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Seeing China by Train with Children
 
 
 
Seeing China by Train with Children

Beijing Train Station

Photo by Alfredo De Simone

Trains are the primary mode of transportation in China. They go just about everywhere and most trains depart daily. They are safe, comfortable and reliable. They are an economical means of travel and eco-friendly way to tour China. Taking the train is often more affordable than flying and, in addition to taking up less day time, overnight trains save the cost of a hotel. Trains are greener than buses and cars and high-speed electric trains emit less carbon dioxide than airplanes. What's more, trains are an interesting way to go from city to city, when not pushed for time, as train travel provides a chance to watch the landscape and get to know fellow travelers. The one catch? The market for train tickets is a bit of a racket.

Here are the basics on train travel in China.

Route Maps & Journey Planners
A variety of websites offer online information about train travel in China, including route maps and printable train schedules, and several online booking agents offer interactive timetables in English. In addition to departure and arrival times, online journey planners also show the train number and ticket price for online purchases. Looking for a printable train schedule? Duncan Peattie's Chinese railway timetable is an excellent choice. It's available in English, updated several times a year, and easily downloaded. Of note, Chinese train schedules are subject to change without notice and as yet official railway websites are monolingual, i.e. Chinese only.

Types of Trains in China
China has a fairly straightforward hierarchy of trains. They are classified by speed, service, and number of stops and identified by a capital letter and/or a series of numbers, for example D15, K265, and 1172.

G Trains (High-Speed Electric Multiple Units or Gaotie in Chinese)
China's premier train. It's currently the most comfortable, most expensive and fastest long distance train in the Chinese rail network. G trains travel at a top speed of 350 km/h and are the quickest way to travel between Shanghai and Beijing. They have air conditioned carriages and Western-style toilets, as well as a dinning car. All travelers must show a valid identity card (passport for foreign travelers) to purchase tickets and board the train.

C Trains (Intercity Electric Multiple Units or Chengji Lie Che in Chinese)
C trains link nearby cities rather than distant locations but are just as quick and comfortable the Gaotie. They travel at a top speed of 350 km/h and boast air conditioned carriages and Western-style toilets. All travelers must show a valid identity card (passport for foreign travelers) to purchase tickets and board the train.

D Trains (Electric Multiple Units or Dongche in Chinese)
Also called Hexiehao, meaning Harmony in Chinese, these bullet trains were until recently the fastest trains in China. D trains travel at a top speed of 250 km/h and are both modern and comfortable. They have air conditioned carriages and Western-style toilets, as well as a dinning car. Overnight trains have top quality sleepers. All travelers must show a valid identity card (passport for foreign travelers) to purchase tickets and board the train.

Z Trains (Direct Express or Zhida in Chinese)
While not all Z trains are direct they are faster and make fewer stops than T and K trains, as well as those identified by a four-digit number. These top quality overnight sleepers travel at a top speed of 160 km/h and, in general, connect provincial capitals. They have air conditioned carriages and Western-style toilets, as well as a dinning car. Popular Z train routes include Beijing to Xian.

T Trains (Express or Tekuai in Chinese)
T trains are comfortable and have air conditioning yet are slower, more crowded and less modern than high speed and direct trains. These overnight sleepers travel at a top speed of 142 km/h. The have a restaurant car but don't always have Western-style toilets.

K Trains (Fast Train or Kuaiche in Chinese)
K trains travel at a top speed of 122 km/h and are slower and make more stops than all but numbered trains. The have sleeper cars and a dinner but don't always have air conditioning or Western-style toilets.

Trains with a four-digit number and no letter prefix are known as locals. They are the slowest trains in China and stop at every station en route. While significantly cheaper than other types if trains, they often lack heat and air conditioning and have Chinese toilets only.

Classes of Service
Chinese trains have seven classes of service - hard seats, soft seats, first class, second class, hard sleeper, soft sleeper, and deluxe sleepers - but not all trains have all classes.

Hard Seat
While hard seats are typically padded they are the least comfortable class of service. Not only are hard seat carriages noisier and more crowded than soft seat compartments, they tend to be dirtier than other sections of the train. That said, they are the cheapest way to travel by train. Hard seats are available on Z, T, K and numbered trains.

Soft Seat
Soft seats may be slightly more expensive than hard seats but the seats are more comfortable and the compartments are cleaner, quieter and less crowded. This class of service is available on Z, T, K and numbered trains only.

Second Class
Sometimes translated as economy, these seats are similar to second class on European high-speed trains and economy class on airplanes. This class of service is available on G, C, and D trains only.

First Class
Sometimes translated as business, these seats are similar to first class on European high-speed trains and business class on airplanes. This class of service is available on G, C, and D trains only.

Hard Sleeper
Hard sleepers are the equivalent of couchettes. These open carriages have six sleepers - two upper, two middle and two lower - and can be quite noisy. Each compartment has a small space for baggage. Some have individual TV screens and power sockets for laptops and mobile phones. Pit toilets and a common washroom are located at the end of the sleeping car. Bedding is provided.

Soft Sleeper
Soft sleepers have four berths per compartment, two upper and two lower, which convert to sofas for daytime use. Each compartment has a secure door that locks and small space for baggage. Some soft sleepers have individual TV screens and power sockets for laptops and mobile phones. Toilets and a common washroom are located at both ends of the sleeping car and typically include Western-style and pit toilets. Bedding is provided.

Deluxe Soft Sleeper
Deluxe soft sleepers are la crème de la crème of Chinese wagon-lits. These sleeping cars have just two berths per compartment - one upper and one lower - and also boast a private Western-style toilet and separate sitting area. Each compartment has a secure door that locks and small space for baggage. Some deluxe soft sleepers have individual TV screens and power sockets for laptops and mobile phones. Bedding is provided. That said, they often cost more than flying and the added comfort really only makes a difference on trips over 15 hours, i.e. both day and night journeys. Deluxe soft sleepers are available on select long distance trains only and are hard to book.

Fares
The price of a train ticket depends on the type of train and class of service. In addition, upper sleepers are cheaper than lower bunks. Children under 120 cm tall travel free. A reduced fare is charged for kids between 120 and 150 cm in height.

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