The rail network forms the backbone of the Chinese transport system and serves most of cities. Visitors can explore much of China by train and many find it an efficient and inexpensive means of travel. The cost is around 25 percent less than comparable air services.
There is now a total of 57,900 km of railway track in China. This makes Chinese rail rank first in Asia. Double track railways cover 20,935 km, while electrified lines cover some 13,629 km. The railway traverses the whole country. Beijing is the hub of the north-south lines while the west-east line centre is at Zhengzhou.
Chinese trains differ from those in other countries as the seating is not separated into first and second class areas. In China, the accommodation on the trains is divided into four categories, namely, soft-sleeper, soft-seat, hard-sleeper and hard-seat.
Hard Seats: Contrary to what the name implies, the seats are upholstered. These are the less expensive seats. These seats tend to be crowded and are not always very clean.
Soft Seats: These seats cost rather more but are very comfortable, with plenty of leg room. The carriages are less crowded than the hard-seat carriages.
Hard Sleeper: The hard-sleeper carriage is made up of door-less compartments. Each one contains six beds in three tiers. Sheets, pillows and blankets are provided and it somewhat resembles a budget hotel. Comparing with the soft-sleeper, hard-sleeper is less comfortable and accordingly, the price is lower than that of the soft-sleeper. Competition for hard-sleepers has become keen in recent years, so if you get one, you are very lucky.
Soft-sleeper: The soft-sleeper carriages are divided into separate compartments and each compartment has two lower and two upper berths. Sheets and blankets are provided and are generally of good standard. Western style washrooms and toilets are located at both ends of the compartment. Soft sleeper costs twice as much as hard sleeper and almost the same price as flying. Therefore, soft sleeper tickets are more easily available.
There are washrooms on the trains. The toilets, irrespective of class, are not usually very hygienic and it is a good idea to bring your own toilet paper! Boiled water is available on trains and dining cars on long distance routes only.
Reservations should be made in advance, especially during the holidays and travel season. Tickets may be purchased directly from rail stations or booked a few days in advance from your travel agencies, hotels, or ticket office.