Train Travel in China
Types of Trains
Most train services in China carry desginations consisted of a letter and some numbers. The letter used in the designations indicate train classes - speed as well amenities provided (luxury, common, economical, etc.). Generally, amenities are positively associated with train speeds - in other words, faster trains are also nicer and offer passengers greater comfort in travel.
- G Trains. These are the fastest trains in China. The trains often travel at speeds up to 350 km/h. G stands for gaosu – “high speed.”
- D Trains. These trains are slightly slower than G trains but still operate at speeds above 200 km/h. D stands for dongche – “extra-power.”
- T Trains. These used to be the fastest trains in China but have now been outpaced by G and D trains. T stands for tekuai – “especially fast”.
- Z Trains. These trains are comparable to T trains in terms of speed but often make some more stops than T trains running the same route. Z stands for zhikuai – “expressly.”
- K Trains. These are old fast trains that are no longer so fast compared to the trains listed above. K stands for kuai – “fast.”
- L trains. These are the trains that are temporarily added to train schedules. This mostly happens during holiday seasons when railway has to accommodate larger numbers of travelers. These trains tend to operate during odd hours, departing or arriving during small hours in the morning. They are also slow because they often yield to other trains .
- Trains listed with only numbers, no letters. These are slowest economical trains. These trains travel very slowly and stop at almost all stations, large and small.
Train Ticket Classes
For both G and D trains there are First Class (yi deng) and Second Class (er deng) tickets, for differet cars that make up a train. First-class cars have seats with more leg space and and a little more room to move around. Seats in both first-class and second-class cars are reclinable like seats on airplanes. A First Class ticket costs more, of course, and the difference in prices is in the range of 25%-60%.
Generally there are no sleeping berths on G and D trains because these train services are design to transport passengers to their destinations duirng the date time. For example, G trains can cover the 1,300 kilometers between Beijing and Shanghai in less than 6 hours; D trains can do so in a little over 8 hours. It takes slower trains 20-odd hours to cover the same distance.
There are sleeping berths on T, Z, and K trains, and sometimes on other slow trains too. There are two classes of sleeping berths, Hard Sleeping Berth (ying wo) and Soft Sleeping Berth (ruan wo). Hard sleeping berths are like bunker beds, except narrower, with three levels – top, middle, and bottom. The space is generally open with no doors or screens. Soft sleeping berths are found in self-enclosed compartments, with four berths in one unit, two-leveled. When one travels long distance, especially overnight, sleeping berths will make the trip so much more comfortable or at least tolerable.
On slower trains there are also differences between Hard Seat (ying zuo) and Soft Seat (ruan zuo). The former may be bench like seats with thin cushions whereas the latter are more like soft chairs.
Children under 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) do not need tickets to board trains. They have to be accompanied by adults. Minors between the heights of 1.2 m and 1.5 m (4 ft 11 inch) get half-priced tickets. Children who are above 1.5 m need to purchase adult tickets. Chinese students with proper id's can get train tickets at discounted prices, but this rule does not apply to foreign students.
Buying Train Tickets
You can, of course, purchase your train tickets at a train station. In some cases you can just show up, buy your ticket, board your train and get going. In many cases, however, you may not be able to get a ticket to travel on the same day because tickets are often sold out. Ideally you secure your train tickets in advance so that you won't be delayed or stranded because you cannot get your train ticket. Generally, train tickets in China are sold about 14 days in advance.
In addition to purchase your ticket at a train station, you have the following options. There are ticketing branch offices that scatter around a city. If you know one nearby, you can purchase your ticket there. These ticketing offices are called Huoche Piao Daishouchu (Train Ticket Sales Office). When you buy a ticket at such a place, you pay a few Chinese dollars for the service (usually ¥5).
Travel agencies can also purchase your train tickets. Some hotels help their guests to secure their train tickets. Such services, however, have been made more complex by railway authorities requirement of personal identifications for the purchase of train tickets.
Train tickets can also be bought by telephone and on the web. The official phone number offered by railway authoritie is 12306, and there is a related web site, 12306.cn. Unfortunately, both the service and the official web site do not work very well are hard to navigate through, especially for foreigners traveling in China. The issue is further complicated by the fact, mentioned above, that one needs to use either Chinese national ID card or passport to purchase tickets, and it it tricky to process foreign passports through the system. If you somehow manage to make your purchase online or by phone, you’ll get a confirmation number, with which you can pick up your ticket later, from an automatic machine at your departing train station.
If you do not want to go through the hassle of trying to purchase a train ticket by yourself, you can assign the job to professional travel agents. You pay a small fee for the service, probably anywhere from $5 to $10. Some travel agencies now specialize in this service.
In addition to purchasing tickets for train departures from the city you’re currently in, you can also buy tickets for train departures from other cities so that you can make you connections once you arrive in those other cities later on your journey. There are some restrictions on this kind of purchase, however. For example, they may only sell you tickets for trains that ORIGINATE from your connection city. In other words, in this situation, you may not be able to obtain tickets for a train that PASS THROUGH your connection city. Also, they may only sell you tickets for train departures that are within the same operational zones (China’s national railway system is divided into several major zones managed by regional bureaus – for example, Beijing Railway Bureau, Guangzhou Railway Bureau, etc.). You need to look into this sort of things if you want to purchase train tickets for departures in cities other than the one you’re currently.
Luggage for Train Travel
Each adult train traveler can carry luggage that is no more than 20 kg (44 lbs). Each minor, including those below the height of 1.2 m, can bring up to 10 kg (22 lbs). Foreign diplomats are allowed 35 kg (79.4 lbs). The sum of the height, length, and width of a carried-on item generally should not exceed 160 cm (63 in). If it is a rod-like item, the length limit is 200 cm (79 in) for slower trains and 130 cm (51 in) for G and D trains. Travelers who have brought excessive luggage on board may have to pay fees at the train station exit.
Wheelchairs for handicapped travelers are not subject to luggage rules.
Firearms, ammunition, explosives, fire-hazardous material, erosive chemicals, stinky food, etc., are not allowed on trains.
If a traveler has more luggage than he can take as carry-on, he can “ship” the extra. If he ships it express (kuai jian), the shipped item will go with his own train and arrive at the same time. If he ships it slow (man jian), his shipped item will be transported separately and he may have to make a trip to the railway station to claim it. Luggage that weighs up to 50 kg (110 lbs) can be shipped.
Boarding and Getting Off Trains
To enter the waiting space of a train station, you need to show your train ticket. Once inside, look for information display billboard which show which check-in entrance you should go to for your particular train.
A short time before the departure time of your train, check-in will begin. You need to show both of your ticket and your personal id (most likely your passport) to the service staff. Make sure you do not lose your passport in the hurry.
On your ticket there numbers of your carriage and your seat. Carriages are numbered at both of the front and rear end. Once you find your seat, you can place your luggage on the shelves that line the two sides of the carriage. If the space immediately above, you should probably place your stuff at a spot where you can see it easily. Pay attention especially when the train makes a stop and people are getting and off.
During the train ride, a conductor may come over and ask to see your ticket, sometimes your id too.
A few minutes before a stop, the station ahead will be broadcasted. If it is your stop, collect your luggage to go to an exit. Sometimes passengers can get off via both exits; sometimes they ask passengers to use just one exist, the front or the rear entrance/exit of a given carriage.
Once you’re off the train, follow the flow. When you get to the train station exit, you may be asked to show your ticket again. Some other times they’ll just wave you through.
Once you’re outside the train station, and there is no one to pick you up, your best bet is to go by taxi. It should be easy to see where people are lining up for cabs. Some cab drivers may jump their line and come up to you to urge you to go with them. Even though in most cases there should be no harm to go with these cab drivers (most of them just do not want to wait their turns to pick up customers), it would be the best for you get in a cab where you’re supposed to. There are some service people who assign passengers to taxis waiting in line, which provides a little extra security for someone who’s new in a city.