Tried & Tested

Rail review: China High-speed train first class

31 Oct 2012 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific

BACKGROUND In 2008, China launched the 30-minute high-speed train linking Beijing and Tianjin, setting itself on track for one of the most ambitious rail expansion projects in the world, given the size of the country. Since then, more intercity services, including one between prominent hubs Beijing and Shanghai – which rolled onto the tracks in June – have flourished, leading industry experts to predict stiff competition between rail and domestic air carriers.

Last year’s collision of two high-speed trains on the Yongtaiwen line along a viaduct in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province has not dampened demand, with more rail lines expected to come on-stream. In fact, when all the planned city links are completed by 2020, China will boast the largest and most technologically advanced high-speed railway network in the world.

THE STATION With still so much conflicting information about purchasing tickets – the absence of any centralised online ticketing system and schedule table still baffling us – my colleague and I decided to let the concierge of our hotel, Kerry Pudong, do the work for a small additional fee.

Despite my friend’s instruction to deliver us to the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, our cabbie headed for Hongqiao International Airport, which may be adjacent to the station but can be quite a walk between complexes. Once we were aware of the impending problem, we reminded him and he made another round to drop us where we wanted to go.

I visited Shanghai in the mid-90s when the city’s railway terminus was a grubby, nondescript affair. Now a new building in a different location, it’s part of the impressive Hongqiao Transport hub, which besides the airport and railway station, also includes Metro Line 2 (originating in Pudong), a terminal for private jets and a car park for 3,000 vehicles. There was no comparison to be made with what I remembered.

The sheer size of the departure hall is overwhelming, but thankfully signage is plentiful, well positioned and in both Chinese and English. We immediately spotted the large electronic signboard upon entry, checked our train schedule and saw our assigned gate (30). Looking around for a trolley, we found none available – they had not run out of them, there were just none supplied. We thought this strange, but made our way to a row of seats nearest the exit leading to our platform.

Keen to explore, I left my companion guarding our luggage and strolled to the end of the hall, then up the escalator to the second level, which houses the fast-food outlets such as the ubiquitous MacDonald’s and a dumpling shop, among others. It’s also a vantage point from which to survey the length and breadth of the station, which can be aptly described as gargantuan. The wide openings in the ceiling allow sunlight to stream in, creating an airy atmosphere.

At 1100, passengers on G7384, the 1110 train for Suzhou, were called to board and lines formed without the expected pushing and queue jumping so common in China. We waited on Platform 21 for a few minutes before the sleek and snub-nosed locomotive came into view and slipped effortlessly into the station. Our first class car stopped just where we were standing, which made it easy for us to roll our suitcases onboard.

THE SEAT Our first class cabin had a 2-2 configuration (A-C, F-D) and seven rows of seats. The last row only has F-D seats, as the opposite space is designated for luggage. The washroom was behind us, and farther down at the very end of the train was a section labelled the “Sightseeing Area”, containing two rows of four shell-type seats. As I did not speak Putonghua, I could not ask the staff if first class customers were entitled to use the scenic car. However, I liked the view from my window seat (5A) well enough.

THE JOURNEY With the travel time between Shanghai and Suzhou only 40 minutes (including a whistle stop at Kunshan), the fun didn’t last very long for a train enthusiast like me, but at least it turned out to be a pleasant experience. The fire-engine red seats reclined enough to provide a comfortable snooze. There was no free wifi, and the entertainment, if you could call it that, was courtesy of just one small TV monitor embedded in the car roof, which only the last few rows could view. And, of course, it was all in Chinese. Most of the passengers therefore whiled away the time fiddling with their iPads, reading newspapers or napping. Announcements were made in both Putonghua and English – a relief for foreigners, who are always worried of missing out on important information such as an approaching stop or a
gate change.

The view from the large windows is of a series of generic looking industrial areas, which I guess were farmland not so long ago. It was not particularly inspiring, but the combination of the buildings whizzing by and the soft movement of the locomotive, even at such a high speed, proved soothing to my brain, and I found myself dropping off to sleep.

VERDICT Punctual, clean and fast – we look forward to a future when all of China is connected by these “silver bullets”

Fact File

  • CONFIGURATION 2-2 layout
  • F&B Drinks are complimentary, snacks can be bought
  • PRICE RMB60 (US$10) plus a RMB35 (US$5.60) surcharge if customer purchases tickets with the help of the hotel concierge. 
Margie Logarta
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