China’s High-Speed Trains. America, Where Are You?


China has the world’s longest high-speed rail (HSR) network with some 38,000 kilometers in operation,[1] which comprises nearly 70% of all the world’s high-speed lines[2] and more than three times that of the entire European Union.[3] China has more than 2,500 high-speed trains in operation, more than all the rest of the world combined,[4]  and it also has the fastest trains in operation anywhere,[5] with several generations now operating at speeds between 350 Km/h and 400 Km/h. Shanghai’s Maglev is still the fastest operating train in the world,[6] with sustained speeds of 430 Km/h. China’s rail system carries about 3.5 billion passengers per year, nearly 70% of these on high-speed trains. During the 40 days of China’s Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), passenger volume reached a peak of more than 400 million.

The Chinese government planned the HSR program in part to compress passenger travel on these dedicated tracks and free much of the slower existing rail system for freight, to remove trucks from the nation’s highways, thus lowering costs and in turn making highways safer for automobiles. The Shanghai-Nanjing route for example has 38 trains each way each day – carrying perhaps 150,000 passengers, which frees a huge amount of track time for freight. China’s high-speed trains have dramatically reduced the travel time between most major centers. Shanghai-Beijing is down from 12 hours to 4; Shanghai-Nanjing from 4 hours to 1; Wuhan to Guangzhou from 14 hours to only 3 hours.

There are always potential difficulties establishing routes due to the number of communities to serve and the consequent number of stops – which negate the advantage of high-speed trains. China seems to have arrived at an excellent solution. As an example, the 275 Km. route from Shanghai to Nanjing serves 6 communities between the two terminal stations, with some trains on this route travelling on an express basis and making no stops (1 hour), with others stopping at one or several cities on route, with different trains making different combinations of stops (1.5 hours). This has proven to be a convenient method to serve all cities on the route while still maintaining low average travel times.

Many of the statistics and other information available online on China’s (and other) train travel are inaccurate at best, one website claiming China in 2019 had 1.4 trillion train passengers. Even Statista is quite inaccurate, confusing test runs of experimental trains with regular operating speeds of scheduled rail.[7] France’s TGV is listed at its maximum one-time test speed of 575 Km/h, when it operates at only 300 Km/h. Statista has operating speeds wrong too, listing China’s Fuxing at 418 Km and Hexie at 486 Km/h, which normally operate at only 300 and 350 Km/h although they have proven capable of operating at these higher sustained speeds.

Train and Passenger Classes

China has three generations of high-speed trains in operation: G, D, and C. The G-trains are the fastest commercial-use high-speed trains in the world with speeds of 350 Km/h to 400 Km/h. The D-trains operate at 250 Km/h and the first-generation C at 200 Km/h. Below this, there are still the ‘normal’ trains with designations of Z, T, K, N and more. The Z, T and K trains run at 160 Km/h, 140 and 120. Slower trains are used for short rural trips where time is not so important.

These train alphabets are not nothing. I once took a G-train from Shanghai to Haining (the world-famous leather market), a trip of maybe 30 minutes if I recall correctly. I didn’t have a return ticket since I wasn’t certain of my return time, so I simply asked the wicket lady to put me on “the next train to Shanghai”. That was a big mistake. N-train. Ten kilometers per hour on the flat, much less uphill. That train stopped at every town, village, pig farm and strawberry patch on its way to Shanghai, and many times we had to pull off the track to permit a faster train to go by. Two and half hours to return home. I wondered why the ticket was so cheap. The kind of mistake you make only once.

I would note too that punctuality is a hallmark of Chinese transportation generally, this certainly applying to the HSR network. If the schedule states the departure time as 11:02, then at 11:02 the doors silently close and the train is moving. I’ve experienced a few departure delays, typically due to an arrival that is late, but usually by only 5 or 10 minutes. I don’t have available the percentage of on-time departures and arrivals but it must be in the high 90s.

These high-speed trains typically have cars that are First-Class, Second-Class and Business Class, and trains not dedicated to short runs have sleeper cars which are very clean and perfectly comfortable even in older trains, the later generations offering lovely duvets, a separate TV for each bunk, electrical outlets, lights, Wi-Fi. Regular sleepers have four bunks to a room while the highest grade has only two berths to a compartment, suitable for couples, and equipped with a sofa, a wardrobe, and private bathroom. Sleepers typically carry a 25% or 30% cost premium over regular seats.

Business Class

These offer a pleasant alternative to air travel for the typically rushed and pressurised one-day business trips, for example from Shanghai to Guangzhou or Hong Kong. We board our train in the evening after dinner, do a bit of work or watch TV, and awake at 7:00 AM downtown at our destination, with enough time for breakfast before our first meeting. On the return trip, we have a leisurely dinner with friends, board the train across the street, and awake at 7:00 AM back in Shanghai. With two full nights’ sleep, there is no jet lag and no residual fatigue.

Here are some typical ticket prices:


  • Beijing-Shanghai, 1,350 Kms; 350 Km/h (4 hours)
  • 2nd Class, 550 RMB ($80)
  • 1st Class, 900 RMB ($135)
  • Business Class, 1,700 ($250)


  • Kunming-Lijiang, 500 Kms; 250 Km/h (2 hours)
  • 2nd Class, 220 RMB ($30)
  • 1st Class, 350 RMB ($50)


  • Beijing-Tianjin, 125 Kms; 200 Km/h (1 hour+)
  • 2nd Class, 55 RMB ($8)
  • 1st Class, 90 RMB ($13)

It’s almost impossible to compare train fares with the US because in China the fares vary only by distance and train type. Amtrak has a fare schedule that on first approach appears occult, apparently following the convoluted airline model of changing fares by time of departure and other secret paranormal factors, so a particular price could be almost anywhere. On some routes, twice the distance costs half the price. Still, they appear to be much higher than in China by a factor of perhaps 5 or more.

China’s Maglev Trains

The first Maglev train in China was a Siemens design installed in Shanghai, with service beginning in 2004. It was until recently the world’s only regularly-scheduled operating Maglev (at 430 Km/h), but now they are becoming common in China. Maglev technology is simple in principle at low speeds, but smoothness and stability at high speed are exceptionally complicated. Maglevs have a higher level of safety in that they cannot be derailed since they ‘wrap around’ the track, and maintenance costs are low compared to rail trains because there is no wear on the track bed and few moving parts to degrade or require maintenance and replacement.

Chinese engineers initially produced quite successful low-speed Maglevs (200 Km/h) entirely on their own IP, for use throughout China as city trains, done to gain experience and develop their own proprietary designs and technology. These trains are now operating in Beijing, Changsha, and other cities, running on short local routes. There are few other Maglev trains in existence. Korea built a Maglev track to shuttle visitors at the Daejeon Expo, which still runs the few kilometers between the Expo Park and the National Science Museum, but it is very slow, and another in 2016 that runs only a few kilometers between the airport and a subway station, also very slow. Japan built its first “commercial maglev line” in 2005, with a route less than 10 kilometers and a maximum speed of only 100 Km/h – about the same as Shanghai’s new subway lines.

China’s 600 Km/h Maglev

In addition to billions poured into R&D for regular HSR trains, Chinese engineers continued their Maglev research at a brisk pace, and have pushed Maglev technology to the point where China is now beginning commercial production of a fabulous 600 Km/h (nearly 400 Mph) Maglev which will replace traditional high-speed rail on many routes.[8] [9] Engineers spent much time on wind tunnel testing of the design of the locomotives and cars to reduce air resistance to a minimum, greatly assisting both high speed and stability. Chinese engineers have managed, again on their own IP, to bring down the cost for this very fast train to only two-thirds that of regular high-speed trains. This new Maglev will help to fill the gap between regular HSR and airplanes that fly at 900 Km/h or more, and it is likely that this gap will be closed further.

The Changes

It is now legendary that when the Chinese government set its mind to an objective, it doesn’t waste time. Everything you have read above has happened in only the past 16 years. “At the beginning of the 21st century China had no high-speed railways. Slow and often uncomfortable trains plodded across this vast country, with low average speeds making journeys such as Shanghai-Beijing a test of travel endurance. Today, it’s a completely different picture. [China] has . . . the world’s largest network of high-speed railways, and all have been completed since 2008.”[10]

An aside: A Brief Note on Subways

Subways are not exactly high-speed rail, although China’s new trains are pushing the envelope in this area as well, at least up to 100 Km/h (almost as fast as American high-speed trains). However, another example of the Chinese not wasting time when they decide to do something. Shanghai and other major cities have set an objective that every place within the inner cities is within about 5 city blocks of a subway station. Here is a list of a few major cities with the current length of subway track and the time required to reach that level:[11]

  • London 131 years, 400 Kms.
  • Paris 122 years, 225 Kms.
  • Berlin 119 years, 148 Kms.
  • New York 113 years, 399 Kms.
  • Shanghai 28 years, 900 Kms.

The Pleasures of Train Travel

One of the great advantages of HSR (High-Speed Rail) train travel compared to flying is the saving in wasted time. A flight in most any country normally involves a one-hour trip to the airport with a requirement to arrive at least 1.5 hours prior to departure which is frequently subject to delays. At the arrival end, there is always the seemingly long wait to deplane, the long walk to the baggage carousels and the exits, then the one hour or more trip downtown.

When we take into account the commute and the necessary pre-departure allowance for check-in and security clearance and the 2-Km walk to the departure gate, then the post-arrival delays and the commute downtown at our destination, trains are equal to flying in trips up to 1,500 Kms, and much faster than flying for shorter trips while also being less expensive. The frequency of departures, at least between major centers in China is astonishing, the Shanghai-Beijing route having some 75 or 80 HSR trains each way each day, often leaving less than 10 minutes apart with as many as 2,000 passengers (two trains linked into 16 cars). Many other routes are similar. The same is true with airlines in China, with flights seemingly departing from everywhere to everywhere every 30 minutes or so.

In China (and in most cities everywhere), the railway stations are downtown so the commute is minimal, one arriving at the station with luggage in hand only 20 or 30 minutes before departure. There is no ‘check-in’ process as with the airlines, only the usual security check and luggage scanners when entering the station where you can spend time in comfortable waiting rooms or simply find the correct platform and board your train. Even though many stations are huge, walking distances are normally much shorter than in most airports. At the destination, since that station is also downtown, taxis and subways are conveniently at hand. Also, in many cities airports and train stations are next door to each other, conveniently facilitating travel continuation.

Another advantage of train travel is the considerable convenience and comfort, trains being much superior in both categories with an absence of pressure and time apprehension. Trains eliminate most unpleasant elements of air travel, with the attraction of being able to see the countryside. On a plane, we are forced to adhere to a rigid schedule: the time for coffee or a meal, the time to close the window curtains and darken the cabin so the staff can rest. If the food cart is out, you cannot get up to walk around or go to the bathroom. Everything seems regulated and under pressure. Leaving your seat is often a major inconvenience. By contrast, on a train you are free to do as you please. Your luggage is accessible at any time, the food carts come by regularly, the dining car is always there, seats have twice the leg room, the aisles are wide enough to accommodate passengers; everything much more relaxed, pleasant, and enjoyable. And you have the advantage of constant Wi-Fi and GPS signals, with AC power and USB outlets usually available at your seat.

China’s high-speed trains are very quiet, without wind noise, and mercifully free of the incessant hum of aircraft engines and, with the flawlessly-welded rails, even the soft clacking of the rails is gone (I rather miss that). The seats are as wide or wider than airline business class, they recline partially (recline fully in business class) and, with the comfort and silence, it is very easy to sleep on a train. I would add that you are more alert (and healthier) on a train because aircraft are pressurised to 8,000 feet; you don’t normally go above 10,000 feet without supplementary oxygen.

They are also very steady. China has the highest standards for stabilising high-speed trains in their longitudinal, lateral and vertical dimensions, a rail expert stating “It is no exaggeration to say the Beijing-Shanghai rail lines were built with the highest standards in the modern world. China leads the world in rail stability.” Here is a Xinhua video of one of China’s high-speed trains where a coin rests on its edge on a windowsill for more than 8 minutes before it finally falls over – this at 350 Kms per hour. (12)

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