In December last year China linked up the last piece of the high speed railway line between the two Chinese powerhouse cities, Beijing and Hong Kong. This high speed train reaches speeds in the excess of 300 kilometres per hour, covering the distance between Shenzhen and Beijing (2400 kilometres) in a little over 10 hours.
This is a train ride I want to try, as with all geeks, the idea of sitting comfortably surrounded by gadgets while the countryside whizzes past unconcerned at high speed is somehow relaxing, and invigorating. One of the nicest bits of the Eurostar from London to Paris is whistling through the French countryside, just an endless sequence of green, punctuated by little towns and villages just going about their lives.
Shenzhen to Guangzhou
Shenzhen and Guangzhou are linked by China’s high speed railway line, and so it takes just 36 minutes to cover the 120 kilometres, that’s including slowing down for intermediate stops. The train peaks at over 300 kilometres per hour twice in that time, topping out so far at 310 kilometres per hour.
And the ride is very smooth. It also feels counter-intuitive as I feel the train is slowing down, yet the speed indicator keeps notching ever upward. There’s no clackety-clack so typical of British railways, no loud engine noise that’s distinctively Eurostar, just a continuous high speed forwards motion accompanied by a gentle roar of the engines.
Watching the countryside fly by I get glimpses of China that’s not so obvious from the heavily modernised and urbanised Shenzhen. Rice fields, towns congregated around river banks, three-lane highways carrying lots of industrial traffic, some cultural landmarks slowly losing the battle against modernisation.
Some sections of the rail network are spectacular, including miles and miles of elevated track, like a bridge over vast spaces of China, curving gently towards a mountain range in the far distance. Yet at such a speed that far distance quickly disappears behind us in our ever onward journey towards Guangzhou.
The high speed train process
The high speed trains feel very much like an airport, even to the point it is safer to book your train tickets in advance if you want a specific time. When arriving at the station without a ticket, the process for getting to your destination is as follows:
- You need to bring your passport, or an appropriate travel visa.
Go to the ticket office (or ticket machine if you can read Chinese) and buy a ticket. You ask for the time you want to travel and the class, and the staff search for available bookings. Services fill up quickly, so you may not get the time or the class of service you want, but the staff are very helpful in finding the next available service you can take, so some discussion is needed, if only pointing out acceptable train times. Politeness and patience does help.
Sometimes the service you want to catch is fully booked. Do expect that to be the case, and have alternative services lined up as backups. You can sometimes buy a ticket for a much later service, and catch an earlier service with it, but that’s entirely at the discretion of the gate keeper. So be polite and respectful, and expect to be turned away.
You will need a passport or valid travelling visa to use the train. The ticket shows the time of the service, the train service number (e.g. G6421), the platform it is leaving from, the coach number, and the seat number you have been allocated. If your booked train is later, you can try to catch an earlier service, but do so politely, but also don’t expect to have a seat, let alone the seat you booked. You may get lucky, but don’t depend on it. If you catch the train you have a ticket for, your seat is guaranteed.
- With a ticket in hand, you can enter the departures area. This involves showing your ticket, and then passing your luggage through an X-ray machine, while you get a quick pat-down and body scan. This is a lot more relaxed than airports, and the staff are efficient and mostly adept and guiding bumbling clueless foreigners like me through. Just have some common sense, leave the automatic rifles and hand grenades at home.
- You are now in the departures hall. Your ticket indicates which platform you are on. For example B17. This means platform 17, entrance B. So far the entrance is either A or B, and the one you take depends on the coach number, so A tends to be the back half and B tends to be the front half of the train service you are catching. Watch the departure boards for your service, not all departure boards cycle through both English and Chinese, so don’t depend on it. Look for the train service id and the departure time, that should be easy to spot and follow. The status of a service is either on-time, boarding, or boarding closing. These are also colour coded as White, Green and Red respectively (I have yet to see a late service, since Shenzhen is a terminal station, so no passing through trains to get delayed). If your train service is Green or Red, go to your platform departure gate immediately.
- If your departure time is still a considerable time away, there are shops between each platform gate, mostly food and drink, with a sprinkling of trinkets and gifts. Also, there are restaurants and the usual collection of fast-food places in the departures area. Though keep an eye on the time, the train will not wait for you. If you miss your train, you need to change your ticket back at the ticket office.
- People start queueing up about half an hour before the departure time. There seems to be two sets of queues. But if you have a blue ticket, either queue will work, so I take the natural introvert option and go for the ticket machine gate. The gate allows people through 10 minutes before the departure time, and they close the gate 3 minutes before departure time, so don’t linger around too long. Get your bowel movements and lubrication options sorted before the gate opens.
- Once through the departure gates, find the right coach, they are numbered from the front to the back. Each coach has an LED display that shows the coach number. Once you’ve found the coach number that matches the one on your ticket, get on and find your allocated seat.
- The service itself is fairly relaxed, so take your seat and enjoy the ride. The scenery is spectacular. If you have a window seat, and it’s a daytime service, awesome.
- Listen and watch for the station announcements. One trick I found useful was to write the name of your destination station down in Chinese, that makes things a little less scary when getting off the train. They do announce stops well in advance, punctuated by a two-toned horn. So when the train is gliding slowly into the station it’s time to make your way to the door.
- When the train stops it takes a few seconds for the door release to trigger and the doors open automatically. Get off as quickly as possible, and get a reasonable distance away from the doors before stopping to have a gawk, or a fumble, or fine-tuning your baggage straps, or have a natter. Activity in stations is managed in bursts, so lots of people will be getting off and on through the door you are using.
- On the platform look for the exit signs that lead to the arrivals area of your destination station. At this gate you’ll go through another ticket barrier or manual check and arrive in the arrivals hall.
- In the arrivals hall, which is typically enormous, find your way to the exit appropriate to your next stage of travel. So the Metro, taxi-rank, long-distance buses, parking levels are the typical options.
The train stations
The train stations are spectacular. It’s like someone actually thought about the requirements of a modern railway system. Both Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South are massive structures. I though Paddington was huge, but that’s nothing. The stations take up an enormous amount of space, and much like the Shenzhen Civic Centre, there’s a distinctive feel that this was purposely designed to managed a staggering amount of people every day.
Shenzhen North (ShenZhenBei)
The Shenzhen North Railway Station is a massive structure (I guess after two weeks travelling of China I still consider these places huge, it’s a bias of living in London for so long). It consists of 18 platforms. It is at the junction of the Longhua (Line 4) and Huanzhoug (Line 5) Metro lines, and easy to get to from the Futian CBD, and Futian Checkpoints, so great for Hong Kong weekenders travelling to Guangzhou.
Getting off the Longhua line and descending the escalators we arrive at the main entrance to the Shenzhen North station. Before entering the departures area you need to buy a ticket. On each side there are ticket machines, unfortunately they are all in Chinese, unlike the Metro with it’s dual language interface. Currently only one of the two ticket offices are open, so far, in my two solo attempts to negotiate through for a ticket resulted in success, but as a chronically shy introvert, I did struggle. The staff at the ticket office were very helpful and patient with me, and I got the ticket I needed.
Entering the departures hall you go through a baggage check and quick body scan and pat down. These are routine and nothing to worry about. The departures hall is predictably massive, with four rows of chairs stretching right across from gate A to gate B of each platform. Small food and drink shops are between each platform gate, and the restaurants and fast food establishments are on the level above.
The departure board on the far (West) side of the departure hall switches between Chinese and English, but the statuses of the trains are so unexceptional that it doesn’t take long to notice the change from a service being on time to something else, no matter what language it’s displayed in.
There are two arrivals corridors either side of the departures hall. The entrance to the underground Metro (Longhua or Huanzhoug lines are on one side, so look for the Metro logo on the various signs.
Guangzhou South (GuangZhouNan)
Guangzhou South is a thoughtfully designed structure. The arrivals area has the distinctive features of massive concrete arches running in parallel to the length of the structure. These are the actual tracks, all of Guangzhou South’s 24 platforms make up the structure and roof of the arrivals area.
The arrivals area is devoid of shops. The toilets are Chinese style (so be prepared and take your own tissue paper). The main signs of life are on the East side of the station, that’s where the ticket office is, along with a decent coffee-shop (called SPB) and a fast food establishment or two.
The departures hall is two floors up. Again, to enter this you have to go through a baggage scan and body scan. Although, they do regularly let people through to the upstairs restaurant level and shops, so the Guangzhou South station isn’t as strict with who can get into departures as Shenzhen North. But, don’t expect to gain access to the departures level without a ticket, it’s at the discretion of the people manning the security check.
The ticket office is on the ground floor. It’s a little bigger than Shenzhen North’s, and despite my trepidation for maybe not understanding English, I managed to buy a ticket there after a little preparation.
The design for high volume visits
The onboarding system runs meticulously, the information boards always seems to say either the train is on time, or boarding is now open, or boarding gates are about to close. The whole atmosphere is a well-designed, well-implemented and professional service. It is a pleasant experience, quite like flying was before 9/11. The staff are courteous and accommodating.
Train classes and prices
The ticket prices are cheap between Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South.
A second class ticket is 75RMB, a first class ticket is 99.50RMB, and a business class ticket is 199.50RMB. The difference in class is, much like an aircraft, more legroom, wider and less seats per row (four versus five for first and second class respectively). First class has better condiments and choice, plus an iPad for every seat with the onboard entertainment, and a folding table instead of a back-of-the-seat variant.
Second class still is far better than an aircraft’s cattle class, the legroom is better than business class, the seats lean back, and on a global standard railway gauge, it’s only five seats per row.
In all cases the journey is comfortable, pleasant, spacious, and air-conditioned, even when it’s 36 degrees outside in Guangzhou.
The quality of the service is top notch. There is no over-crowding of these services, but also, services are regularly booked out. It is a great and economical way of travelling in China. Maybe one day I’ll get a chance to travel the entire 2400 kilometres from Shenzhen to Beijing, and just gawk at the extraordinary engineering effort that went into building this modern marvel.