For those of us who have just arrived in China from the UK… (Note: Northern Ireland may use a different system from the rest of the UK.)
Important differences between National Rail in the UK and China Railways
▶ There is only one train operator in China — China Railways.
For fully-mainland trains, only China Railways operates rail services, although Hong Kong’s MTR operates a number out of the Hong Kong Hung Hom terminus, and a few international trains are operated by Russian and other operators. Hence your ticket will be valid on all trains, although often, you are booked onto a particular train service by train number.
▶ Advance tickets are not necessarily cheaper.
Whereas in the UK, you could get enormously vast mileages on a £6 Advance ticket than on a regular Anytime one, in China, this generally isn’t the case — except for a few, sometimes isolated even, cases where more expensive (First Class and better) seats or berths (usually Soft Sleeper or better) are intentionally made cheaper — provided you book earlier on a less busy train.
▶ You can’t break your journey unless travelling on a Transfer Ticket.
And these tickets are increasingly hard to get — and unavailable altogether for High Speed Rail. Exiting midway and thus breaking your journey on most trains will mean you forfeit onward travel on that ticket.
▶ Penalty fares carry (comparatively) less teeth.
This is not a suggestion you go ticketless in China for as long as you can! Due to the lower average income, penalty fares in China can be slightly less costly (although often will be more than £20 or the equivalent in Chinese Yuan Renminbi, especially if travelling by HSR). Getting a criminal record in China for fare evasion is less rare unless “accompanied” by physical violence. That being said, a member of the Chinese transport police will almost always be travelling on trains across the nation!
▶ There are no equivalents of Family or Two Together Railcards for China.
Groups are only “counted” if 20 or more people travel. Also, children pay different fares depending on height. Whilst the height can be ascertained via an identity document such as a passport, it is often more likely to be determined in stations, where a “child height” ruler is ubiquitously visible. The cut-off heights are 120 cm (3′ 11 ¼”) and 150 cm (4′ 11″) for free and discounted travel, respectively. (Free travel is generally only good if the child is accompanied by at least one paying adult.)
▶ E-tickets have not “fully” arrived in China.
Only PRC citizens of the mainland can use their ID cards as a form of an e-ticket, provided they have booked online. If you were expecting to use mobile ticketing (involving QR codes or otherwise), this does not appear to be possible at the moment. Save your Apple Watch to wow at the airport — not at the average Chinese train station.
▶ The Permit to Travel, PlusBus ticket, Rover, Ranger, or BritRail or InterRail pass are all fully alien to China.
There are no equivalents of these on the Chinese railway system.
- If you boarded a train from a wholly unstaffed station with no ticketing facilities, you are expected to inform a member of staff within 20 minutes after getting onboard. No handling fees or surcharges will apply when you buy your ticket onboard in these circumstances.
- An equivalent of a PlusBus ticket is not available in China right now — as pre-reorganisation (as in pre-2013), the railways were operated by a fully different branch of the Chinese government than city buses were. Even now, fully integrated, cross-modal transport tickets in China are still “just around the corner”.
- Rovers, Rangers, and the equivalent of BritRail or InterRail passes are not available in China. A likely reason is because China is carrying a huge amount of passengers on the rails already, so it needs time for the more “touristy” passes to be made available.
▶ Train doors are rarely operated by the passenger.
Pushing the Door Close button is almost unheard-of, even in Arctic conditions in the northeasternmost provinces over winter. In fact, doors that work only when riders press buttons are a rarity except for on some CRH trains (and then again, only some CRH trains). This can be a serious problem if you are in China for too long and especially, upon your return to Britain, if your local GB connection uses very old trains where the door control buttons don’t light up when ready — you will be expecting these doors to open automatically, as is always the case in China! Also, you will need to press less buttons in China if moving between carriages, as especially on HSR, these are fully connected with the passage unencumbered at nearly all times.
▶ There is no such thing as “selective door opening” in China.
In China, either a station is long enough for a full train, or it’s not. You will not be told to move to the first 7 or 8 carriages of a train because the next station has a short platform.
▶ A list of all stations served by trains is rarely given.
The sole exception is onboard, where you should see, especially on HSR trains, a list of stations served rolling marquee-style in every carriage. But the details as seen in many a GB station of all stations a service will call at is missing in China. Thankfully, you will need only your train ticket to get you from A to B, as you are booked onto a train which will stop at your station.
▶ The entire train will travel to the final destination.
There are obvious exceptions for mainland-to-Hong Kong services connecting Beijing and Shanghai to Hong Kong, where, due to immigration restrictions, some of the train will remain in Guangzhou (Canton), but 99% of all trains in China will continue for the entire stretch.
▶ Trains go by train numbers, not hours.
This can initially drive newcomers crazy — but the best thing about the train number coding system is that you need just one train number (most of the time) to refer to that particular train for the entire trip. This is like the UK post code system: it’s an (almost) unique identifier. At times, trains that change directions without involving a transit via Beijing will have two numbers, but that’s usually as confusing as it gets.
▶ Limited effort is given in describing public transport connections at railway stations.
Thankfully, this is slowly changing, but unlike for trains going into London, little mention is made of city metro connections at a station. Therefore it will be to your advantage to use sites like Tracking China to get info ahead of time.
▶ There are no yellow lines on top of doors for First Class.
Instead, you have to be seated in your designated carriage number, although if you paid First Class (or better), your ticket will indicate that for you.
▶ Upgrading on trains carries little, if any, penalties.
The worst that can happen is a handling fee — and none of these for ticketing (except refunds) cost more than ¥5 (around 50p) per ticket. Whilst you could go and grab a slumberette in Business Class on HSR and wait to be told to “pay up or go” (provided the seat is available), it is often much better to get the upgrade first, and only then head to the carriage with better accommodation.
▶ Some toilets will require you to squat.
Sorry — welcome to China! To play it safe, keep your belongings in a safe place and avoid, well, you know, letting them fall onto the track on older trains! Get a travel companion to keep your bags with them if possible. Hold onto the handle in some toilets.
▶ Food and drinks are available on nearly all trains.
Only long-distance trains in the UK have bistro or dining cars; in China, nearly all trains have them. Boiled water is available throughout trains and stations, and is in fact better for you (as the Chinese would like to think).
▶ No faregate will “eat” your ticket.
Ticket barriers in China are automatically programmed to return and invalidate your ticket — meaning that although the machine has electronically invalidated the ticket upon exit, you still get to keep yours, most likely as a souvenir (but also as evidence of travel for reimbursement purposes). This can bewilder someone from Britain who is used to having the ticket gates keep the ticket.
▶ Those coming in late: You will be “locked out” of your train earlier.
As a rule, ticket gates will automatically stop boarding passengers 5 minutes ahead of departure (in some cases, 3 minutes). This means that if you were used to the UK’s 30 second rule (or 2 minute rule if travelling on some TOCs — such as Virgin Trains), you need to come in much earlier in China.
▶ ID and security checks are for real.
In China, nearly all tickets are sold only against valid ID. (This can be to your benefit, though, if you lose your ticket and ask for a replacement.) Security checks (as in those you get when travelling by Eurostar) are commonplace at all Chinese train stations.
▶ You are assigned your own, designated train at all times.
It is almost impossible to get a ticket “good for any train”, except for maybe a few, busy commuter routes. Your ticket is, more often than not, good for a specific, designated train only. If you miss that train, you will either have to rebook, or at very busy times, be permitted on the next service — but without guaranteed seating. Especially if you’ve booked Business Class (best class of service), treat your train as a short-haul flight.
Important differences between city metros in the UK (especially the London Underground) and city metro systems in China
▶ Pay As You Go and Capping are unheard-of.
Think of all city transit cards as the Pre Pay solution under Mayor Livingstone. Capping is also unheard-of, but for major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, regular use may unlock reduced fares — sometimes for a certain period of time, at other times for the rest of the calendar month.
▶ You pay by the kilometre, not the zone.
China is metric, and its subway systems don’t use zonal systems (such as the ones in London). There are nothing even distantly similar to the pink route validators on the London Underground. You really do pay for the total distance used.
▶ Trains go by termini, not directions. Lines are numbers, and only some carry names.
This can be a slight issue if your train only runs for part of the whole line, although even these are rare. Shenzhen switched from names to numbers lately. In Beijing, most lines have a number, but some, especially suburban lines, have names. The airport lines are almost always named as such, and some operate in a different fare zone, separate from city lines.
▶ Day passes cannot be held by transit cards.
It’s not possible, for example, to get a Shanghai Public Transport Card and add both credit and a three-day travelcard on the same card.
▶ Contactless payment (and Apple Pay) will most likely not work.
So keep your phone and wrist off the reader (unless you have a local, supported solution from the official operators or an authorised partner).
▶ There are no standalone validators.
Ticket gates are always used — even on the most quiet of all stations. This can be a problem if you are in China for too long, then return to the UK!
▶ There is no such thing as “selective door opening” in China, and all doors are fully automatic.
As is the case with national railways, either all doors will open, or none will. There are also no buttons to press to open or close doors (this is in case you haven’t taken the Tube since the mid-to-late 1990s).
▶ Penalty fares are 100% — regardless of when you pay.
In London, the £80 penalty fare becomes £40 if paid within 21 days. In China, this is never the case. You are liable for the full penalty fare — regardless when you elect to pay.
▶ Regard security checks as “the norm”.
Try carrying as few items of baggage with you as possible.
▶ Most stations are barrier-free and accessible for wheelchair users.
Lifts should be available throughout the system, especially on newer lines. At older stations, a wheelchair lift or climber solution may be in use. But it’s always a good idea to request these services early, as not all stations operate on a 100% “turn up and go” basis (but an increasing number are).
▶ Most lines in China don’t have “fast” or “nonstop” services.
However, Beijing’s Line 6 and Shanghai’s Line 16 were built so that if they were to be put into place, the hardware would mean all is ready. So if you’re travelling on these two lines, it might make sense to double-check at peak hours in particular. Otherwise, just hop onboard any train.
▶ Platform edge doors are (nearly) everywhere.
And a number of these are full-height platform screen doors. This might be a bit of a shock for you upon your return to the UK — especially if you have to contend with the narrower Central line platforms at Bank!
▶ Very few lines have branches.
Guangzhou’s Line 3 is one of the more famous exceptions. Nearly all trains run the full distance, although some will run only around three-quarters of the full distance (like the Victoria line, alternating between Seven Sisters and Walthamstow Central, Line 1 in Beijing alternates at times between a full service and trains ending in Gucheng or Sihui). Late night trains might run only part of the full length of the line.
▶ City transit cards and railway prepay cards are generally separate.
For resident expats, there is the opportunity to get a China Railway ExpressPay card, which can be seen as a prepaid card solution for the national railway system. (On some lines, you will need to preselect your train first before boarding with your ExpressPay card in hand.) In nearly all cases, city transit cards are not valid on the national rail system. (Exception: Beijing Suburban Railway Line S2 trains only — good only with a Beijing Yikatong card.) The Chinese government is, however, working on a nationwide “one-card-fits-all” transport ticketing solution.
Lines and equivalents
You might regard this as (semi-)pointless, since London and major Chinese cities sometimes operate in vastly different dimensions and directions, but here’s a rough look at the “similarities” in both countries…
▶ Central line
- Beijing: Lines 1 or 6. Both run through the city centre out into the suburbs. The only difference is Line 1 has to make you change to the Batong Line at Sihui or Sihui East for the continuation further east, whereas Line 6 is designed to do a full sprint from west to east. However, Line 1 does go through the heart of the city via Tian’anmen, where Line 6 is just one main avenue further away to the north.
- Shanghai: Line 2. This is the city’s main west-east axis, although the airport connections at both ends could have one thinking it was the city’s equivalent of the Piccadilly line as well. Line 2 goes from both air and rail hubs through Zhongshan Park, Jing’an Temple, Nanjing West and East Roads, People’s Square, Lujiazui, Century Avenue, and Longyang Road.
▶ Metropolitan line
- Beijing: Line 15. Mirrored (as the suburban part is in the east, not the west) when compared to London’s Met line, Line 15 links the universities and Olympic Green with the far northeastern suburbs of Shunyi — even going further north than the airport. Its northeasternmost terminus is Fengbo, virtually unknown to all but the locals by the nearby Chaobai River.
- Shanghai: Line 11. The northern half of this line looks eerily similar to the London variant — except for the Uxbrige and Chesham links, it’s basically much the same, with a branch to Anting and Kunshan, and another to Jiading (almost the same as the Amersham and Watford branches, respectively). However, whereas London’s Met line terminates in The City at Aldgate, Shanghai’s variant crosses central Shanghai, past the hugely important Xujiahui hub, to terminate in the southern (nearly southeastern) suburbs at Luoshan Road.
▶ Northern line
- Beijing: Line 4 and Daxing line. It is now possible to take a train from the northernmost terminus of Line 4, Anheqiao North, straight to the southernmost reaches of the Daxing line. Unlike the Northern line, there are no branches in Beijing. But it does go through a huge chunk of the city centre — the universities, parks, shopping centres, and three train stations. The southernmost terminus is almost as far south in Beijing as Morden is in Greater London.
- Shanghai: Line 8. Shiguang Road, the line’s northernmost terminus, may not be as “rural” as Edgware, High Barnet, or Mill Hill East, but it does pass through much of the city centre — via People’s Square and the Shanghai 2010 Expo site no less — and it does end up very south through to the little-known Shendu Highway.
▶ Piccadilly line
- Beijing: Line 17 (under construction). Line 17, now being built, will run from the far, far suburban parts in the north by the Future Science Park in the north through central Beijing to terminate not far from the Yizhuang Business and Economy Zone in the southeast. In this sense, the northernmost part will be more a la the Uxbridge branch. The “central” factor is as this line runs straight through parts very close to the heart of the Beijing CBD. The other equivalent is Line 14.
- Shanghai: Line 1. Easily a carbon-copy almost in terms of the direction (except for the Uxbridge branch), it is only missing the airport connection. Line 1 runs from the city’s main train station all the way via People’s Square and Huaihai Road, the city’s shopping street much loved by locals, to the south station and the stadia in southwestern urban Shanghai. Like the Piccadilly line, its two “ends” are more suburban (especially the newly opened part between Gongfu Xincun and Fujin Road).
▶ Victoria line
- Beijing: Line 9. By 2021, the extended Line 9 will only have 4 stations out of a grand total of 15 stations (as planned) which are not interchanges. Interchange-wise, it will also sport at least 3 cross-platform interchanges (a la Stockwell, Oxford Circus, Euston, and Finsbury Park). Like the Victoria line, it will also have a central terminus (Brixton for London; Mingguangqiao West (under construction) for Beijing) and a not-so-central terminus (Walthamstow Central on the Victoria line; Guogongzhuang on Line 9).
- Shanghai: Line 12. This line will sport 12 interchange stations in a row (when the whole network is completed), the exact same number on the Victoria line (between Victoria and Walthamstow Central). Like London’s variant, it will run through central Shanghai, with stops along Huaihai Road, Nanjing West Road, and the Shanghai Expo site.