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Train Travel in China

China has one of the biggest and busiest rail networks in the world.   Chinese trains are a safe, comfortable & cheap way to travel around China, and a Chinese train journey is an experience in itself.  A number of Lotus Travel families take a train for a small portion of a heritage trip. Often, the adults book it for the sake of the children’s adventure and enjoyment.  Train travel can be an easy way to have a bit of glimpse into more typical life experience of typical Chinese citizens.

Types of Trains:

There are four different types of trains in China: multiple unit (MU), express, fast and slow trains.
Multiple unit trains are either diesel or electric and are newer and modern with air conditioning and nice facilities. MU train numbers typically begin with D (diesel) or E (electric), such as, D31 or E40.  MU trains are the best, traveling at high speed and are in excellent condition. Express trains begin with the letter “T”.  Fast trains begin with a “K”, such as, K888. Both express and fast trains have air conditioning and the service is typically good. Slow trains are much cheaper and most do not have air conditioning, are typically older and totally utilitarian to transport passengers and may not have good standards of cleanliness.
There are also four different classes of service within the train system.  Within MU trains, Fast and Express trains there are usually all classes of service: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, and hard seat. Short distance trains normally have just hard class seats. Long distance trains have soft & hard sleepers.

Soft Sleeper

Most Western travellers travel via soft sleeper.  It is comfortable, reasonable and a nice way to
travel. Soft sleepers are comfortable 4-berth compartments with two upper & two lower berths by night, which convert to two sofas for daytime use.  All necessary bedding is provided.  There's typically a small table with a thermos of hot water for making tea cups of soup, etc. Most long-distance trains have one soft sleeper car that houses 9 soft sleeper compartments with 4-berths in each.  There is a small area for luggage storage within the compartment. Typically there are Western style and pit toilet washrooms located at both ends of the compartment. On some select routes there is a deluxe soft sleeper class, which some 2-berth compartments, but these are very few and hard to book.

Hard Sleeper

If you travel on a hard sleeper, you will find a compartment arranged in bays of 6 (upper, middle and lower) on one side of the aisle, with pairs of seats on the other side of the aisle for daytime use. A blanket and pillow is supplied, while the mattress is hard. Hard sleepers do not have privacy, and can be quite noisy.  Within a hard sleeper train car, there will be 66 beds with 11 open compartments.
Soft Seat
This type of class is quite popular and is available on some short-distance trains between major cities. These seats are typically comfortable, and the trip can be quite pleasant. It is equivalent to most train travel experiences in Europe that are for short distances.

Hard Seat

This is the most common and cheapest way to travel. Since the 1990s, "hard seat" on modern trains is not in fact, hard. Many hard seats are quite comfortable, but hard seat carriages are usually more crowded.  There are 110 seats in each train car and is the most common way to travel for the average Chinese citizen. Sometimes more tickets are sold than there are seats available.  So, people may sit on the floor or stand.  The seats on this compartment are not comfortable and not recommended for international tourists.


You take your bags with you onto the train and put them in the racks of the sleeper compartment.  At large stations, your bags may be x-rayed before you board.  While it is possible to check bags into a separate area of the train, it is not the best.  Consider this when you pack for the trip and plan to travel as light as possible. It is best to take small and handy luggage rather than large suitcases. Train stations generally have lots of stairs up and down as you board the train, so the fewer suitcases the better.  Waiting rooms can also be congested and it can be difficult to keep track of children and a lot of luggage, so the lighter you pack the better!    

Finding and Boarding the Train

As the same with air travel, it is important to arrive at the station plenty of time ahead of the scheduled departure of your train.  In major cities, such as Beijing there are security checkpoints, substantially similar to typical airport security.  There are separate categories of waiting rooms for soft sleeper vs. other categories of ticket, so it is important to locate the correct waiting room for your particular class of service.  In major cities, such as Beijing or Xian, the stations are quite large and busy and may be congested, be prepared for keeping together as a traveling party and allow time to negotiate the train station.  The most immediate departures are shown as “waiting”.  And, once a train is ready for boarding, which is typically about 30 minutes prior to departure, it will be shown as “checking in.”  This means you can move through the ticket control area and onto the platform.  Approximately 5 minutes before departure the barriers close and the train readies for an on-time departure.  It is important to keep your train ticket during the entire trip, as you must have your tickets exchanged on board during the trip.


The big issue while traveling by train in China is the bathroom on board. At each end of the train car, there is a toilet (usually one is western seat-style in soft sleeper car). As your train trip progresses, the toilet may get very dirty and smelly.  In some cases you have to hold your nose to step in. Usually the toilets at soft sleeper class fare better. Remember to bring your own toilet paper supplies since it is not available in the bathrooms.


Typically the train staff will have very little or no knowledge of English, except for a few international trains. It is a good idea to have a phrase book for use while traveling on a train. However, more Chinese people, particularly young people will speak English and many will love to the opportunity to talk with their foreign travel companions.
Smoking is not allowed in the sleeping-car compartments or corridors, or anywhere at all on board high-speed trains or the pressurized trains to Tibet. But smoking is allowed in the vestibules between carriages and in some restaurant cars on the Fast Train categories, such as the T & K long-distance trains.


There is typically a dining car next to a soft sleeper car on most trains. The food served is Chinese style and there may be a food cart moving along the aisle offering a variety of dried food. We usually recommend families bring on board food that is familiar and comfortable for them, as most of this dried food will be unfamiliar.  It is rare for domestic trains to have an English menu, so unless a family knows some basic Mandarin, it is hard to order without help. Usually non-stop trains like Beijing/Shanghai and Beijing/Xian between major tourist destinations may have some English menus and serve some simple Western food.

Unique Train Experiences

Train travel is the best option for Chinese national travelers as they move around the vast country.   In 2006, rail service expanded into Tibet, making travel there markedly more accessible.  A train from Beijing to Tibet requires a 2 night journey (covering 2332 miles).   The Tibet railway is the highest in the world, climbing from 9281 feet above sea level at Golmud to 11,945 feet at Lhasa.  Its highest point is in the Tanggular Pass, at 16,640 feet above sea level.  Because of lack of oxygen at those levels, oxygen is available to passengers through tubes and people with weak health are advised not to travel on this route.
There is also an ultra-modern, high speed “MAGLEV” (Magnetic levitation) train one can ride in Shanghai. It is the world’s first commercial Maglev line in the world and typically travels at speeds exceeding 400 mph. It is considered to be part of the Shanghai Metro systems and takes passengers to the Pudong Shanghai airport from outlying distance some 18 miles away at the in less than 8 minutes.
Regardless of where and how one travels on a train in China, it is clear that train transport in China is an essential to navigate the present and the future for this country of 1.3 billion people. 

Sources:  Lea Xu, Louie Yi ,China Train Trip, E-How, Wikipedia

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