Frankly speaking, I think not many foreign people would interest in traveling by trains in Mainland China, but if you really want to do so, here are some tips about it.
You can know how “fast” the train is, supposed, by looking at the first letter of the Train Number. Let me introduce most of them from the slowest one to the fastest one (as well as priority):
Digits only: Normal Speed (普客) or Normal Fast (普快). Stop at most stations along the journey. Speed below 120km/h. You are not advised to take them because the conditions on the trains may not be satisfactory to you. Trust me or not.
“K” : Fast (快速). Stop at moderate towns and cities along the journey. Speed between 120km/h and 160km/h. May be a good choice if you are not in hurry as it would be quite cheap.
“T”: Express (特快). Stop at cities only. Speed at about 160km/h. This is what you may take in most cases.
“Z”: Direct Express (直特). Non-stop direct journey. Speed at about 160km/h. Quite luxurious and comfortable but only available between big cities.
“D” or “C”: High Speed EMU (動車組). Speed above 200km/h. Just like taking TGV, ICE or Shinkansen.
“A” or “L”: Temporary services. You are not advised to take them unless you are familiar with it (But not that possible right?).
There are 4 classes on the trains. Not all these classes are available on each train:
“YZ”: Hard Seat (硬座). The cheapest one, obviously. Available on most trains.
“RZ”: Soft Seat (软座). Sometimes available. Soft seat and hard seat car will not be available at the same time, which means that you have no choice between soft seat and hard seat in most cases.
“ZE”: Second Class. Only available on high speed EMUs.
“ZY”:First Class. Only available on high speed EMUs.
“YW”: Hard Sleeper (硬卧). Good choice for budget traveling. However, tickets are always difficult to buy because of excessive demand.
“RW”: Soft Sleeper (软卧). Good choice if you want a nice sleep. Sometimes there are also some luxurious sleeping rooms with shower room available. However, it may be more expensive than planes during some seasons.
“WR”: Slepper. Only available on high speed EMUs.
Payment: Cash only. RMB is the only currency accepted if you buy tickets at stations (although it should be a trouble to buy tickets there if you can’t speak Mandarin). Sometimes you can buy tickets at hotels, where they may (but please don’t expect) accept credit card payment. Additional charges of at least 5 RMB will be charged if you but tickets anywhere but not the departing station. Remember not to buy tickets from illegal hawkers in all cases to prevent you from buying fake or voided tickets. In urgent cases (but you should try your best to avoid such cases from happening), you may try to buy platform access tickets, then get into the train directly and ask the staff to let you pay for the journey. However, no NOT expect such method works everytime. Also, no dedicated seat will be assigned for you even if you have paid full price.
Useful vocabs: In most cases there will be no English written in signs but their Mandarin pronunciations instead. The most useful ones include:
Huo Che Zhan(火车站): Railway Stations
Di Tie Zhan(地铁站): Metro Stations
Xi Shou Jian(洗手间): Toilets (The most common one is W.C. in fact, but I saw “X.S.J.” somewhere)
Che Piao(车票): Tickets
Che Ci(车次): Train Number
Zhan Tai(站台): Platform
The most reliable timetable website could be found here. Unfortunately the web site is written in Simplified Chinese only so I would like to have a brief introduction about it.
There are 3 options to start a search. The first one is for searching trains between any 2 stations (站站查询). Enter the departure station in “出发站” and the arrival station in “到达站”. Only Simplified Chinese will be accepted as valid keyword. Well, you may find the name of the cities by Google translation.
The second one is for searching the departure and arrival times at different stations given the train number (车次查询), while the third one is for searching all the trains that depart or arrive at a station (车站所有车次查询). However, I dun think they will be very useful to foreigners.
- As there will be quite difficult to find someone who can speak good English in Mainland, especially when you are not in big cities. You are strongly advised to go with someone who can speak Mandarin.
- Do NOT take any inter-province trains during Jan and Feb, especially those to and from Guang Dong Province. You will be surprised on the scenes on trains and stations.
- Another overcrowded periods are the first week of May and October. Buying tickets for inter-province trains are also quite difficult.
- You are strongly advised to have several plans and alternative routes. Seat shortage may occur anytime and anywhere.
- Delaying may also occur anytime and anywhere. Having buffer time of about 1 to 4 hours (depend on journey time) is a must. Trains with higher priority often (but please don’t expect) have better punctuality.
In case you want to know something else not mentioned here, you are welcomed to ask me by posting comments.
(All the informations provided are for reference only.)