I just took the newly opened high-speed train (gaotie / 高铁) line between Shenzhen and Xiamen. And I have been riding other lines regularly, around Guangzhou and around Shanghai/Ningbo.
Wikipedia provides solid information about the gaotie network. But I thought I should write about my experiences.
- For trips of 100-600 km, this type of transportation is ideal. It is much better than flying. For example, the Shanghai-Hefei plane line had to close since the trip only takes 1 hour by train.
- No need to go to an airport well in advance: you arrive at the station and board the train 10-15 min before departure.
- There are virtually no delays. Compare that to the 50% chance of being 2 or more hours late when taking a plane.
- It is possible to focus on one’s laptop for the length of the trip. There is more space between seats than in planes. And, if you are lucky, everybody will be sleeping around you.
- The fare is very reasonable. For example, I paid 150 rmb to get from Shenzhen to Xiamen in 2nd class. The bus takes more than twice as long and is more expensive…
- The main stations are huge. Beijing has clearly planned — and built — for the future.
- The toilets of the stations are kept clean. The objective is to offer a level of cleanliness and comfort that has nothing to envy to other countries.
- In 1 or 2 years, a new train station will open in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon, and will connect to the Chinese high-speed network.
- Some low-cost manufacturing areas, such as Changsha or Hefei, are now only 1 hour away from first-tier cities (Guangzhou and Shanghai, respectively).
- For long trips, planes are still a better option. Going from Shenzhen to Shanghai takes more than 10 hours by train…
- These new train lines are built far from city centers. Consequently the stations are often far from downtown areas — sometimes 45 min, without access to good public transportation.
- Make sure to buy tickets in advance. The queue is often pretty long — waiting for 40 min is not unusual at all.
- Do not buy the ticket online if you are not a Chinese national! You won’t be able to use the automatic machines in train stations, since you don’t have a Chinese ID card. You will need to queue up with all the people who want to buy a ticket…
- I advise to buy tickets with one of the many resellers that have a small shop in nearly every neighborhood in China. This is often the best option.
- Always buy your return ticket in advance. For example, if you arrive at the Guangzhou South station at 6pm and you want a train to Shenzhen, you might find out that the next train with available seats is after 10pm.
- Don’t expect a good 3G/GPRS connection while in the train. As I wrote above, these new train lines are deep in the countryside. Even a phone conversation on your mobile phone might often get interrupted.
- If you are not lucky, you will end up a car with a TV and very loud sound. In this case, fewer people sleep, and discussions are loud (because of the TV sound). The content broadcast is very uninteresting. So bringing a pair of earplugs might be a good idea.
- Since the deadly accident of the Wenzhou-Hangzhou train, some people are concerned about safety. But I feel safer in high-speed trains than in Chinese planes — not to mention their taxis!
Overall, I really like the gaotie. I try to use it as much as possible, as a replacement to planes and taxis.
What are your experiences?
The Gaotie service is excellent. I took one from Zhengzhou to Beijing on my last trip to China. Being the train hub of China, the Zhengzhou station was massive but not overly crowded. I used to have to fight my way through a crowd to take an overnight train for the same trip, which I did on the Gaotie in maybe 4 hours or so. Taking a train in China used to be a harrowing experience, with people constantly talking loudly, smoking, spitting and throwing trash on the floor. Now the Gaotie attracts a more civilized, educated client base that know how to ride a train without impacting on other passengers. The experience was not quite as clean as the Japanese Shinkansen but it was close … So much so that for a moment I couldn’t believe this was a train in China. It’s great to see China has made such enormous progress in solving its transportation problems, although I think the level of public debt incurred means we still don’t know the final cost of this “Great Leap Forward.”
Renaud Anjoran says
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Callum!