Why a train journey in China is an experience by itself
This article has first been published on our AES blog in July 2020 and is an extracted chapter from a travel blog post about a train journey along China's ancient Silk Road. To read more exciting articles on various Asia-related topics, please click here.
The author Mathias Horsch is a TUM graduate student and the current Chairman of the Asian-European Society Munich e.V.. In the article, he outlines some key facts about China's 30,000 km-long high-speed railway network which was built in just 12 years. In case of any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out to him via LinkedIn or email.
First of all, I love trains...
...so please forgive me for my excessive elaboration and feel free to move on to the next chapter in case you do not feel as passionate as myself about trains. Although I’ve always liked trains back in Europe, my real appreciation for train journeys has started in the course of my first exchange semester in Thailand. Boarding old “colonial-style” trains in Myanmar, India, and Vietnam, I started to enjoy the bumpy but romantic experience of exploring a new country by train. Later, in the summer of 2019 before I moved to Shanghai, I then travelled with my brother through Japan and fell in love with the country’s world-famous and incredibly efficient Shinkansen bullet trains. Confident that I had already reached the peak of my train enthusiasm, I thought no country’s railway network would ever make me speechless again – until I came to China.
Me posing in front of Japanese bullet train (Kyoto, August 2019)
To start with, some hard facts...
To start with, a few hard facts about China’s high-speed railway network (I promise, I’ll try keep it short!). Just within 12 years, China has built a high-speed railway network that exceeds 30,000 km in total lengths, accounting for about two-thirds of the world's high-speed rail tracks in commercial service. However, not only the total length and the speed of up to 350 km/h is stunning but also train journeys in China are convenient, affordable, and always on time (At this point, an angry shout-out to @DeutscheBahn).
Within 10 years, China build a world-class high-speed railway network of more than 32,000 km
The overall experience is very similar to the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan and you can even order food via QR code from the lounge car or get external food via app delivered straight to your seat. Yes, you’ve heard correctly: Delivery folks will bring your food to the train at the next station and the train attendants will then serve it at your seat - check out famous German vlogger Thomas “Afu阿福” Derksen demonstrating it here. I remember one time during a train journey in China, a 10-year-old spoiled brat next to me started to annoy the entire train compartments. Spontaneously, his mum decided to order a huge portion of Kentucky Fried Chicken to his seat in order to put her son into an induced food coma – the other passengers & I felt really grateful.
Back to the topic: The Wi-Fi signal is even in tunnels and remote areas strong enough to stream videos on YouTube (Well, at least if your VPN is working well :P). There are three different classes (business, first, and second class) and although second class cabins have 5 seats per row (versus 4 seats per row in Europe), there is plenty of space for your legs due to broader train compartments.
Business, first, and second class in Chinese bullet trains (from left to right – obviously :P)
And how much does it cost?
The ticket prices are constant, independently of current demand and your booking date. Whereas prices for high-speed trains at China’s densely populated East Coast are comparable to local flight tickets and not particularly cheap (e.g. Shanghai – Beijing, 2nd class 1,318 km / 4 h 28 min for around 75 € one-way), train tickets are getting cheaper the further you go to rural Western China (Jiayuguan – Urumqi, 2nd class 1,184 km / 6 h 18 min for around 40 € one-way). Lastly, it is mentionable that besides the high-speed railway system, there are another 100,000 km rail network for conventional trains which are available at very low cost for China’s 250m+ rural migrants workers (Another really interesting topic for another day, get a short introduction to China’s Hukou system here). I can also really recommend you to watch this 12-minute long, very informative video explaining the underlying economics and why China is so good at building railways. Click here to watch (btw I love this channel!).
Enough talk about trains...
...let’s move on to China’s train stations before drawing a brief conclusion. Regarding the train stations, you basically just need to know three things:
First, the size – imagine a large airport terminal at let’s say Frankfurt Airport and then imagine that all of China’s Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 cities (>100 cities, read here about China’s Tier city system) have at least one but in most cases two to three train stations of the size of a regular European airport terminal.
Departure hall of Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station – there are two more floors below the hall.
Second, the degree of standardization – most of the train stations will look exactly the same. Given that all of them are built within the last decade, they just look the same. And this also applies to most of China’s infrastructure (Road, tunnels, bridges) as well as large parts of residential skyscrapers. However, it is mentionable that with rising wealth, government authorities are focusing more and more on building pretty-to-watch, less generic infrastructure and buildings.
Third, the frequency of arriving and departing trains. Whereas in Western China certain routes are only maybe 10 times a day (comparable to the high-demand routes in Germany), some of the busiest routes on China’s East Coast are served literally every 10-15 minutes. For instance, there are more than 100 daily high-speed train connection between Shanghai and Hangzhou. The same applies to Shanghai - Suzhou and Shanghai - Nanjing. Even to Beijing there are 36 connection a day (Each train having 16 (!) long compartments). All those astonishing numbers led to a total number of passenger trips served by China’s railways of 3.57 billion in 2019.
The frequency gives you a good idea of what it means to live in a country of 1.4b people.
...so what is the bottom line?
This was quite a lot of information. So let’s draw a brief conclusion. First, during writing this chapter, I realized that I should have written an own article about China’s high-speed trains (what I - as you can see - then finally did :P). Second, the Chinese bullet trains (and - to be fair with my Japanese friends - the Japanese Shinkansen network) wins in every aspect against the Deutsche Bahn except interior design (Again, shout-out to Deutsche Bahn: Although your service often drives me mad, I really like ICE’s wooden interior design.). That being said, I hope you will have to chance to experience this epic train experience by yourself once the travel ban is lifted! Boarding a Chinese high-speed train (and again to be fair most cool trains in Asia), the journey to your destination becomes already an adventure by itself :-)
You also have a passion for train journey in Asia? You have feedback on my blog post, or you want to suggest another topic we should cover at AES? Or you just want to connect and have a fun chat about anything Asia-related (or any other topic)? Reach out to me anytime and say ‘hi’ via LinkedIn.