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Trains in China
Types of Trains in China
Expatriates will encounter a number of different trains in China, 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)
- D (Dongche): Bullet trains (top speed: 250 km/h) for fast and frequent intercity journeys (e.g. Shenzhen–Guangzhou)
- Z (Zhida): Direct Express (top speed: 160 km/h) for long distance journeys with few or no midway stops (typically overnight)
- T (Tekuai): Express Trains (top speed: 140 km/h) for journeys with stops at only major stations (typically overnight)
- 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
- 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.
- Second Class is still more comfortable than Hard Seats, but less so than First Class; available on D, C, and G trains.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In bigger cities, you may be able to find ticket offices with English-speaking staff, but do not count on this. 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.
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. Some of the latter do so based on online enquires, such as for example China Highlights. On this website, you can also find more information in regard to baggage allowance, transferring, boarding, alternative purchase options, and more.
CNVOL.com similarly provides more detailed information on trains in China, including info on major lines, timetables, as well as the locations of booking offices in a number of cities. Once you have selected a particular train, you can check what prices to expect and also get a reference of your travel details in Chinese to assist you with your on-site ticket purchase.
Things to Keep in Mind
When traveling by 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, 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) bring your own food and beverages, 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.
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