Railway stations in China can vary a great deal depending when it was built and whether it is in a large city or smaller town.
If you are travelling by high-speed train, you will be using a modern station. Most of these modern stations are built on the same model.
On the other hand, older stations differ a great deal although it is possible to generally break them down into two categories: large stations in important cities and smaller stations in smaller towns and villages.
Pay attention to the station name
Many cities will have several railway stations, sometimes as many as three or four. Often the name will include a geographical location such as “Beijing West”, or a specific name such as “Shanghai Hongqiao”.
Some stations only have the city name such as the Beijing station or the Shanghai station. These are sometimes also referred to as the old station or the main station such as Beijing Main station. But the real name is just Beijing station and this refers to a specific station, not just any station.
When searching for a train in our schedules, you do not need to know from which station the train departs. For example, if you enter “Beijing” as the departing city and “Xi’An” as the arrival city, the search result will return all trains from all stations between these two cities.
Pay close attention to your tickets. Sometimes you will arrive in a city in a railway station then depart a few days later from a different station. Our instructions are very clear and will warn you of such a situation.
Pingyao is one place where people are often confused so it is important to pay close attention to the station name. The old station for overnight trains is called “Pingyao station” and is walking distance from the old town and the city walls, the main tourist attraction. The newer station for bullet trains is called “Pingyao Old Town station” but it is actually very far from the old town (9km).
Modern stations for China high-speed trains
Generally high-speed trains depart and arrive at modern stations that were built recently especially for these new bullet trains. Most stations are built on very similar templates. In larger cities, the rail station will be similar to an airport: large, modern and clean. Signage will be in both Chinese and English and so will the announcements.
Because they were built recently, these stations are usually not in the center of the city and; in large cities, they are attached to the subway network so they are easy to get to. Be aware of the travel time between your hotel and the station. In all cases, when you arrive, there will be a taxi line and a selection of buses in case you prefer public transportation.
Ticket offices are usually located outside of the station but in the same building. Larger stations will have several ticket offices. To enter the station, you need to show your ticket and your passport (there are a few exceptions to this) and pass your luggage through an x-ray machine. A large board indicates your platform (gate) number. It is also often shown in the top right-hand corner of your ticket. You need to insert your ticket in an electronic reading machine to access your platform. The platform can be accessed by stairs, escalators and, sometimes, even elevators.
There are usually some restaurants in the station but very few outside if it is in an isolated area. Larger stations will have more choice including some western chains like McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, etc. Larger stations will also have a number of shops and all stations have at least a convenience store. The selection of meals on trains is limited and may not be to your liking. So you may want to eat at the station before departing or buy some food to bring on the train.
For more information and to visualize what the typical modern station looks like, watch this video:
Older China train stations for normal trains
These older stations can be broken down in two broad categories: big train stations in large cities (such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’An, Guangzhou, Kunming, etc.) and small train stations in cities such as Pingyao, Dali or Huangshan plus everything in-between. The larger stations are very busy and can be quite intimidating. While no two stations are alike, here are some things that you can expect.
There will be stairs to enter that station and to access the platform. No escalators except for a few very large stations. On the other hand, you will most probably see some porters (red cap) to help you with luggage. Some stations will not check your ticket and passport when you enter the station, but they will check and validate your ticket before you access the platform.
These old train stations are usually in the center of town and are surrounded by a large number of restaurants and several luggage consignment options. While there will be minimal or no English at some of the stations, you can figure out your platform and gate number by looking for your train number on a large LED board. When it is time to access the platform, there is often no announcement or the announcement is only made in Chinese, so you need to be vigilant: keep an eye on your gate and follow the crowd. It can be useful to check the train number of the person sitting next to you in the waiting room and to follow him if he is on the same train. Alternatively, when you see the crowd heading for the gate, you can just show your ticket to someone and ask “OK?”. Most Chinese will assume that you have no idea what you are doing and will gladly help despite the language barrier.
The trains at these stations are often overnight trains that offer the cheaper hard sleepers. So the crowd is generally not as “sophisticated” as what you’ll come across in the modern stations. You will encounter a lot of peasants and laborers that you are unlikely to see at the modern station with more expensive trains. This is not just because these are cheaper trains but also because the normal trains stop at smaller villages.
Watch this video to see clips from various stations so that you can have a good idea of what to expect in such stations:
Arriving at your destination
When you arrive at your destination, you need to show your ticket in order to exit the station. In the case of modern stations, you just insert it in the electronic reader.
When you exit the station, you will probably be approached by a number of touts that you should ignore. Your transportation options will vary depending on the place and can include the subway, taxis, shuttle buses to specific tourists attractions or regular buses. We have produced videos about most of the key train stations in China. All the videos cover the departure procedure while some also provide advice about arriving at the station with some advice about transportation options.
Go to our YouTube channel and explore our long list of train station videos
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China train travel Tips