China is extremely well-connected by train, and high-speed rail has become a very common, comfortable, and efficient way to move from place to place. All trains generally are safe, although it is advisable to keep an eye on your luggage throughout, as it might shift or somebody might take yours by accident. This site has a helpful infographic summarizing the types of trains and corresponding amenities. As a quick summary:
High-speed rails are marked by lines prefixed as G (高铁, gāotǐe/high-speed EMU, though this has become a catch-all term for China’s high-speed rails), D (动车, dòngchē/electric EMU), and C (城际, chéngjì/intercity EMU). These are your world-class train services, with adjustable seats, Western toilets, and sockets for recharging your electronics. If you book on Ctrip, it will be easy to designate that you want a high-speed train for your trip.
Other trains are prefixed as Z (直达, zhídá/direct express), T (特快, tèkuài/express), and K (快车, kuàichē/fast train). The speed drops from Z to K, and the number of stops increase as well, meaning that a K train will likely make many stops at smaller locales and run at a slower speed. Correspondingly, it is often a very cheap way to travel across China, but it’s best as a way to save a night at a hostel for an independent traveler, as toilets are likely squat toilets in not very appealing settings, and in high season there will be many many standing passengers cramping you all along the way.
Train Stations Logistics
Treat the train station like an airport in terms of arriving early. An hour or slightly more should be sufficient in most cases. Peak seasons can have you come across harried ticket sellers and thronging lines of panicking travelers, so come early and come prepared.
When you arrive at a train station, the first step is to acquire a ticket. There will usually be ticket offices close to the entrance of the train station. Many signages in train stations also have English, so this should be fairly easy to find. If not, circle the train station until you see ticket office queues. Be aware that there are often multiple lines: those for standard on-day purchases, those for “internet pickup” (互联网) if you preordered a ticket via Ctrip or other services (At which point you will need to present your confirmation email, so I recommend you screenshot your email in case the data gets clogged by the multitudes of people), and some other lines for other types of documents. You will mostly need your passport in order to purchase a train ticket.
After this, you will enter the station. Go through document check and then go through security (put all bags through the X-ray, but you don’t have to remove clothing – you may have to remove phones and wallets, especially if you have coins). After this you are done until the train begins boarding. Note that your ticket will tell you which “Ticket Check Gate” (检票口) to go to and will often list two. Usually (for example), one of them will take you closer to Train Cars 1-7 while the other takes you closer to Train Cars 8-14.
When the time comes to the board, there will be several queues. You will sometimes not be able to use the automatic ticket gates since they are designed for PRC Identity Card holders (and use facial recognition tech). Thus you should join all the parents with children and go through the 人工 line and have a train official manually check your documents.
Keep your train ticket since you will need to insert it into a gate at your destination to leave the station.