed trains traveling at 350kph are now common in China

Types of Trains in China

When taking the train in China travelers will encounter a number of different trains, from the famous high-speed bullet trains to special tourist ones. The different kinds are denoted by letters or number combinations:

  • G (Gaotie) and C (Chengji): High-speed bullet trains (top speed: 350 km/h) for long and short intercity journeys respectively (e.g. Beijing–Shanghai or Beijing–Tianjin.) These are my preferred way of traveling long distance around China.
  • D (Dongche): Bullet trains (top speed: 250 km/h) for fast and frequent intercity journeys (e.g. Shenzhen–Guangzhou). For trips between major cities I will hop on one of these trains, cheap and fast!
  • Z (Zhida): Direct Express (top speed: 160 km/h) for long distance journeys with few or no midway stops (typically overnight). I have taken several of these to avoid paying a high price for a ticket for a medium length trip.
  • T (Tekuai): Express Trains (top speed: 140 km/h) for journeys with stops at only major stations (typically overnight)

More Options for trains in China

  • K (Kuaisu) or N: Fast Trains (top speed: 120 km/h) for journeys with more stops than T trains
  • Fast Numbered Trains: For slower journeys due to more stops than K or N trains (top speed: 120 km/h); typically denoted by four digit numbers, starting with 1, 2, 4, or 5
  • Numbered Trains: Cheapest, but also slowest and oldest trains (top speed: 100 km/h) with as many stops as possible; denoted by four digit numbers, starting with 6, 7, 8, or 9. If you have not mush money and time to kill, then these are the trains for you. No frills and well, you get what you paid for!
  • L, A or Y: Temporary and tourist trains for additional support during peak travel times
  • S: Suburban trains (top speed: 100 km/h) for commutes

Different Categories: From First to Sleeper

In addition to the different train types, there exist a number of different travel categories, too. Note, however, that not all categories are available on all types of trains in China:

  • First Class offers 4 comfortable seats per row, similar to the Soft Seat category; usually available on D, C, and G trains. When the budget allows, we always buy these seats.
  • Second Class is still more comfortable than Hard Seats, but less so than First Class; available on D, C, and G trains. These are great options. They are comfy and don’t cost an arm and a leg. A trip from Baoding to Beijing in one of these seats is only 65 yuan.
  • Business Class has 3 seats per row and is more spacious as well as more luxurious than First Class, but also more expensive; only found on some G trains.
  • Hard Seat is the cheapest ticket class and subsequently often crowded; typically on T, K, N, L, A, and numbered trains.

More Categories for Trains in China

  • Soft Seat is more comfortable than Hard Seat and less crowded, but not available on every train.
  • Hard Sleeper carriages have 6 bunks per cabin, which offer little privacy and quiet as cabins have no doors; found only on Z and T overnight trains. I have had to take a couple of these in my time in China, not too bad if you get on, sleep then get off!
  • Soft Sleeper cars have 4 bunks per cabin, with softer beds and sliding doors affording more comfort and privacy; usually on D, Z, and T overnight trains. If we choose a train for a long trip instead of flying then we buy these seats, because we basically get a room to ourselves, it’s like first class rail travel!
  • Deluxe Soft Sleeper carriages with 2 beds and typically also a private toilet, TV, and power sockets in each cabin; only found on some T, Z, and overnight D trains (e.g. Beijing–Shanghai) at prices twice that of a Soft Sleeper.

How to Purchase Train Tickets

In a number of Chinese cities, you cannot buy train tickets for journeys that do not start in that particular location. Note that this also includes return journeys! Only in big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, or Guangzhou will you be able to purchase tickets for non-local trains in China.

content couple using ticket machine in underground
The locals can buy tickets using their I.D. cards in China

In bigger cities, you may be able to find ticket offices with English-speaking staff, but do not count on this. Look for a sign above the ticket window that displays the word ENGLISH. Instead, make sure to note down all the important information in Chinese. This includes your destination and the departure date and time, the train number, your preferred class/category of travel, as well as the number of tickets you need. If in trouble, grab a young person, they will probably be able to speak English and help you! Now you can easily buy train tickets online if you know where you are going.

You Have Multiple Options Buying Tickets in China

Next to train stations, you can buy tickets for trains in China at local Booking Offices for Train Tickets. You will, however, be charged an additional 5 CNY for this service. Hotels and travel agencies may offer to book your tickets for you.

Helpful Tips About Traveling By Train in China

When taking the train in China, don’t forget to factor in time for security and ticket checks at the train station, where long queues are nothing unusual. Also make sure to bring your passport, visa if separate to your passport, Chinese residence permit, etc. Your ticket will be for a specific seat in a particular compartment. Note that you are expected to board trains in China directly at the compartment as stated on your ticket.

You cannot check in luggage on trains in China, so pack lightly in order to avoid problems with storage space. You may want to take your own food and drinks, though. Simple Chinese food and drinks are sold in dining cars or via serving trolleys. However, these are often more expensive than off the train. Plus, menus on trains in China are typically only available in Mandarin.

Taking the train in China is awesome – go explore!

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Taking the Train in China
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Taking the Train in China
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I have traveled all over China and have spent many a long journey on one of China's awesome high speed trains. China has spent billions investing in its national railway network.
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Our Elysium
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