Rail transport in China

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Rail transport is a fundamental mode of long-distance transportation in the People's Republic of China with a rail network that is the third largest in the world. Almost all rail operations are handled by the China Railway Corporation, serving all provinces with the exception of the special administrative region of Macau. By the end of 2012, the conventional rail network covered a total length of 98,000 km (60,894 mi) and the high speed rail network was 9,356 km (5,814 mi).[1] China's rail transport volume is the world's largest and in terms of transport volume growth also the highest, with six percent of the world's operating railways but carrying 25 percent of the world's total railway workload.

Driven by need to increase freight capacity, the country budgeted $105.9 billion for railway investment in 2013, and has a long term plan to expand the network to 272,000 km by 2050.[1]


Qing Dynasty era (1876–1911)[edit]

The first railway to be built in China was the Woosung Railway in 1876, which was a 9¼-mile railway from Shanghai to Woosung (modern Shanghai's Baoshan District). The railway was dismantled only one year later by the Qing governor. Until the defeat of China in the First Sino-Japanese War, only very little development had been made. After the defeat, direct connection to the imperial capital Beijing was permitted: several lines were expanded towards the city, the three main lines being the Jinghan, Jingfeng, and the Jinpu Railways, which today are still some of the busiest lines in China.

By 1911, there were around 9,000 km of tracks in China. However, many railways were designed, constructed, or even owned by foreign companies. The first indigenously designed and constructed railway by Chinese is the Jingzhang railway built from 1905 to 1909, a difficult job due to the mountainous terrain. The chief engineer of this railway was Zhan Tianyou, who is known as the Father of China's Railway.[citation needed]

The statue of Zhan Tianyou, in Zhangjiakou south railway station.

Republic of China era (1912–1949)[edit]

During the Republic of China era from 1912 until 1949, the development of the railway network in China was slowed down. This was due to repeated civil wars and the invasion of Japan in the Second Sino-Japanese War. One of the few exceptions was in Northeastern China (Manchuria). During the reign of the Fengtian warlord from 1912 till 1931, several railway lines were built. The South Manchuria Railway Company by Japanese was founded in 1906 and after the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Japan took over the operation of the Chinese Far East Railway (東清鐵路) at Changchun city and southward and kept development going vigorously. In 1945, just after the Second Sino-Japanese War, there were 27,000 km of rail, nearly half of which, 13,000 km, was located in Manchuria.[2]

People's Republic of China era (1949–)[edit]

A passenger train stopped at a small train station in Baise, Guangxi

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the new government under Mao Zedong invested heavily in the railway network. From the 1950s to the 70s, lines, especially those in western China, were expanded. One example is the 1900 km railway from Lanzhou to Ürümqi, which was built between 1952 and 1962. In Southwestern China, where difficult terrain prevails, several mountain railways were constructed, such as the Baoji–Chengdu Railway, built in the 1950s, and the Chengkun Railway, built in the 1970s. The railway to Xizang (Tibet), the Qingzang railway, was one of the most difficult to build; the line was finally completed and opened to the public in 2006. Today, every province-level entity of the People's Republic, with the exception of Macau, is connected to the railway network.

The first class carriage of a typical Chinese passenger train.

Not only has the Chinese railway network expanded in size since 1949, but it has also seen great technological advances. Before the 1980s, most of the railways were powered by steam, due to low labour costs and cheap coal prices.[citation needed] However, the first diesel locomotive, the Dongfeng, was introduced in 1959. During the 1980s and 90s, diesel and electric locomotives gradually replaced the steam engines on main lines. However, steam locomotives didn't retire from some provincial railways until the 21st century. In December 2005, the world's last regular revenue mainline steam train finished its journey on the Jitong railway, marking the end of the steam era. Nevertheless, there are still some steam locomotives used in the industrial railways in China.

From 1990 to 2001, on average some 1,092 km of new railways, 837 km of multiple-track, and 962 km of electrified railways were opened to traffic annually, 2.4-fold, 1.7-fold and 1.8-fold increases respectively over the previous 10 years. At the end of 2004, railways in operation reached 74,200 km, including 24,100 km of multiple track and 18,900 km of electrified railways.

Since 1997, train speed has been raised significantly six times. The top speed of express trains increased from 120 km to 200 km per hour, and passenger trains can reach maximum speed of 350 km per hour on some sections of the arterial railways.

In March 2013, the Ministry of Railways was dissolved and its safety and regulation duties were taken up by the Ministry of Transport,inspection duties by the State Railway Administration and construction and management by the China Railway Corporation(CR).

Railway management[edit]

There are three levels of management in the national railway system of China

There are sixteen Railway Bureaus and two Railway Group Companies under the Minister of Railways.

There are also some local railway lines operated by local state-owned companies. The only private-owned railway line in mainland China is Luoding Railway in Guangdong province.[citation needed]

Railway bureaux[edit]

Passenger transport[edit]

Rail is one of the principal means of transport in China, with over 1.3 billion railway trips taken in 2007 and 1.4 billion estimated for 2008.[3] In 2008, 1.456 billion people travelled 772.8 billion km by rail.[4]

As the above numbers indicates, an average trip length in 2008 was about 500 km, which means that people in China now use railways primarily for long-distance trips, while more local travel is accomplished by bus. This contrasts greatly with countries such as Germany, where an average rail trip is only about 40 km long (39.7 billion passenger-km on just over a billion passenger trips over the DB system during the first 6 months of 2012).[5] This difference may be explained by the near-absence of traditional commuter rail systems (low cost, frequent service, frequent stops) in China; the incipient Beijing Suburban Railway may perhaps be their only specimen in the country. However, a number of high-speed intercity railways have been opened since 2005, and many more are under construction; they may attract an increasing share of short-distance trips, at least among the better-off segment of the population.

The Spring Festival Travel Season is the peak railway travel season of the year.


During the three weeklong holidays in China, known as "Golden Week", demand for tickets increases dramatically due to many migrant workers and students returning home and others using the time to travel the country. The holidays are the week starting May 1 and October 1 and the week around Chinese New Year, also known as the Chunyun season.

Even though the duration of the May holidays was shortened in 2009, the holiday traffic remained strong, with the record of 6.54 million passengers carried over the Chinese rail network on May 1, 2009.[6]

Chinese New Year[edit]

Every year before, during and after the Chinese New Year, Chinese railway operate the Chunyun period – increased services on most lines for the increased demand due to the holidays. Since railway transport is the cheapest method for long distance travellers in China, the railway is the most important transport method during the Chunyun period. For example, during the 40 days of the 2007 Chunyun period, it is estimated that 156 million passengers used trains. This translates to an average of 3.9 million passengers a day. However, the average daily capacity of the Chinese railway system is 2.4 million. To make the situation even worse, traffic is highly imbalanced: before the Chinese New Year, passengers mainly travel from eastern provinces to western provinces. After the holiday, traffic reverses. Although hundreds of temporary trains are operated, train tickets are still in short supply. Trains are very crowded during this period, for example; a passenger car with 118 seats may accommodate more than 200 people.[citation needed]

Sleeper trains[edit]

There are generally three classes of sleeper compartments in China:[7]

  • Soft sleeper – offered in a lockable compartment that has four sleeping berths, two lower ones and two upper berths which can be folded up to allow for seating in the lower berths.
  • Hard sleeper – are provided in an open carriage consisting of a wide aisle on one side and bays of six sleeping berths on the other arranged on three levels. Hard sleepers are generally cheaper than soft sleepers.
  • Deluxe soft sleeper – are offered as a two berth compartment with a private toilet. Only a few services in China such as the Beijing-Hong Kong through train offer this option.

Current network[edit]

The map of the railway network of all China as of March 2010 (including Taiwan as politically claimed)

China maintains about twenty principal domestic railway routes with a total length of 91,000 km by the end of 2011. As of 2011:

Track gauge[edit]

Main lines[edit]

High-speed rail[edit]

High-speed rail services were introduced in 2007 and are operated using CRH trains. These run on existing lines that have been upgraded to speeds of up to 250 km/h and on dedicated high speed track up to 350 km/h.

Train speed limits[edit]

From 1997 to 2007, the now defunct Ministry of Railways increased the top speed of trains six times. In 1997, the top speed of passenger trains on some of the main lines was increased to 140 km/h. Subsequently, top speeds were increased to 160 km/h on some lines and up to 250 km/h. By 2007, the top speed for passenger trains reached 200 km/h on 6,003 km tracks of main lines such as Jinghu Railway, Jingha Railway, and Jingguang Railway.[11] On 848 km tracks the top speeds reached 250 km/h, most of which were on the Qinshen Passenger Railway.Another 14,000 km tracks had a top speed limit of 160 km/h and an extra 22,000 km tracks had a 120 km/h limit.[12] In addition, during this speedup, the heavy-haul freight transportation speed limit was also boosted to 120 km/h. This speedup was expected to boost passenger and cargo capacity by 18 percent and 12 percent respectively.[13] The newly built Beijing–Tianjin Intercity Railway and Wuhan–Guangzhou High-Speed Railway have top speeds of 350 km/h.

350 km/h railways[edit]

Conventional railways[edit]

200 km/h railways: Total 6003 km as of April 2007.

Rolling stock[edit]


In 2011 China's railway inventory included 19,431 locomotives[8] owned by the national railway system. The inventory in recent times included some 100 steam locomotives, but the last such locomotive, built in 1999, is now in service as a tourist attraction while the others have been retired from commercial service. The remaining locomotives are either diesel or electric powered. Another 352 locomotives are owned by local railroads and 604 operated by joint-venture railways. National railway freight cars numbered 622,284[8] and passenger coaches 52,130 .[8]

The two main categories of conventional Chinese locomotives are the Dongfeng diesel locomotives and the Shaoshan electric locomotives. In the first decade of the 21st century the railways of china began to import and produce AC/DC-AC transmission electric locomotives; the most numerous of these are the HXD series "Harmony" locomotives for freight work, of which over 3000 were ordered. Most modern trains, for example for the China Railway High-Speed service, are either imported or produced in China using technology transfer agreements.

Cross-border services[edit]

Current and past links[edit]

International passenger train services are available to destinations in:

Hong Kong[edit]

Train services to Hong Kong terminate at the Hung Hom Station in Kowloon. Within Hong Kong the cross-boundary services use the tracks of the East Rail Line. There are three through-train routes, Beijing line (to/from Beijing), Shanghai line (to/from Shanghai) and Guangdong line (to/from Zhaoqing and Guangzhou East). Another express train service linking Hong Kong and Guangzhou with intermediary stop in Shenzhen has been approved and construction in the China section has commenced. This new express rail line will reduce the train travel time between Hong Kong and Guangzhou from 2 hours to 1 hour.


China's Lanxin Railway connects with the Kazakhstan railway system at Alashankou since ca. 1990. There are two weekly passenger trains (one Kazakh and one Chinese) from Almaty to Ürümqi in Western China. There are differing reports on which of the two is more comfortable, however the Chinese train is generally of a higher standard than the Kazakh train. See Alashankou.

A new electric railway line from Jinghe on the main Lanxin line via Yining to Khorgos border crossing on the Kazakh border was completed in the late 2009.[14] (Passenger service operates to Yining from 2010 and extended to Khorgos in January 2013) On the Kazakh side, work has started in 2009 on a 239-km rail link between the Khorgos border crossing and Zhetigen (on the Turksib line north of Almaty).[15] The line was completed in December 2011; As of March 2012, the railway on the Kazakh side was still operating in a test mode, but opening of regular service is planned for the summer of 2012.[16] When fully operational, this will provide the second railway connection between China and Kazakhstan, and a more direct railway from Ürümqi to Almaty.[15]


Nanning-Hanoi link[edit]

There are twice weekly trains from Beijing to Hanoi in Vietnam. The trains consist of a typical T style Chinese express from Beijing to Đồng Đăng, in Lạng Sơn Province) on the Vietnamese border. The train may require passengers to detrain in Nanning for 5 hours (especially on the northbound service) however a lounge area with reclining chairs is available for Soft Sleeper passengers.

Customs are cleared in Đồng Đăng station.

Yunnan–Vietnam Railway[edit]

The narrow-gauge Yunnan–Vietnam Railway runs from Kunming to Hekou on the Vietnamese border, and continue on the Vietnamese side to Hanoi. There has been no passenger service on this line since some time after 2000.


Changing bogies on the Sino-Mongolian border

Train services to Mongolia terminate in Ulaanbaatar. China's rail network connects with Mongolia railways in Erenhot in China and Zamyn-Üüd in Mongolia. Nowadays, there are two trains every week departing from Beijing and Hohhot. Moreover, there are five times of train service between Ulaanbaatar and Erenhot every week. As same as links to Russia, the international trains need to change bogies in Erenhot, since Mongolia uses broad gauge.

There are two weekly trains from Beijing to Mongolia, one of which continues to Moscow.

North Korea[edit]

There are 4 weekly trains with Hard and Soft Sleeper services from Beijing to Pyongyang in North Korea. There is also a once weekly carriage attached to the Vostok train from Moscow to North Korea via Harbin and Shenyang in China.


For a long time, China's rail network has directly connected with Russian railways at two points: Manzhouli and Suifenhe. These connections has existed since the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the early 1900s, since the earliest Transsiberian route took a shortcut through China's Manchuria along what was then known as the China Eastern Railway. Of these two crossings, the former is used by a large amount of freight and by one of the Beijing-Moscow trains (there is also an alternative route via Mongolia; see below), while the latter is used by a service to Russia's Primorsky Krai. As of November 2008, there was no direct passenger service from e.g. Harbin to Vladivostok, but one could travel along this route with transfers in Suifenhe, Grodekovo, and Ussuriysk.[17]

The third, little known and even less used, rail connection between the two countries was built farther south, between Hunchun and Russian Makhalino (a station on the Ussuriysk-Khasan-North Korean border line, 41 km before Khasan). It began operating in February 2000,[18] and saw only a minor amount of traffic (678 railcars of lumber) over the next two years. The line was closed in 2002–2003, reopened in 2003, but, as of the summer of 2004, it was still reported as seeing little traffic.[19] The line has been closed between 2004[20] and 2013.[21] As of 2011-2012, plans existed for reopening it, primarily to be used for shipping coal and mineral ores from Russia to China;[20][22] The border crossing reopened, initially in a trial mode, in 2013.[21]

Currently there are two weekly passenger trains in each direction between Beijing and Moscow: trains no. 3/4 including Chinese 2 berth deluxe soft sleeper running via Mongolia, and no. 19/20 running via Manzhouli and Harbin.

Future rail links[edit]

Proposed link to Macau[edit]

Macau SAR is the only province-level division of China that has no railway. An extension of the Guangzhou Railway to Cotai through Hengqin Island has been proposed.[23]

New connections to Russia[edit]

In November 2008, the transport ministries of Russia and the China signed an agreement about creating one more link between the railway systems of the two countries. It will involve a railway bridge between across the Heilongjiang (Amur) River, connecting Tongjiang in China's Jiamusi prefecture with Nizhneleninskoye, a village in Russia's Jewish Autonomous Oblast. At that point, the construction work was expected to start in 2009 and to be completed in 2011.[24][25]

Proposed high-speed links to Europe and South-East Asia[edit]

China is in negotiations to build a continent-spanning high-speed rail network with destinations as far away as London and Germany, within the next ten years. Chinese railway consultant from China's Academy of Engineering; Wang Mengshu, said the 8,157 km (5,069 mi) journey (from Beijing to London) would take just two days to complete, traveling at speeds of up to 345 km/h (215 mph). Mr Wang said that China was already in negotiations with 17 countries over the rail lines, which will draw together and open up the whole of Central, East and South East Asia. Mr Wang said the network would also allow China to transport valuable cargoes of raw materials more efficiently.

Mr Wang said; "We have also already carried out the prospecting and survey work for the European network, and Central and Eastern European countries are keen for us to start", Mr Wang said. "The Northern network will be the third one to start, although China and Russia have already agreed on a high-speed line across Siberia, where one million Chinese already live." A second project would see trains heading north through Russia to Germany and into the European railway system, and a third line will extend south to connect Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Malaysia.[26][27][28][29]

From Yunnan to Southeast Asia[edit]

Yunnan province in southwest China currently has one international railway outlet, to Vietnam via the century-old narrow gauge Kunming–Hai Phong Railway. Plans are being developed to open standard gauge railway links with each of the three countries bordering the province with Kunming, the provincial capital.


A second rail link is being from Kunming to Hekou, on the border with Vietnam. The Kunming–Yuxi Railway was completed in 1993. The Yuxi–Mengzi Railway opened in 2013. The Mengzi–Hekou Railway is under construction and expected to be completed by 2014.[30]


In the late 2010, construction was expected to begin soon on a railway from Kunming, via Yuxi to Laos.[31][32] Although nothing came out of the plans at the time, the expectations were renewed in October 2012.[33]


There are also tentative plans to build a 1920 km railway to Rangoon in Burma; this may be linked to a deepwater port at Dawei.[32] Construction is underway on the Dali–Ruili Railway which would extend the Chinese railway network to the Yunnan-Burma border.

From western Guangxi to Vietnam[edit]

In 2010, a 72-km single-track electrified rail branch was completed from Tiandong on the Nanning-Kunming Railway to Debao, to the southwest.[34] Construction was started on extending this branch from Debao further southwest, to Jingxi,[35] with plans to eventually extend it all the way to the Longbang border crossing on the Vietnamese border.[34]

Proposed rail links to India[edit]

Indian Railways and rail authorities in China are interested in initiating a high-speed rail link that would link New Delhi with Kunming, China via Myanmar[36] The rail link would utilise the under construction railway from Manipur, India to Myanmar and the under construction railway from Kunming to Myanmar.

As India has been extending its railway near the Nathu La pass with China, and China has plans to extend the Qinghai-Tibet railway to near its border with Nathu La, a petition was set up to promote the idea that both countries could link up their respective proportions for direct train services between the two countries. As of September 6, 2011, the petition had 81 members.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Qi, Zhongxi (August 2, 2013). "China implements radical railway reform". International Railway Journal. 
  2. ^ Manchurian railway development
  3. ^ Wu, Zhong (May 7, 2008). "Blowing the whistle on 'Big Brother'". The Times. UK. Retrieved May 6, 2008. 
  4. ^ 去年全国铁路发送旅客14.56亿人次 增长10.6%
  5. ^ Passenger growth drives DB revenue to new high, 2012-09-03
  6. ^ "China railways carry record 6.54 mln passengers on May 1" Xinhua
  7. ^ Train Travel in China – a Beginners Guide
  8. ^ a b c d e f "Railway Statistical Bulletin for 2011". Ministry of Railway, People's Republic of China. Retrieved February 15, 2012. 
  9. ^ English language statistics for 2004 state 74,200. Both exclude any ROC-controlled areas (e.g. Taiwan) and include cross-boundary services to Hong Kong
  10. ^ (including 5,400 km of provincial "local" rails and Hong Kong MTR)
  11. ^ More homemade high-speed trains to hit rails
  12. ^ France 24
  13. ^ CCTV International
  14. ^ Xingjiang’s first electrified railway rails laid September 17, 2009
  15. ^ a b Today near Almaty started building of a new branch line which will connect Kazakhstan and the Peoples Republic of China August 5, 2009.
  16. ^ Хоргос-Жетыген: уже летом первые поезда соединят Китай с Европой (Already this summer first trains will connect China with Europe), 2012-03-16 (Russian)
  17. ^ According to the Russian train schedules at http://www.poezda.net/ (November 2008).
  18. ^ Kawamura, Kazumi. "Nine Transportation Corridors in Northeast Asia and Their Discontinuous Points". The Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia. Retrieved February 9, 2008. 
  19. ^ Пустой коридор ("An empty corridor") Dalnevostochny Kapital, No.7, July 2004. (Russian)
  20. ^ a b Россия и Китай реанимируют бездействующий погранпереход (Russia and China will revive a defunct border crossing), 20.09.2012
  21. ^ a b Погранпереход готов к работе. Подписан акт о полной готовности железнодорожного пограничного перехода Махалино (РФ) – Хуньчунь (КНР) на Дальневосточной железной дороге. (The border crossing is ready for operation. The statement of full readiness for operation of the railway border crossing Makhalino (RF) – Hunchun (PRC) on the Far Eastern Railway has been signed), Gudok', No. 47, 2013-12-20.
  22. ^ Переход Махалино–Хуньчунь (Makhalino-Hunchun border crossing), 2011-08-12
  23. ^ Macau – Meeting Point: a Legacy for the Future (1999), published by the Comissão Territorial de Macau para es Comemorações does Descobrimentos Portugueses, p.6.
  24. ^ "Строительство первого железнодорожного моста соединяющего Китай и Россию начнется в 2009 году" (Construction of the first railway bridge connecting Russia and China will start in 2009) China.org.cn, 2008-11-27. (Russian)
  25. ^ [1] (This is somewhat obsolete by now; in reality, the project was much delayed.)
  26. ^ "King's Cross to Beijing in two days on new high-speed rail network". The Daily Telegraph (London). March 8, 2010. 
  27. ^ "'New Orient Express' fast train could get travellers to Beijing from London in TWO days". Daily Mail (UK). March 9, 2010. 
  28. ^ Simpson, Peter; Wilkes, David (March 9, 2010). "Orient super express: From London to Beijing by train... in just TWO days". Daily Mail (UK). 
  29. ^ http://www.lonelyplanet.com/china/beijing/travel-tips-and-articles/42238
  30. ^ (Chinese) 泛亚铁路东线蒙河铁路铺架开工 中国日报网 2013-01-01
  31. ^ "Laos Link with China". December 12, 2010. Retrieved December 12, 2010. 
  32. ^ a b "China's horizons extend southwards". Railway Gazette. January 6, 2011. Retrieved January 6, 2011. 
  33. ^ "Laos Says China to Finance Rail Link", The Wall Street Journal, 2012-10-24
  34. ^ a b Wang Gang (王刚) (July 24, 2010), 泛亚铁路东通道重要路段广西开通 延伸至中越边境 (An important section of the Transasian Railway's Eastern Route; to extend to the Sino-Vietnamese border) 
  35. ^ China to build new railway linking Vietnam, October 12, 2009
  36. ^ "Railway eyes rail link to China". The Times of India (India). March 10, 2011. 
  37. ^ http://www.facebook.com/pages/Petition-for-a-railway-between-China-and-India/112702522143508

External links[edit]