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Travelling by train in China

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Over the past 30 years China’s economy has grown at an average of 10 per cent. Although it has recently slowed to around six per cent, it is still an economic powerhouse with most of its 1.7 billion population benefiting from rising living standards. China’s railways show this to be the case and are also one of the drivers of this economic expansion.

Having only commissioned its first high-speed line in 2008, China now has a 17,000-mile high-speed rail network with a ridership of 1.5 billion each year.

China, old and new, is a fascinating country and well worth a visit, especially for anyone with an interest in railways and for whom a train journey is essential. Yet with huge numbers of people travelling on a rail network where little English is spoken, the idea of train travel might seem intimidating. However, with advance planning, Chinese trains need not be a problem for anyone familiar with rail travel.

One consequence of the country’s burgeoning middle class is a huge increase in internal tourism. For this reason, China does not need to cater for English-speaking tourists. Whilst this is generally not a problem in the main tourist cities where metro ticket machines have an English language option, in remote areas an English-speaking guide is almost essential for those who do not understand Chinese.

Although it is easy to find Chinese train times online to plan an itinerary, the Chinese Railways online booking system cannot easily be used by foreigners. Long-distance trains can be fully booked days in advance. Indeed, during national holidays, they are fully booked within hours of going on sale on the website, a month before departure. For these reasons, it is best to use an agency such as China DIY Travel to book tickets. When doing so it is essential to supply the correct passport information as this is used when tickets are collected.

To avoid repeated queueing, all booked tickets can be collected at the first station of departure. However, care must be taken not to lose them as they are not e-tickets. It is not possible to fully understand the tickets without a guide such as that provided by your booking agency, as key information, such as the class of ticket, is printed in Chinese.

Your author recently visited a railway museum and travelled on four trains whilst on holiday in China and hopes that his experience is of interest to readers.

Beijing Railway Museum

This museum opened in 2008 on the site of the former Zhengyangmen East railway station on the south east corner of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. This station closed in 1958 when a much larger station was opened 1.5 miles to the west. The museum is in a brand-new building and all that remains of the old station is its clock tower and its façade which originally faced north and was reconstructed to face west.

There is only one full sized locomotive, an 0-6-0 tank engine with the rest of the displays comprising models, maps, photographs, documents and displays about the development of railways in China, especially since 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established.

Beijing to Xining

The train to Xining departs from Beijing West station which opened in 1996 and is the second largest station in Asia, with 200,000 passengers each day. Although the station can become crowded, passenger flow is managed by having dedicated waiting areas for different groups of platforms,

The train has 100mph sleeping cars and starts its 22-hour, 1212 mile journey at 16:03. There are two types of sleeping car, a four-berth ‘soft’ sleeper in a closed compartment and ‘hard’ sleepers, which are open-plan bunks in bays of 6 that have little space for luggage.

The first stop on this journey was Shijiazhuang, a city that few Europeans have heard of, yet its 11 million population is comparable with London.

The train has a restaurant car, though no menu in English or, as is quite common in China, photographs of individual dishes. One way around this problem is to point at something that someone else is eating with a gesture to indicate ‘I’ll have what he’s having’.

After dawn the following day, the train follows the Yellow River Valley for a while where a new high-speed line, mainly built on viaducts, can be seen.

At 14:16 the train arrives at Xining, a small city of two million, 7,200ft above sea level. The city’s mosque is a result of a culture dating from the old Silk Road. Xining is also the start of the 1,200-mile long railway line to Lhasa in Tibet, which opened in 2006. This line is the world’s highest and climbs to 16,640ft. All trains using this line carry doctors and have an oxygen supply for each passenger.

Inside a four-berth soft sleeper.
Inside a four-berth soft sleeper.

Xining to Zhangye

The 1,110-mile high-speed line between China’s far north western city of Urumqi and Lanzhou opened in 2014 and is designed for 160mph operation.

As part of the line’s construction, Xining station was rebuilt to accommodate both high-speed and conventional trains. The station has an arrivals hall below the platforms and a departure floor above them.

A journey from Xining to Zhangye covers 184 miles of this new high-speed route, and with one stop, takes 1 hour 55 minutes. North of Xining the line tunnels through the Qilian mountains after which at its highest point of 12,657ft (Oxygen masks not required) is the world’s highest high-speed line.

The train is a 140mph CRHG, a non-tilting Chinese derivative of Alstom’s Pendolino train which entered service in 2017. These are shown in the timetables as D trains. These are those that do not exceed 140mph and have first and second-class seats, which are respectively 2 + 2 and 2 + 3 seating across the car width. Seating is almost all in airline configuration facing forward as seats are turned to face direction of travel at the end of the journey.

Yichang to Wuhan

Yichang is the downstream cruise terminal for three gorges cruise. This is a three-day, 380-mile cruise from China’s largest city Chongqing (population 30 million) along the Yangtze River to the Three Gorges Dam. When the dam was completed in 2006 and when the reservoir behind it was filled, it raised the river level behind it by around 300ft. Although around 1.2 million people were displaced by the dam, it prevents downstream floods and contains one of the world’s largest green power stations with an installed capacity of 22,500 MW.

The cruise passes through seven cities which have all been rebuilt above the new river level. Despite the raised river level, the gorges are still spectacular.

The high-speed train between Yichang to Wuhan is a D train. The distance between the two cities is 183 miles which, with four stops, takes two hours and 45 minutes. Although this is comparable with journey times on UK mainline routes, the Chinese high-speed network provides a dedicated route offering a reliable service with a significant increase in capacity.

One of the things that helps keep trains on time is that dwell times are kept to a minimum as clear signage directs passengers to the coach numbers printed on their ticket, even for those who cannot speak Chinese. This includes marking on platforms which is only possible because of standard coach lengths and door positions. As trains can be up to 16 coaches long this is a great help for passengers with luggage, who also benefit from level, virtually gap-free train access made possible by new lines and standard trains.

A class CRHG high-speed train at Xining station.
A class CRHG high-speed train at Xining station.

Wuhan to Shanghai

To serve Wuhan’s population of 10.6 million, a new station for its high-speed services was opened in 2009. This has 20 through platforms. As at Xining, arriving and departing passengers are kept separate. At the time of your writer’s trip, this huge station was packed. Yet there was little congestion with dedicated waiting areas for specific platforms and arriving and departing passengers being on separate levels.

Whilst looking at the tracks at the end of the station platforms from the departure floor above, your writer noted something odd, and after a while realised that this was the lack of signals as all high-speed trains have cab signalling.

The train from Wuhan to Shanghai was a class CRH380BL, which is a Siemens Velaro derivative that has a maximum speed of 220mph. With six stops, this 511-mile journey took four hours with a maximum speed of 190mph.

This was a G class train that can travel at up to 220mph and have fewer stops than D class trains. They also offer a business class which has 2+1 seating with airline business class pod seating that can be made into a bed.

At one stage, Caledonian Sleeper was considering the use of such seats for their new sleeper trains but this was ruled out as the impact from a crash might drive passengers’ heads into the seats and break their necks. This is not an issue with Chinese trains as, with seats always facing the direction of travel, in such situations the passenger’s feet would first contact the seat.

Wuhan station.
Wuhan station.

With its huge population, it is not surprising that China does things on a huge scale. In ancient times this was evident from the large Forbidden City in Beijing and the thousands of miles of the Great Wall of China. Today the expansion of China’s cities is all too evident.

China’s railways are part of this expansion and show what railways can be like when money is apparently no object. The result is fast, reliable high-speed trains with in-cab signalling and step-free access from busy stations designed to accommodate large passenger flows.

In Britain, new trains, infrastructure and station enhancements are providing some of these benefits. However, UK passengers will only experience what China offers when the new purpose-built route provided by the HS2 network opens in 2026.

This article was written by David Shirres

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