Despite the short journey of of air travel, train is still the most popular means of transport to travel around China. It is comfy, punctual, modern, budget-friendly and extremely convenient. With the world’s longest rail network only second to America, China’s railway links almost every city and town across the country, including even remote locations. What’s more, a train ride allows you to enjoy charming and picturesque scenery outside the window, offering a completely different awe-inspiring experience that air travel cannot rival.
China’s high-speed (CHS) trains are capable of reaching 200-300km/h. Due to their fast speed, frequent departures, state-of-art amenities and varying seat class equivalent of aircraft, high-speed trains are rivaling air travel as the top choice of business travelers to get around China where available.
There are three kinds of them. G-Trains are the fastest with a maximum speed of 300 km/h. It only runs during the day and ticket price is the highest. D-Trains are the most popular type of high speed trains. It has a top speed of 250 km/h and stops at a few stations along the way. C-Trains refer to intercity high-speed trains, operating between two neighboring cities like Beijing - Tianjin and Guangzhou - Shenzhen. Journey time is very short, so it has no sleepers available.
Business Class Seatis the most luxurious seat type. There are three seats in a row, each come with spacious legroom (2 meters), TV screen, laptop power outlet and comfortable lie-flat leather chair so that passengers can fully unwind themselves during the journey.
Superior Class Seat is also called Sightseeing Seat because of its premier position behind the driver’s cab. Amenities are very much the same as that of Business Class Seat, but each carriage has only 8 seats, providing more privacy.
First Class Seat is also comfortable, featuring enough legroom, large seat size and reclining chair that can rotate 360 degrees. It has four seats in a row. Small table, pillow and electric power are all provided. It is an alternative of Business Class Seat if you are on a budget travel.
Second Class Seat is the most affordable seat on high speed trains. Though not as spacious as the above seats, it is still a good option for travellers compared with long journey hours and non-reclining seat of regular trains.
Soft Sleeper is only configured on long-distance overnight D-Trains, consisting of four bunk beds in an enclosed compartment. It is great for overnight on trains, but at a price.
Normal trains of China are identified by letter Z, T or K. With frequent stops, basic service and slower speeds than high speed trains, normal trains offer cheaper seating or sleeper options for budget travelers. Z-trains are often overnight express trains with few or non-intermediate stops. They are fairly modern and air-conditioned. T-Trains are the second best after Z-Trains, stopping at China’s major cities and large towns. K-Trains are the slowest with the most stops.
Seat Class on Normal Trains
From the cheapest to the most expensive, seat class on regular trains is divided into four categories, including hard seat, soft seat, soft sleeper, and deluxe soft sleeper.
Hard Seats features upholstered chair without armrest between each two. As passengers with standing tickets crowd long the aisle, the carriage is usually noisy. Soft Seat is more comfortable. Each row has four seats, with two at either side of the aisle. A soft seat carriage is also cleaner, quieter and more spacious.
Hard Sleeper is an economical choice for long-distance train travel. Each semi-open compartment contains six thinly padded bunks. While Soft Sleeper is designed for increased passenger comfort with soft bedding, wider berth and individual LCD screen. As there are four bunks on an enclosed compartment, passengers can enjoy quiet, private space.
Deluxe Soft Sleepers is only available on a few overnight trains. Each compartment has two beds, some with its own bathroom and shower cubicle.
Prerequisite: You need a valid ID certificate when purchasing a train ticket in China, like passport for foreign travellers or mainland travel permit for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan passengers.
Once your travel itinerary is set, there are a couple of ways to buy your ticket. Online booking at China Railway website (12306.cn) is the most convenient way. You can check ticket availability whenever and wherever possible, then choose suitable trains, departure date, seat class and forward the payment. While so far, the website hasn’t had an English version yet. Reservation via telephone (95105105) is available, but ticket needs to be collected at a train station within 24 hours. Also there is a Chinese system only. Or you can go to railway station to buy your ticket. Be aware there might be long queues and tickets may sell out in peak seasons.
First and foremost, try to avoid train travel during holidays if at all possible, including Chinese Spring Festival, National Holiday, Labor Day, Mid-autumn Festival, etc. During these periods, millions of Chinese travel back to their hometowns or take their vacations in popular tourist cities, and train is their top choice of transportation method. So it is rather difficult to get a ticket, especially for long-distance trips or popular routes departing from Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. Moreover, it would be an unpleasant experience to travel when rail stations and seat carriages are overcrowded with passengers.
If unavoidable, then book your ticket as early as possible. At present, most train tickets can be purchased 60 days before departure date on China Railway website or by telephone, and 58 days in advance at railway stations.