It was about time. After a year and a half here, my first trip on a Chinese fast train was this past Monday. My associate and I had an appointment in Ningbo, about 3.5 hour by car from where we live. We had planned to drive but then decided to relax on the train. For that we had to travel to Wuxi (pronounced wooshi), which is 40 minutes away.
I had taken the Maglev train a few years ago from downtown Shanghai to Shanghai’s Pudong airport and it was impressive, with speeds hitting 250 mph. The bullet train we took this week didn’t quite make 200 mph, but close. With stops, it was slightly less than three hours station-to-station, making the door-to-door about the same time as driving. For me though, it was considerably more relaxing, I think.
Although there were just shy of a dozen trains that morning, we purchased our tickets online on the only train with available seats. Because we were both foreigners, even though our tickets were purchased, we had to pick them up at the train station ticket window with evidence of passport copies. To our dismay, the lines were not short. We arrived at the station with what we thought was plenty of time, but because of the mandatory queue, we ended up rushing to the platform with only two minutes to spare before the train doors closed.
And to add a touch more consternation, they would not give us our return trip tickets, which meant we had to plan the queue time again later. So at our appointment in Ningbo we asked someone from their office the favor of going to the station to collect our return tickets hoping that we’d avoid the return queue, but the plan was foiled. Only passport holders, she told us after returning from the station, can collect their tickets, even though the process is largely a formality (they didn’t even look up to check our faces when we picked up our tickets).
It was no holiday, just a normal work day, and still the stations on both ends were quite busy. Waiting in line is something most of us try to avoid. Most service businesses do their best to minimize queue time, so the modern bullet train queue time is a disincentive for using their service, especially for those who flip for the first-class tickets. In that way, Amtrak in the USA is a light year ahead, although you could say they trade speed of convenience, (i.e., buying the ticket and having it reside on a smart phone app which you simply show prior to boarding), for speed of the train, (Amtrak high speed trains average about 160 kph or 100 mph).
In other aspects, the Amtrak and the China systems are quite similar. I recently traveled on both systems, the class up from coach class — on Amtrak it’s called business class, in China it’s first class. But even first class doesn’t get you any advantage to the queue wait.
Another service difference is that Amtrak offers wifi on board, the China bullet train we traveled on did not.
Trains can be relaxing travel for sure, especially for shorter distances where and when driving is inconvenient, so it’s a disappointment in China that foreigners, even those who hold a residence visa (I don’t have one), can’t avoid the ticket queue for each leg of a train journey. Having a good book helps make the queue a bit more tolerable, but so does being aware of your surrounding with dense movement of people. Still, if you’ve got to get somewhere out of Wuxi, say to Ningbo, taking the bullet train is not a bad way to travel.