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Old May 22, 11, 3:49 am
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jiejie
Ambassador, China
 
Join Date: Oct 2007
Location: Beijing
Programs: TG, OZ, UA, AA
Posts: 6,622
Intercity Travel--Domestic Trains

General

Train travel is the workhorse of Chinese intercity transport, possibly carrying more humans on more trips per year than anywhere on the planet. There are two broad categories of trains:
1) Standard rail running on standard tracks, which still comprises the vast majority of the system throughout the country and which carries the lions’ share of passenger traffic; and
2) High-Speed Rail (HSR) which has uses a different set of tracks and trains, and is expanding remarkably quickly. When planning a trip to China, check for the latest status on what is operating, and what is likely to be added by the time of your trip. When available as a journey option, HSR trains can offer a number of advantages over flights, and make logistical sense for many travelers. These trains have a different price structure from the standard rail trains.

The system is safe—despite the highly-publicized July 23, 2011 HSR track accident near Wenzhou, the Chinese have an overall good record of safety. The system is efficient, generally punctual, and cleaner than one might expect. Although there is a lot of grumbling among local Chinese at the price of the HSR train tickets, for most Chinese, the rail system is cost-effective. All this means two things for the foreign traveler:
1) About 80-90% of the places you want to go will be accessible by intercity train, or one can get you darn close.
2) You will be in competition for train tickets, especially for sleepers and especially on the less-expensive non-HSR trains.

First, let us preface the train ticket discussion by an unfortunate truth: there is no good way for the non-resident traveler to purchase at-cost Chinese train tickets in advance while still out of country. There are web sites that claim this ability, but all they do is take the order and then have a staffer order online or head to the ticket windows when tickets go on sale. Usually, these agents put a hefty surcharge onto the official ticket price. Since early 2012, there has been a direct online sales method for train tickets from the official website www.12306.cn, but the website is only in Chinese and registration/purchase is extremely difficult for the non-resident foreign visitor with no local Chinese bank card, making it a non-starter for most. This system has improved over time but periodically does undergo technical growing pains from time to time.

There is another unfortunate truth that the best master reference sources for schedules, prices, and official availability of all Chinese trains are all in Chinese language only. If you can read Chinese even a little or are willing to work a bit with a little Google translate or dictionary program on the side, the following is an excellent official resource (use Chinese sites in Internet Explorer for best functionality):

http://www.12306.cn/mormhweb/kyfw/
Other readers of Chinese swear by www.tielu.org

Two of the better English-language tools that are kept fairly up-to-date on schedules (though prices on cnvol are occasionally slightly off of the official) are:
www.cnvol.com
http://www.chinatrainguide.com/
www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/

The first and second are lookup tools for schedule and pricing. The third has a very user-friendly lookup tool, shows real-time availability for train departures inside the 20-day sales period, and is also an agent that can book some tickets (Note that we have no experience actually using the booking function but the easy-to-use schedule lookup of train options is pretty current with accurate base ticket prices).

Know Your Chinese Trains

Chinese trains are either letter + number, or number only, with the letter designation telling you what sort of train it is. Currently the following are in service:
HSR-High-speed Train: C, D, G (C and G are the fastest “bullet” trains, D trains are high speed but technically not “bullet”)
Standard Train, Express: Z
Standard Train, Limited Stop: T
Standard Train: K
Standard Train-Pokey Slow Milk Run: no-letter/number only
Standard Train-Special: Y, S (short distance tourist trains), L (temporary trains)

Most foreign travelers will likely be using the CDG trains or the Z/T trains—the latter particularly for overnight routes. Some more exotic routes, or when availability is scarce, may need to invoke the K trains which are slower and more variable in quality--many of them will have older versions of carriages. But still an acceptable choice when Z or T options are not available or sold out on a route. Numbered trains are used when you need to go to an off-the-beaten path station not served by anything else, but be forewarned that besides being very slow, some of these number-only trains running more localized routes are non-air conditioned and carry hard-seat class only.

Sleeping, Sitting, or Standing?

Chinese trains have different options, but not every train carries every option. And the popular options sell out faster on a given train. Rundown from most posh to most humble:

Conventional Trains (Z, T, K, Y, S, L, numbered)--

• Deluxe Soft Sleeper—only carried by some long-distance trains, 2 people per cabin with private lav/toilet, as expensive as flying if not more so. Some foreigners want to try this out. Usually about 85% higher than regular soft sleeper.
• Soft Sleeper—nearly all long-distance trains will have one or more of these cars. Four people per cabin (2 lower/2 upper bunks). Cabin has a door for privacy. Most foreigners tend to like soft sleeper compared to hard, but the premium is usually about 55% more than hard sleeper on a given train. Some of the soft sleeper cars have individual televisions, though no airplane-like IFE.
• Hard Sleeper—the bulk of China’s sleeper stock and the most popular choice for long distance due to pricing. The berth is padded, and not literally “hard” but it is narrower than a soft sleeper berth; 6 people per open “barracks-like” cabin (2 lower/2 middle/2 upper bunks). No door and no privacy, but some people prefer it to soft.
• Soft Seat—sort of like airline domestic first class seats, usually 2-aisle-2. Not carried on a lot of trains anymore, generally only selected T and K.
• Hard Seat—these days mostly upholstered and not literally “hard”, but seating for the masses 3-aisle-2. Can be very crowded but is very cheap. Not recommended for more than 3 hour journeys unless desperate.
• Standing—Sold on conventional trains on a regular basis, after hard seat is sold out. Number of standing tickets sold will be limited, and standees have to hang out or sit on their luggage in the interstitial spaces between the hard seat carriages (near the smokers and the toilets). Except at peak travel periods such as Chinese New Year, nobody really wants to travel this way. Usually the same price as a hard seat ticket.

HSR Trains (C, D, G)--

• Soft Sleeper—C and G trains are currently not carrying sleepers, which due to speed of service are generally not required. D trains will carry these, though on daytime routes or routes that aren't too long, sometimes the upper berths will not be sold and the lower berths will be sold as multiple seat tickets. In sleeper configuration, four people per cabin (2 lower/2 upper bunks) and with a door for privacy. These carriages are nicer and newer than the conventional train soft sleepers. For a given distance the difference in ticket price for a soft sleeper berth on an HSR train is well over double the price of a soft sleeper berth on a conventional train, the tradeoff being time saved.
• Hard Sleeper--HSR trains do not carry hard sleeper carriages.
• Business Class Seat (may also be translated into English as VIP seat)--Very expensive way to travel, sometimes as much or more than flying first class. Seating is 2-aisle-1, with powered reclining seats, cup holders, etc. Available on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train route, cost of RMB 1750 or 87% more than First Class Seat. Also available on the Beijing - Xi'an and Beijing-Guangzhou high speed routes. Don't get fooled by the name; unlike airline seats, this class is more luxurious and expensive than HSR "First Class."
• First Class Seat—2-aisle-2. Newer and a bit nicer than old-style Soft Seat. Price premium is about 60-70% over Second Class Seat, yet these are popular seats and sometimes sell out before Second Class. Where D and G trains ply the same routes, the faster G train FC seat ticket will cost about 45% more than the same on the D.
• Second Class Seat—3-aisle-3 or 3-aisle-2 depending on carriage model. Same idea as economy class on an airline but with more leg room. Where D and G trains ply the same routes, the faster G train SC seat ticket will cost about 35% more than the same on the D. Second Class tickets on D trains can be one of the most cost effective ways to travel medium distances with reasonable speed.
• Standing—Not all HSR trains make standing tickets available, and those that do will have them priced same as second class seat. For a short journey (hour or so), standing would be feasible on an HSR train, if needing to travel on a service where seats are sold out. The area between the cars near the large luggage closets is surviveable.

You can get some idea of what the interiors look like on Seat61.com and there are plenty of other internet resources out there. Note that there are some comments on Seat61 (and other non-China based websites) that have not been updated for current realities, so cross-check information whenever you can.

For journeys of 4-5 hours or less, a seat is fine. In some cases such as CDG trains on daytime runs, it may be your only choice. For journeys of 8-9 hours or more, a sleeper is the way to go and especially if the journey is overnight. For middle distances of 5-8 hours, it’s a judgment call depending on time of day (or night), your comfort level desired, and availability.

Train Dining

Conventional trains, except for short-distance tourist trains, will carry dining cars with full working kitchens able to offer fresh-cooked meals. Some of these dishes can be quite acceptable in quality; try to avoid the made-up "sets" in favor of a la carte ordering. If one is unfortunate enough to be stuck in hard-seat class, sometimes whiling part of the hours away in the dining car nursing food and beers can help take away some of the pain! On overnight trains, dining cars will close up after certain hours so find out when you board so you can make your plans. Pricing is not expensive.

HSR trains, however, do not carry dining cars with proper kitchens, therefore are unable to load fresh ingredients and cook proper meals in restaurant style. Dining options on these trains are more akin to snack bars with prepackaged food and drink. They do carry microwaveable packaged dinners that can be purchased and heated, but these are widely panned as nearly-inedible. Again, pricing is not expensive though a bit more than the supermarket.

On nearly all trains, periodically a staff member with a rolling cart will come through selling a limited selection of bottled drinks, snacks, etc. so you can purchase from your seat. On overnight trains, the vendor carts will normally not run in the late night and wee hours.

Regardless of train type, it's standard practice among the Chinese to bring along one's own favorite snacks and drinks, purchased at a supermarket or small shop before boarding the train. Type and amount depends on person and length/timing of journey. Around all train stations and inside major ones, there will be shops to get simple provisions. All Chinese trains have water boilers at the end of every other carriage or so, where one can self-dispense safely drinkable hot water to reconstitute dried pot noodles, make tea or instant coffee, etc. At most Chinese train stations, the platforms themselves will not have much vendoring (or poor selection), so expecting to alight and quickly grab something before jumping back on the train may not be fruitful. Also not normally seen at Chinese train stations: India-style vendors with baskets of goodies coming up to the windows so you can buy something through the window.

Purchasing Tickets

If you have planned rail journeys based on timetables of unknown vintage, especially if more than a month old, it pays to re-check periodically (or when you arrive in China) to make sure schedules have not been adjusted. In particular, check the week before or week of travel to corroborate or finalize travel times.

Online and telephone sales currently begin 20 days in advance of departure. For in-person sales at train stations and satellite ticket offices, the purchase period usually begins 18 days before departure. This advance period includes the departure day, so as example for a train leaving the 24th of a month, online sales begin on the 5th and window sales on the 7th. During holiday or other busy periods, the government sometimes narrows the window to fewer days. Sleepers on popular routes sell out quickly especially on the T and Z trains since they optimize speed with lower pricing compared to the bullet trains. It is quite common for complete sell out of sleepers at the official outlets, within a few hours of the first day of the sales window. Where bullet train alternatives exist, they usually are less likely to sell out quickly due to higher availability and higher price. Sometimes during busy holiday periods, you may be told at a rail station that they won't sell until 5 or 10 days before departure, yet go to a remote ticket office elsewhere in the same city and they'll have no problem selling to you at the full 18 days in advance. And vice-versa. So if getting that ticket is critical, try at least two locations before giving up and believing the tale that "they're not on sale yet."

In the last year or two, as high-speed rail services have come on line, standard services on those routes have been curtailed or eliminated. For these routes, this often produces a choice of two train travel extremes: (a) daytime trip on high-speed rail, faster but more expensive, and usually tickets are easier to procure closer to travel time; (b) overnight service on standard rail, slower and cheaper, saves a hotel night, and much more difficult to procure due to limited supply/high demand conditions. Note that this is the general situation in those parts of eastern China where HSR services exist—other parts of the country without HSR service don’t have this dichotomy, but then the standard rail tickets that do exist are likely to still be difficult to procure on short notice, particularly for sleepers. There used to be an unofficial underground of shadow agents and scalpers that could procure hard-to-get sleeper tickets at last minute (for an elevated price), but as of 2012 due to the institution of Real-Name ID for all ticket purchases on all trains, the scalper underground network has been disrupted. It is unclear whether this illegal, unfair, but sometimes useful shadow system can now be considered permanently defunct.

The Chinese system now generally allows you to purchase tickets in any city, for routes anywhere in the system even if not originating in the city of purchase. Usually this can be done not only at the rail station ticket offices, but also in most of the satellite offices scattered throughout the city. However, in some smaller cities, there may be a policy that tickets for other city pairs must be purchased at the rail station ticket windows only and not the remote offices. For this service, there is a nominal RMB 5 booking surcharge per ticket.

There is no truly “hop-on, hop-off” inclusive ticket for segmented journeys; you will need to buy point-to-point tickets, although as per the previous paragraph, it is now possible to purchase the various segments in advance if the travel dates fall within the active sales period. There are no Chinese rail passes for foreign travelers similar to Eurailpass.

Train tickets cannot yet be purchased through official outlets with a foreign credit card though a Chinese bank-issued credit or debit card is possible. Bring cash RMB if you don't have the latter.

Around most train stations, you may encounter “huang niu” (ticket scalpers) who offer tickets for a higher-than-official price. We do not recommend that a foreigner deal with these people directly, as sometimes the tickets they offer are counterfeit or have been tampered with. The 2012 implementation of Real Name ID requirements for all train ticket purchases appears to have put these scalpers out of business--or forced them into the counterfeiting mode completely. If you are desperate, hotel and hostel staff, and some local travel agents, may have some ideas for sourcing genuine last-minute tickets, or can tell you about other transportation options.

Purchase Yourself

There is now an official online purchasing system for tickets but at present, it is very difficult for non-resident foreigners to use. It requires ability to read Chinese (or have a friend standing by who can), preregistration on the official site http://www.12306.cn/mormhweb/kyfw/, and a Chinese bank card. Legitimate sales are only through this official site and the purchasing part of the website is active only from 07:00 to 23:00 local time. Although availability lookups can be done 24/7. The sales period for most trains begins 20 days in advance of departure. Ticket bookings are given a confirmation number, and stations have a designated location/window for pickups of electronically booked tickets can be made, upon presentation of ID and confirmation number. Telephone bookings can be done in the same manner (Chinese language only at present) but have the same limitations.

More viable though more trouble for foreigners are the ticket windows at a Chinese railway station—usually the ticketing office is off to the side and accessed from a separate entrance to the main station building. Chinese train ticket windows are legendary for doubling as tryout venues for the National Queue-Jumping Team, so you must be aggressive to hold your place in whatever passes for a queue. If you are not a decent Chinese speaker, in advance of your visit, have someone write down your destination, train number (1st through 5th choices!) and sleeper/seat type you prefer. Some major cities have a window designated with an English-speaking staff member, look for one if possible. Window advance sales begin 18 days ahead of departure.

Some stations also have automated ticketing machines for HSR trains, but unfortunately due to the Real Name ID policy, cannot be used by foreigners at present since the machines only recognize Chinese IDs during the purchasing process. Hopefully at some point in the future, they will program some machines with passport scanning ability so that foreigners can use these and avoid the staffed ticket window queues. But we're not there yet.

A more civilized experience than the station windows are the satellite/ remote ticket offices (some call them “kiosks”). Every city has these scattered all over the city, and generally they are open from 08:00 to 20:00. Often there will be no queue, or only 1-2 people ahead of you. And no pushing or crowding. Do not expect English to be spoken, but non-Chinese speakers armed with information written down in Chinese can usually manage alright. There will be an RMB 5 fee per ticket levied for using the remote ticket office outlets—well worth it. Your hotel or hostel should be able to direct you to the nearest and most convenient one. www.cnvol.com has city outlet locations for a number of major cities, with addresses and phone, but it's not always 100% complete and some cities aren't yet listed. Again, advance purchase at the satellite offices begins 18 days prior to departure.

Unless you can pass for Chinese, an attempt to purchase a ticket for any train to Lhasa, Tibet will likely be refused unless you can show a Tibet Travel Permit (refer to Visa section of FAQ). At any rate, as most train tickets into Lhasa are completely snapped up by various agents, the chances of getting one of these as an individual is extremely slim, except perhaps in winter, and quoted prices are sometimes much higher than official ticket price. Tickets for the Beijing-Erlian (Mongolian border) train, even the domestic route only, may ONLY be purchased at Beijing Main Station and then from a specific ticket window...this window changes around so you have to persist until you find the current window assignment. Usually you will need your passport to purchase a ticket on this train, even though it is a standard train and even if you are not crossing the border.


Purchase from Abroad

If your itinerary depends on getting a sleeper ticket for a specific date, and a fallback to hard seat or taking an alternative mode (bus or flight) is not an option in case of a sleeper sell-out, then you must try to get those tickets in advance, and it will cost you extra. Your options are:

--Have your hotel or hostel procure for you. Not all of them will do this any more, and those that will, will want upfront payment + a surcharge which is generally around RMB 50 per ticket, maybe more on something really long distance and hard to get.

--Use an online travel agent that will get for you, for a surcharge/commission. Different agents have different markup policies, so shop around and take note of their responsiveness to inquiries, payment terms, etc. Many agents will refuse to get tickets for travel during Chinese New Year and other holiday periods. Use of an online travel agent or taking your chances with self-purchase and availability once you get to China depends on when you are traveling, how flexible your overall schedule is, and what Plan B options exist in case your preferred train options are sold out. In some cases, paying an agent is worth peace of mind. While we don't really have a favorite agent to recommend, one fairly new service that has been getting universally good reviews for train ticket purchase is http://www.china-diy-travel.com/ due to their responsiveness and lower commission (AUD 10 currently). They do differ from most other agents in that they do not deliver tickets but give you a confirmation number and you do your own ticket pickup of the prepaid tickets at rail station or satellite office once you get to China. http://www.ctrip.com now also offers a train ticket service, but at this point is limited primarily to high speed trains on the Beijing-Shanghai corridor, and delivery of tickets is currently only in Shanghai and other cities in this region. They will probably expand offerings in the future.

--If you are already committed to using a local travel agent for a city or area tour (car/driver, sightseeing, etc), then it should be feasible to piggy-back the request for outbound train tickets from that city to the same agent, as part of their overall service package to you. This would likely be cheaper than using an online agent only for train ticket purchase.

--For those with an office or colleagues/friends in China, offer a nice gift for them to get your tickets! On some occasions, resident FT'ers have been known to offer to purchase for fellow FT'ers if they will be around in your departure city during the sales time window applicable for your tickets.

Identification Required for Ticket Purchase

The entire Chinese train system has now changed over to require real-ID purchasing. Your passport number will be imprinted on the ticket during the purchase. This includes both HSR and Conventional trains. Foreigners will need to show their passports in order to purchase. From a compilation of reports, it appears that many locations will also accept a photocopy of one's passport photo page instead of the original, but we cannot guarantee this will always be accepted. Likewise, just giving the passport number without even a photocopy sometimes works (particularly at the remote satellite offices), but no guarantees here, either. Most foolproof way is to have the original passport with you. One purchaser may take passports for a small party of travelers and buy the tickets; normally the rest of the party does not have to show up during the purchase session.

It seems that very short distance Y/S tourist trains are exempted-no ID required. For instance, the Beijing-Badaling Great Wall train.

Identification Required for the Journey

There are three key places that you may be required to produce your identification along with your ticket. Have your passport handy for the following situations, which are used in varying combinations depending on location and station policy:
1) To gain entrance into the station. Most stations have a queue outside the main entrance to the station, where a gatekeeper official will check your ticket and your ID for a match, before allowing you to proceed to the WTMD/xray machine.
2) On the platform just before entering a carriage. Sporadic occurrences, but may be increasing in frequency. The carriage attendant that normally checks for a ticket assignment to that carriage may ask for an ID also.
3) On the train once in seat or berth. It is actually typical for staff to check for tickets, and in the case of sleepers, to temporarily exchange your ticket for a berth card (switched back before journey end). It has been very rare (so far) to be asked for any ID once ensconced in one's seat/sleeper.

Disembarking

Always keep your ticket stub in a safe place, as at some train stations, there is an exit checkpoint where an attendant may want to doublecheck. Do not consider the journey complete and the stub tossable, until you are on the other side of any checkpoint. Since Real Name ID was begun on all trains in 2012, ticketing check at exits has become less common.

Related Links:
Buying train tickets on day of travel
SNAFU: ID Required for Train Ticket Purchase
The Jinghu (BJ-SH) HSR Thread (Beijing-Shanghai high speed rail route)
Train tickets (Shanghai ->Wuxi) and another similar thread
Shanghai - Nanjing High-Speed Trains Timetable
Shanghai to Hefei. Options?
High speed train from Shanghai to Shenzhen?
Sleeper train from Beijing to Xi'an?
BJ to Tanggu 10/7 - tickets for train (Beijing-Tianjin-Tanggu Port bullet train info)
Beijing CBD to Tianjin TEDA: take the train?

Last edited by jiejie; Sep 2, 13 at 11:50 am Reason: updated information
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