On board the new Chongqing-Chengdu High Speed D Train

We discovered that sleeper train tickets can be hard to come by in China even outside of peak travel periods on certain routes, as when we tried to book our ticket from Guilin to Chengdu even 4 days in advance, there were no tickets for at least 4 or 5 days after that.

The problem is particularly difficult for tourists for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a logistical pain to get the tickets, as there are few agents who can book them (we finally found one in Yangshuo) – otherwise you have to travel to the station of departure in order to buy the ticket from the ticket office, which can be a pain when you’re traveling in the province around the main city where you want to depart from. There is an online booking system available to chinese people, but not yet to tourists (who need that capability even more). Secondly, there is a big touting problem – they buy up the tickets for some of the main routes (the train to Lhasa is also a difficult one), then sell them on the black market for a significant markup. The government has tried to solve this problem by linking all tickets to your passport/ID number which you must provide to buy the ticket – but we haven’t yet seen this checked/enforced at the ticket gates or onboard the trains. I find this particularly frustrating as it’s a false economy which is not helpful to anyone except the tout’s bank balance. I’d love to take the train to Lhasa – the highest train route in the world – but we would have to fly now because of this (and I refuse to buy the tickets off the black market and support this dishonest way of making a living). Of course thirdly there is also simply sheer volume of passengers, but so far in mid-May, we don’t see evidence that’s the main factor (although start of May and other holidays such as chinese new year then for sure it is).

So we were forced to look at flying, which is something I had been hoping to avoid for our travel around China for cost reasons, flexibility and the inconvenience of dealing with airports. The flights directly to Chengdu were relatively expensive ($180 vs our expected $80 for a soft sleeper on the train), but we came up with the solution of flying to Chongqing for only $80 and taking advantage of a brand new high speed rail connection to Chengdu which only started operating 4 months ago. In first class/soft seat it costs only $19 to complete the 333km journey in around 2 to 2.5hrs – a bargain compared with similar distance train journeys in the UK! (think London-Manchester is around the same distance – a first class ticket bought on the day is around 200GBP). So even adding in our $9 taxi ride from the airport and $30 hotel room for the night (the cheap flight yesterday was a late one) we are still $120 better off than flying direct to Chengdu, and we’ll arrive around the same time as our 25hr sleeper train would have got us there – but now having had a shower and a really good night’s sleep. It’s just annoying that we had to go to that length of solution planning and inconvenience just because of the touts taking advantage of the system (I suspect).

So going forwards, we’ll now have to be extra careful to book our sleeper train tickets as far in advance as possible. Unfortunately this removes some of the flexibility to change of travel plans at short notice which I thought train travel would provide.

Our stay in Chongqing was purely functional, but it was interesting that from the moment we left Guilin everything has been brand new. The rate of development and construction here is astounding – brand new airport terminal building, taxi along a brand new 3 lane expressway to the city, brand new hotels and apartments around the brand new North Station building, followed by a brand new train on brand new tracks to another rand new station in Chengdu. We missed out on the brand new monorail connection to the city in Chongqing because we arrived so late, and we’ll miss out on the brand new subway from Chengdu east station because it’ll only open later this year. It must be difficult to keep up with the pace of development here – road plans and transport connections change every few months.

The scale of construction of high-speed rail in China is mind-boggling. By the end of 2012, there will be more km of 200kph+ rail here than in the rest of the world combined – by mid 2011 they already had over 10,000km of routes in service – 13,000km by the start of 2012 – 25,000km by 2015. Bullet-train technology has already been commercially deployed and even goes a little faster than the Japanese Shinkansen – on the Beijing-Tianjin line, it reaches 330kph (205mph). Long distance bullet train lines are coming into service too – the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train now completes the 1318km journey in under 5 hours. Before it would have always been a long overnight sleeper train journey or a more expensive and less flexible flight. And then there’s the possibility of going even faster – the Shanghai airport rail link is based on maglev technology which allows it to reach a top speed of 431kph (268mph) – enabling it to cover the 30km journey into the city in just 7 minutes and 20 seconds. Makes the Heathrow Express sound like the slow train to Sapa! Plus, all the new stations are pleasant places to be and have English signage and ticket machines (although useless to tourists right now as a chinese ID card needs to be swiped to complete a purchase). In total these investments will cost $300bn by 2020, but it will totally revolutionise how interconnected the country is.

I think that in the next 5-10 years travelling as a tourist around China by train will change from being “a bit of a challenge” to being a real pleasure – assuming that some the key issues can be solved – such as ticket booking procedures, touting, financial viability concerns and a few construction/safety problems that have been identified. It’s still far safer than getting on a bus or crossing the road (a different story!) so even now it’s my prefered method of transport.

On board the Chongqing-Chengdu D Train

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