The high-speed railway service in China was introduced in 2008 with the launch of the Beijing-Tianjin route. The route network has now grown to more than 30 cities, including Harbin, Urumqi, Guangzhou and Sanya (see map below).
The high-speed train was originally able to reach speeds of up to 350km/h. However, after the Wenzhou train collision in 2011, train speeds were capped by 50km/h to a maximum of 300km/h, with variations depending on the route.
According to The World Bank (Beijing), passenger capacity has increased from 128 million in 2008 to 2.9 billion in 2014. This surge in popularity reflects both the growth of the rail network, and a reaction to China’s notorious air traffic problems, with flights regularly delayed or cancelled. If you want to avoid flying in China, the high-speed railway is a good alternative.
I took the Huning Line, departing from Nanjing to Shanghai Hongqiao Station. There are nine stops on this line: Nanjing, Zhenjiang, Danyang, Changzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou New District, Suzhou, Kunshannan and Shanghai Hongqiao.
This line operates 17 services a day, the first one departing at 0611, and the last one at 1948, however together with other high-speed rail lines, there are 247 train services between Suzhou and Shanghai Hongqiao every day, running almost 24 hours a day.
There is no airport in Suzhou, therefore travellers must choose to depart from either Wuxi or Shanghai for domestic and international flights. I had booked a flight to Hong Kong departing from Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport at 1520, and so opted for the 30-minute train service departing at 1319.
From the rail terminus, it’s about a ten-minute taxi ride or metro journey to the international Terminal 1. The domestic Terminal 2 is connected to the rail station – but is also a ten minute-metro ride or 15-minute walk indoors.
There are two ways to book a ticket. Chinese passengers who hold a “second generation resident identification card of the People’s Republic of China”, can book tickets online at gaotie.cn (Chinese only).
Otherwise, passengers must queue up at the counter. I arrived at Suzhou Station at 1245 and waited in line at the kiosk for 10 minutes. There are limited English notices and timetables, but if you know where you are going, it should be easy to purchase a ticket without too much difficulty.
There are five seat classes on board: no-seat (standing the whole journey), second, first, business and VIP class. Both business class and VIP class have fully-flat seats in a 1-2 or 1-1 configuration. Passengers also enjoy a TV and free food and drink.
As it was a short journey I opted for first class seats, however these were sold out so I had to settle for second class – the ticket was RMB39.5 (US$6).
I left the counter at 1255 for the 1319 train. From the ticket area, you walk to the terminal and go up to Level 2 for ticket and security checks, where you present your Mainland Travel Permit card.
The terminal has 14 gates (B1-14) on Level 2. There are shops, restaurants and plenty of seating areas. There are also two gates (A1-2) on Level 1.
Second class seating
I arrived at gate A2 at 1300. The gate opened ten minutes later, and although the train had not arrived, there was a rush as everyone tried to find their assigned carriage – mine was number five.
The G7113 service, originating in Nanjing, reached Suzhou exactly on time at 1319. People jumped onto the train very quickly as there were only a couple of minutes to get on board before the doors closed and the train left again.
There is some room to place luggage in the overhead storage compartment, but my suitcase was too big so I had to leave it in a corner near the door.
When I reached my seat, 11F, I found it was occupied by someone, so I politely asked him to leave. This is fairly common, so do keep your ticket stub to avoid any problems.
The configuration of second class is 3-2. The seat width is narrow, but there is a generous pitch so my legs didn’t feel cramped and the seat can also recline quite far. Facilities include a table and power outlet, but you will need your own international adaptor. There is no seatbelt on the seat.
The train had already begun moving before I settled down, and quicky accelerated to 279km/h.
During the journey, cabin assistants wandered the aisles with a trolley selling snacks such as crisps and soft drinks.
The train made another stop at Kunshannan Station at 1333, before leaving again at 1335. There was an English announcement, reminding passengers not to get off for a walk, as the train would depart shortly.
When the train set off again I took out my smartphone to browse the internet, however I was unable to connect (perhaps the speed of the train made my phone signal weak?) and there was no wifi service.
The train decelerated again and reached Shanghai (Hongqiao) at 1351.
I was very impressed with how punctual the train service was – definitely an appealing alternative for passengers sick of the delays and cancellations associated with air travel. The journey was short and relatively comfortable. However, the short times allowed for boarding may be a problem for physically challenged passengers or those carrying bulky luggage.