In fact, taking into consideration you need to be at the airport an hour or so earlier than your flight sometimes trains can be faster than planes.
Fast trains are common in China and I’ve been on trains doing 280km/hrs.
The Chinese have made the process easy but due the language barrier and the number of people in the stations it can be confusing.
I’ve tried below to outline the process and point out a few things which can and have tripped me up!
There are several different classes on long distance trains.
Business class is the most expensive a 3 hour journey might be around £100. However, these are extremely comfortable and give you loads of room.
Then you have First Class. The seats are big usually in pairs and you have more leg room then you will need. This should cost around £25.
After this is Second Class. Normally three, sometimes two, seats in a row. This is still very comfortable but there are a lot more people. These tickets are incredible good value for money. Normally a 3 hours journey will cost somewhere around £10.
It worth noting at this point, the below is specific to long distance trains. Many of the larger cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen have local trains as well. Also “local trains” doesn’t mean the subway. That’s different again.
Booking Your Tickets
As a foreigner in China you will need your passport to book the train ticket and when you travel on the train. When I travel by train, I book my ticket online and arrive early to collect my ticket from the Ticket Office. Make sure you enter your details correctly when you book the ticket as these are printed onto the tickets and will be checked.
When you arrive at the station, the ticket office will be sign posted outside the station and is normally in a very large room with a bank of tellers and a long queue of people. When you finally arrive at the front don’t be surprised if someone pushes in front of you. This is commonplace and, in my opinion, not worth the hassle of getting annoyed at.
The teller will need to see your booking reference from the website (I show them the email from my phone) and your passport. One person can collect an entire groups ticket but you will need everyone’s passport.
The Train Station
Even small provincial cities have what we would consider to be large stations. There is likely to be more than one station named North (北 or Běi), South (南 or Nán), East (东 or Dōng) and West (西 or Xī) depending on its location.
It’s important you are at the right station!
Once you have collected your tickets, you need to get into the station. Again queues are likely and your personal space will be infringed. However, once you get to the end of the queue the security guard will check your ticket and that the passport number and name matches your passport.
After this you will have to put all your bags onto an X-Ray machine and you will walk through a metal detector. This is done at pace! The security guard is likely to very briefly pass a security wand over you and possible pat you down. This is done quickly and without courtesy.
The larger train stations in China are like small villages. In the larger station they will have an entire floor for departures. The signs are likely to be in Chinese and English. Don’t be concerned if you travel up multiple escalators to get to this floor.
In the smaller station, you are likely to be in the departures area as soon as you get through security.
Once you’re in the departure hall, there will be large display with all the trains and times listed. Your ticket will have a code on the top. This will correlate to a train on the board.
Sometimes but not always they will say the platform your train is leaving from in the top right hand corner.
When you arrive at the gate, there will be sign above the ticket machines showing what trains leave from that platform. You need to check this, as your train may not be the next train from the platform. When its time for you to go through the ticket barrier your train details will turn green. Although in reality a massive queue has already formed.
How to find Your Coach
Once you’re on the platform there are signs on the floor of the platform telling you where the doors for each coach will stop.
A queue is likely to have formed at this points and as unbelievable as this sounds, the trains never seem to miss there mark by more than a couple of feet.
Sometimes the signs can be confusing as there are different colour signs for different trains but if you show your ticket to one of the train guards they will point you in the right direction.
Small luggage can be put in the overhead racks. Larger bags need to be stored behind the last seats in the coach.
Now it’s time to relax. The trains are air-conditioned and the seats are comfortable. They recline and don’t be afraid to put it back. There are also plugs socks and USB chargers. Most trains have a food and drink trolley so get your self some spicy chicken feet or beef sweets. Yum!