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China's Railway System

Chinese trains 101


Ryan McFarland

Want to get from point A to point B in China? The fastest and cheapest way is often to take the train! China’s railway system is one of the most extensive in the world, with over 65,000 miles of track. During the heaviest travel periods, China’s train system carries hundreds of millions of people in every direction across the vast geography of the mainland, and it does so at remarkably low rates.

Types of trains and seating

When taking a train in China, there are many options. Many of the most popular routes offer high-speed rail tickets in addition to tickets for regular trains (the high-speed trains cost more). There are also express and local trains along many routes.

Seating options vary depending on which train you choose, but here are some of the most common options, from least to most expensive:

  • Standing: This ticket entitles you to board a train, but not to a specific seat. These tickets are not common these days but in the past were a popular budget option.

  • “Hard seat”: This ticket entitles you to sit in cars with hard benches and a high passenger density. It’s not a comfortable way to travel if you’re going long distances, but the affordability of these tickets continues to make them popular.

  • “Soft seat”: This ticket entitles you to a seat in cars with soft, coach-bus-style seating and a lower passenger density.

  • “Hard sleeper”: This ticket entitles you to a thinly-padded bed in a sleeper car with a relatively high passenger density. Beds are usually stacked three to a side in ‘pods’ of six beds, with little in the way of privacy amongst the six people sleeping in the same ‘pod’.

  • “Soft sleeper”: This ticket entitles you to a softer bed in a sleeper call where bunks are grouped into private rooms with four bunks to a room. These tickets can be difficult to come by; since they’re the most expensive they’re not in huge demand, and many trains have few or no soft sleeper cars.

Buying a ticket

The process of buying a train ticket in China has changed dramatically over the past few years. Previously, to get a ticket you had to go to a travel agent or stand in line yourself at a train station. This led to gargantuan lines and wait times, especially around Spring Festival when millions of Chinese people are trying to take the rail system home for the holiday.

Two years ago, however, China’s Railway Ministry unveiled a new system that allowed people to purchase tickets by phone or via a website. The move was initially controversial, as the website and phone service were quite buggy and many people complained that buying tickets had actually become less convenient as a result. However, in the intervening years, some of the kinks have been worked out, and buying a train ticket is now an easier proposition.

During that same time, though, China has imposed tighter restrictions on purchases. Tickets must be purchased using a Chinese State ID or a passport number, and the person taking the train must have the same ID number as the purchaser, making it difficult to purchase tickets for other people.

High-speed rail

China’s high speed rail network is relatively new, having first been introduced in 2007, but it has already expanded to more than 5,000 miles of track, and that number is growing fast. China’s fastest trains are capable at operating of speeds of up to 350km/h, although the operating speed of many high speed lines was slowed following a deadly high speed rail accident in the summer of 2011.

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