Just a few years ago, I would never have dreamt of taking the train between any of China’s cities, having seen the crowds in train stations that were frequently shown in the news to viewers worldwide. But with news that China now has a high-speed railway network makes me want to give it a try, especially after having had the pleasure of travelling between major European cities using the train and enjoying the trip experience. What better way to experience a railway journey especially when it’s so groundbreaking in fresh carriages and clean cabins?
With my brother as a travel companion, we started the journey from Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station. Having expected a dark, under-maintained station, I was marked wrong with a grand welcome. Apparently the Shanghai city government has created what is one of the world’s largest transport hubs in Hongqiao, a district located about 45 mins away from the city centre. An international airport, high speed railway station, subway station, long distance and city bus station are all interconnected via underground passage. Completed in time for the 2010 World Expo, it makes interchanges really convenient and makes it a superb way of travelling to and from Shanghai. Entering the main station, all visitors are subject to a security screening, something which is also conducted on all subway passengers. This ensures public safety and maybe a slight inconvenience. Another inconvenience is perhaps the lack of English language information and online ticketing for China’s railway tickets, even for the high-speed ones. This meant we have no prior schedule though luckily for us trains seem to depart very frequently from Shanghai Hongqiao to Nanjing. As of this moment, the Hongqiao train station only has trains departing in the direction to Nanjing with trains to Hangzhou due to start in October 1st. Getting the ticket also meant a long trek through the cast central waiting area of the train station, that doesn’t seem to have much shops. One major drawback of travelling via train is the discourteous reception one always encounter at the ticketing booths. Little wonder then why the authorities are installing more self-automated ticket machines. Counter staff also speak little English, while I don’t remember any English menu facility for the self-automated machines. No trouble for someone who speaks and understands Chinese like me, but tourists who speak little Chinese have best buy their tickets from travel agents in the city.
Having purchased 2 tickets for first-class seats on a G-class train departing at 10.31 am, the one way tickets costs 233 RMB each (around US$35) for a nearly 300-km journey. Cheap by international standards, but not exactly by China’s standards since cheaper but slower trains departing from Shanghai’s main railway station can be bought cheaper. Passenger count in the Hongqiao Station wasn’t exactly crowded for a Sunday morning, but it could also be due to the fact that only most of the trains head only towards Nanjing and major stops like Kunshan, Suzhou, Hankou, and Wuxi along the way. With some time to spare, we headed towards the second floor where there is a McDonald’s outlet and a Chinese fast-food outlet specializing in dumplings. More shops can also be found in the basement along the walkway between Hongqiao Airport and the Train Station. A quick snack afterwards, we grabbed a Peach Pie from McDonald’s before heading back down to board the train. Passengers wait near the gate which will be shown on the information board (again only in Chinese, though not difficult to figure out) and will travel down via stairs or escalators towards the train boarding area. Similar to the boarding procedures in St. Pancras for the Eurostar, and I am impressed on the orderly method of boarding. While down there, our tickets shows the carriage to board with seat numbers. When in doubt, there are train attendants along the way. Simple and efficient boarding process, and as expected the first class train cabin was perhaps 30% full though many second class cabins along the train seems to be vacant. This reminds me of the morning train between Hamburg and Berlin which I boarded.
First impressions of the cabin was excellent, with plush seats which resembles that of the Eurostar train. The train is also far wider compared to those in Europe, managing a 2-2 configuration in first-class and 3-2 configuration in second class. There was room for luggages overhead the seats and it fits a medium sized luggage, which meant that luggage space was definitely more than the trains in Europe. No specialized luggage area like the ones in Eurostar Italia though which is a shame as I found that to be very convenient for passengers. There were reading materials onboard the train, and some of them had information in English language. Quality of the magazines were glossy and nice to the touch, which was another definite plus to the experience. Footrests on the first class seats also make it a great journey, while an innovation in the train is the way the seats could be made to face forward along with the direction of travel. This allows all passengers to face in the direction of travel which in my opinion is the most comfortable facing position. Thus train attendants could just reverse the direction the seats are facing and the train could return on the opposite direction and yet ensures passengers face the ‘correct’ direction.
Along the way to our destination in Nanjing the train stopped at several stations including Kunshan South, Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou before arriving in Nanjing. With the train stopping at the stations for a period of between 5-10 minutes each time, we still managed to arrive in Nanjing in around 1 hour and 40 minutes. The whole journey was comfortable, relaxing and quiet, with snacks and beverages available for purchase from the tray service. Along the way, information to passengers was communicated clearly in English and Chinese with train destination and stops along the way presented in an LED screen on the front and rear of the carriages. Expected arrival time was also shown. This made it easy for passengers to relax since they get access to information for the journey.
Second Class Cabin Compartment. Empty during our ride to Nanjing
Reaching into Nanjing Train Station, the trains are then given a wash by the cleaning staff. This was something special and truly showed the effort put into the railway project by the government and how proud they are of this accomplishment! The train station at Nanjing was as clean as the other stops we passed by and were in very good condition. Large, airy and well maintained, they reflect on how good train travel has come in China since the country opened up to capitalism. To conclude, I find travelling on China’s high-speed train dubbed ‘Harmony Express’ to be really comfortable, harmonious and rapid indeed. Is it worth all the money invested? Totally a Yes! And while it may take some time before it catches up to the mass market, or maybe for the railway authorities to turn a tidy profit, it shows the effort by the government to improve the infrastructure for the middle class. If their middle class citizens can afford the rising prices of property and the numerous Buicks plying the traffic, I don’t see why they can’t afford the fare on this excellent mode of travel. Especially when the train journey can be said to rival that of world-class railways of Europe! From the futuristic Kunshan South Station, to the Chinese architecture-inspired Suzhou Station, the train journey between Shanghai and Nanjing shows why the high speed train network in China is such a big deal!