China operates more miles of dedicated high-speed rail lines than the rest of the world, combined. And while California dithers about its 500-mile project, hoping to complete it maybe by 2029, China will likely open another 5000 miles of high-speed track in the next five years.
Clearly, China has decided that high-speed rail is and will remain a key element of its transportation infrastructure. And although designed for the Chinese public, the system is surprisingly friendly to foreign visitors. I spent two weeks checking out some sample routes, and came away quite impressed. Foreigners who don’t speak or read Chinese just have to make some detailed preparations to take full advantage of the system.
Planning the Trip
The starting point of my trip, Shenzhen, was determined by the terrific airfare deal I found from Seattle. It was on Xiamen Airlines’ first U.S. route, and for a few weeks the line posted very low-priced introductory business-class fares that were “too good to ignore.” Shenzhen isn’t much of a destination itself, and although it’s very handy to Hong Kong, I wanted to explore parts of China I’d never seen before.
China’s three “blockbuster” destinations seem to be Beijing, Guilin and Shanghai. I had previously visited Beijing, so this trip I wanted to visit Shanghai, China’s business center and Guilin, with its spectacular scenery. To break the trip, I planned intermediate stops in Xiamen and Changsha.
If you like to start with a full-country rail map, probably the easiest to use is posted by China Highlights which you can enlarge to check details. As the map shows, the current system provides a dense network throughout the populated eastern half of the country.
My focus was strictly on high-speed service: the top “G” trains, operating at up to 300 kph (about 186 miles per hour), and the second-tier “D” trains operating up to 200 kph (about 125 mph). I did not check the slower overnight and conventional-rail regional services.
Both D and G trains resemble the Japanese Shinkansen. Second class (economy) seating is 2-3, with limited legroom; first class in China is about equivalent to “Green Car” in Japan with 2-2 seating and good legroom. Basic trainsets typically include one first class car and 5-6 second class cars. Many trains consist of two such sets hooked up together into one long unit. Unlike Europe’s TGV, Eurostar, AVE and ICE designs, all of the cars I encountered were outfitted with seat units that can be rotated 180 degrees, so that all seats on every train I rode faced forward. D and G trains are air-conditioned, and the ride is extremely smooth.
Folks in the business urge that you reserve and buy tickets online before you leave for China. That seemed like a good idea to start, as corroborated by crowded trains (every seat taken on most trips) and difficulty in finding Chinese ticket agents with adequate English capability. I chose to deal with China Highlights; other agencies including China DIY Travel provide similar services.
To start, log on and enter one or more origin/destination pairs and travel dates. The site quickly returns a list of schedules, along with fares. For some reason, although the roadbed seemed to be built for true high-speed use, only D trains were are available from Shenzhen to Xiamen. Current fares for the 3½ hour trip are $27 or $28 in first class, $23 in second. At those prices, first class is a no-brainer. From Xaimen to Shanghai, I had a choice of a first class seat on a dozen or so D trains at $62, with eight hours travel time, or a first class seat on the only daily G train for $107, with 6:45 hours travel time and a departure at the inconvenient hour of 7:53 a.m. Seating on D and G trains seemed identical, so if you have a choice, you decide whether the time saving on a G train is worth the price differential.
Many G trains, including the one I took from Shanghai to Changsha, also offer a few very large “business class” seats in a separate compartment, immediately behind the driver’s compartment. Fares are roughly double first class.
Once you select the trains you want, you enter your name and passport number. You also get a choice of two delivery option: direct to a hotel in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan or “collect at the railway station.” You can also select a seat preference, with the admonition that you may have to accept other seats if the ones you want are not available. Given high load factors, the agency also asks what you want if your first choice of train is not available: higher/lower seat class on the same train, or the same class on other similar trains. Posted fare prices include seat reservations.
When you’ve completed the entries, you provide credit card or PayPal information. China Highlights first responds confirming your purchase requests. But the agency may take a week or more actually to buy the tickets and confirm the seats. When the arrangements are final, you receive another email you can print out for to use when you receive the tickets.
Because I was reserving well in advance, I chose the “collect” option, which turned out to be surprisingly easy. China Highlights sends emails with full particulars in both English and Chinese, including a booking number for each trip. You can collect tickets for your entire trip at the station where you start your first train trip. Show the emails and your passport to any agent in the station’s ticket office and the agent issues the tickets. No language translations required. Each ticket shows the train number, departure time, car number and seat number, which are pretty easy to identify.
Chinese railways operate more than a dozen daily high-speed trains on popular routes, and along with regional services that amount of traffic requires huge stations. Many high-speed stations were built specifically for high-speed routes and are a long way out of the center of the city they nominally serve. And I mean a long way—up to a 30-minute taxi ride or, at some, comparable metro runs.
The basic design idea of the new stations I used is vertical separation of departing and arriving travelers. In the most common approach, you enter the station on ground level, go through an extremely cursory security line, and head upstairs to an immense departure lounge. The lounge provides adequate seating plus lots of fast-food, snack and merchandise kiosks.
Departures are easy to navigate: The whole process depends on 3- or 4-digit train numbers. Large signs post upcoming departures, by train number, time and destination (in Chinese). At some stations, departure information also cycles occasionally in English. An hour or so before departure, the sign displays the track number and the location within the departure lounge of the departure gate for each train. Once through the gate, you head down an escalator (or elevator) to the platform, where your train is waiting. Find your car, get on, find your seat, and sit back for your trip.
On arrival, in most stations I visited, you go down from the platform level to an arrivals level. In a few places, the arrivals level may also be above the platforms, but below the departure area. Once outside the station, you find public transit options—including a local metro station in most big cities—as well as a long but fast-moving taxi queue. You also find yourself accosted by a handful of unofficial drivers offering to take you downtown for about double the metered taxi fare.
One of my unexpected surprises in China was the very low taxi fares. A 15-mile station-to-hotel trip cost less than $10; no tip expected. Obviously, you need a printed address in Chinese for your hotel or other destination that you can show the driver. China Highlights also provides downloadable “I want to go to the railroad station” cards in Chinese that you use when you head for another city.
Chinese metros I’ve used, in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, are all easy to navigate. Maps and station displays show station stops in both Chinese and English, and recorded next-station announcements on the trains are also in both languages. Trains in these cities are also air-conditioned.
The main hurdles I faced were due to crowding, including some stations with long lines at ticket vending machines. To avoid problems, I recommend buying an all-day (or longer) visitor card.
Coping with public transport in areas with no metro, meaning buses only, can be difficult. The bus rapid transit system in Xiamen had no information or announcements in English and was therefore not user-friendly for foreign visitors; it may be no coincidence that Xiamen is now building a conventional rail metro. Absent a metro, stick with the inexpensive taxis.
In Shanghai, even though I arrived and left by rail, I went out to the international airport to check out the Maglev system. This is a transport technology that relies on magnetic force to lift the vehicle above a guideway where it supposedly “rides on air” and can reach up to 500 kph (more than 300 mph). The Shanghai system, from airport to a terminal close to, but not in, the city center, is the longest and fastest operating Maglev in the world. My take: I was not impressed. Its top speed of 300 kph is no better than high-speed rail and I found the ride bumpier than on the train. Also, at least on this demonstrator system, seating in the vehicle’s cabin is more crowded than seating on the high-speed train.
The Japanese are building a Maglev from Tokyo to Osaka, and it will likely perform much better than the Shanghai airport system. Let’s wait and see how well it really does.
— Ed Perkins, editor
For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel