Background Information on the Chinese Railway System

Background Information on the Chinese Railway System

There are more than 52,000 km of rail in China and it is estimated that 3.7 million Chinese and visitors use the country's railway system every day. This huge rail network covers every province but Tibet. In China, train tickets can generally be purchased at the China International Travel Service (CITS) desk in major tourist hotels. Larger cities also have advance-booking offices or a foreign desk at the train station. Depending on the distance traveled, tickets are valid from one to seven days: 250 km/2 days, 500 km/3 days, 1000 km/3 days, 2000 km/6 days. Purchasing a train ticket in China can be a fun but annoying effort. Foreign travelers should be advised to plan ahead or use the services of one of the CITS offices in main country capitals worldwide. Please reference the following figure (a)  for a map of China and figure (b) for contact information for CITS.

Map of China

CITS Contact Information

Tickets are sold for four different classes: hard-seat, hard-sleeper, soft-seat, and soft-sleeper; though not all of these are available for every train. The conditions in these classes will differ from train to train. All trains, cars, and berths are numbered and the ticket should show all of these numbers. Hard-seat is usually a padded upright seat in a coach-type car. This class of travel is the loudest and most crowded. Hard-seat is not recommended for foreigners; however, it may be acceptable for short day trips. Hard-sleeper is a sleeper carriage with doorless compartments. Bunks are arranged in tiers and the lower bunks are used as seats during the day. Soft-seat is normally found on shorter routes. This ticket offers a more traditional coach setting with reclining seats. Soft-sleeper offers four bunks in a modest closed compartment. This is the luxury class of the People's Railroad, offering clean washrooms, carpets, and many times, air conditioning. Soft-class cars are generally located in the center of the train near the chief assistant's (conductor's) office.

Dining cars are generally available on train journeys of longer length (12 hours or more). An attendant announces breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Train attendants will sometimes serve hot tea in the soft-class. The dining car is generally in the center of the train. At station stops you can sometimes buy food from sellers from your window. For longer trips it is worth bringing a few of your own supplies. The larger train stations will have soft-class and hard-class waiting rooms and smaller stations will have a designated waiting area. Signs are posted with the train number and destination telling passengers where to queue. Almost all of the stations will have left-luggage rooms.

Prices are based on the class of service and length of the journey. There are surcharges for express service. Tickets purchased through the CITS, for foreigners, are higher in price than those available to the People's Republic Chinese. However, purchasing these cheaper and technically illegal People's tickets in China can be quite an adventure and is recommended for the budget traveler with time to spend. A tourist-priced ticket for a hard-sleeper express from Beijing to Shanghai (1,462 km) is approximately 46 Yuan (5.75 or nearly $10.00).

Train numbers generally reveal something about the different train types:

● Numbers one to 90 are express and have all classes of service. There is a surcharge for the service and speed.
● Numbers 100 to 350 make more stops and have fewer sleeping berths. There is not much of a price difference between these and the special express.
● Numbers 400 to 500 are slower, older trains making several stops. There are limited classes and services available on these trains.
● Number 700 is the suburban route train.


rail network, railway system, railroad
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