Monday, July 16, 2012

How to Research Chinese Train Timetables in English

By my count, there are three main ways people get around China: airplane, bus, and train. You could of course rent a car, hitchhike, walk, or bike, but I suspect most people stick to those three primary options. Of these choices, my favorite by far is the train. Here are my arguments to support this opinion:

  • Trains usually offer five different types of tickets (standing room only, hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper). This variety is nice. Planes might have first class and economy, but no beds. Buses come in two varieties--seats and beds--but you're basically stuck with whichever is available on the route you want to take.
  • Trains are far cheaper than airplanes (most of the time anyway--ask around because sometimes they have insane sales on inter-city plane trips). Trains also tend to be cheaper than buses, assuming you get the hard seat tickets.
  • Trains have bathrooms on board. Buses stop every couple hours, but in between those stops you are on your own.
  • You can get up and stretch your legs on a train. If your trip is more than a couple of hours, this is a nice luxury.
For these reasons (and more), train is my preferred method of travel in China. This is not to say there aren't times where it makes sense to take a bus or a plane, usually due to constraints of time or the absence of a train station in your desired destination. 

So now that I've convinced you that you should be travelling by train, you might be asking yourself how one knows which train to take. Back in January I did a lot of searching around for English timetables with limited success, until I discovered China Travel Guide's wiki-powered train searching function. Friend, this was a lifesaver. If you enter your desired travel route into the search boxes, it will come up with the trains servicing that route, including departure times, arrival times, and cost of tickets. Let's say, for example, that you want to go from Hangzhou to Shanghai. Your search results will give you 131 different potential trains to take.

Notice a couple of things here. First, it shows you the price of hard seats and soft seats, top, middle, and bottom bunks on hard sleepers (the top bunks are always cheapest because they are considered less desirable), and top and bottom soft sleepers. This is very useful for trip planning purposes. Second, note that the train numbers and station names are active links. A click on the train number will tell you where else that train stops along the way. Click on the station name to see all of the trains that stop at that station (661 apparently come through Shanghai South every single day!).

One other nice feature of the site is this handy railway map of China. It's not 100% complete, but it does show most of the big cities and how they are connected by the major rail lines.

Map courtesy of

You can see why this website very quickly became one of my most utilized resources in China. Recall that I was travelling basically every other day to more than 50 cities, so a website that let me research train travel with this amount of detail was invaluable. I would routinely decide my plan for three or four cities in advance, and it was a huge help to be able to decide which trains I wanted before I arrived at the station to buy them.

Some of you may be asking about how trustworthy this site is. In my experience, the accuracy is pretty close to dead-on. Here and there a train would be 5 or 10 RMB more than I expected, so be prepared for that. Only twice did I ever have noticeably faulty information from the site. First, the prices to and from Haikou were a good deal more expensive than this site said they would be. I think this is probably because the prices are calculated with an equation that uses the distance traveled and the type of train (fast, slow, old, etc.). The trip to Haikou includes a short ferry ride across the South China Sea, and my unverified suspicion is that they charge a bit extra because of the ferry portion of the trip and that wasn't accounted for by the normal equation. The other time this website failed me was when I was trying to go from Erlian to Datong. The search function shows a single train, K2. What it doesn't show (and what I didn't find out until I was already freezing cold in Inner Mongolia) is that the K2 train is an international train from Ulaanbaatar that only runs once a week or so, and I didn't happen to be there that day. Those were the only two times the site didn't give me accurate information, which is a fairly good track record.

In brief, I wholeheartedly, 100% encourage you to use the China Travel Guide to plan your train travel in China. It is an excellent resource.


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