China gets a lot of things right. One of those things is their high-speed rail system, simply called the ‘Fast Train’. When I first took a Fast Train in China I expected to have to make my schedule around the train time.
After all, how many Fast Trains are there in China between Beijing and Jinan? A lot, that’s how many.
Here’s a video of our journey on one of the fast trains in China:
Jinan is a ‘small’ city of seven million people and is well off the tourist track (no pun intended). I had my assistant make the train reservation, so I did not see the schedule. When I arrived I was shocked to see the departure board listing Fast Trains leaving every five or so minutes to Beijing, and the same for Shanghai.
Fast Trains in China are not oddities coming and going once or twice a day, they are more like local buses coming and going every few minutes. They are comfortable, convenient, safe, and punctual.
Fast Trains in China are Everywhere
The fast trains in China consist of the world’s longest and most used high-speed train networks in the world. The Fast Train network has 27,000 km (17,000 mi) of rail and is expected to have 38,000 km (24,000 mi) in 2025.
Better to Choose a Fast Train in China or an Airplane?
Taking a fast train in China is similar to a narrow body airline, only with a lot more leg room and a lot less noise. The seats recline and have tray-tables, there are plugins for your devices, attendants offer food and drink from carts, etc.
The announcements, like when flying, are in English and Chinese. Bathrooms are similar to those on an airplane, Western and small.
If you are traveling between cities your first impulse may be to book a flight but check the fast trains in China first. A fast train will probably be longer travel time but less time overall given the lead times needed to fly and it will be less expensive. Fast trains are most competitive with air travel for trips less than 500 km (310 mi).
On the other hand, Fast Trains have become so popular that airlines have greatly reduced prices to compete.
Buying Your Ticket – Make Sure You Are Not Standing
You can buy your ticket at the station or online. I highly suggest you buy online and as far in advance as you can. Seats can sell out, especially on the holidays.
If you are traveling on a holiday make sure your ticket is not a ‘standing’ ticket! We use trip.com to book our tickets. It’s in English, the site is easy to navigate, and the fares are great.
Refund? No Problem
If for some reason you miss your train its easy to swap your ticket for the next open seat at the ticket counter. You can also easily refund your ticket for a minimal fee.
Once you have the reservation you will need to pick up a paper ticket at the station. And this brings us to the only real drawbacks to the fast train network: The automated ticket system and the lines.
Automation and Helpful Friendly People
If you have a Chinese ID card you can easily and quickly get your ticket from one of the ticket machines. As a foreigner, you have to show your passport to an official. The problem with this is it is often difficult to find a ticket window with a person behind it.
I’ve spent a lot of time going from room to room to find them lined with ticket machines and running to different buildings looking for a ticket window.
Once you find the ticket window, though, my tip is to choose the shortest line. You aren’t going to know what each line is for anyway, so you might as well start with the one that has the fewest people.
China is a very friendly place for foreigners, so either someone sees me searching and offers assistance or I ask a 20 something looking man or woman who is not busy. Most university age Chinese will speak enough English to help get you to the right place and they are genuinely happy to help.
Chinese Line Culture
The lines are another issue. There are lines to pick up your ticket, lines for security, lines at the departure gate, lines to get on the train. This is not surprising since 1.8 billion passengers use the fast trains annually!
I don’t love lines but they are just part of getting many people into a small space (traveling). What I hate is the line culture in China. The Chinese don’t queue up, they surge.
Like most of the world, except the United States, personal space is minimal. Bumping each other or a shouldering to get around you is just part of being in a crowded space.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pushed and look angrily at a Chinese man or woman who lights up when they see me looking at them. It’s hard to be made when someone is giving you a genuine smile. You have to be aggressive in a line, it’s part of the culture.
How Fast do the Fast Trains in China Go?
Fast trains in China travel at a top speed of about 250–350 kmh (155–217 mph). If you get motion sickness, best not to look out the window as the light poles and other objects whip by. You can’t feel the motion at all, it’s a smooth ride.
The trains are meticulously on time. When the train stops, be prepared to exit quickly they allow only a few minutes for you to depart and the train is off again. Stops are announced with plenty of time to get your belongings and, as mentioned, the announcements are in English.