Travel by Train: China vs. the USA

My friend Shelley used to live in Dongying, Shandong Province. He is now traveling in the States. Here is an excerpt of an e-mail I recently got from him:

> I arrived in LA this morning after 3 nights on a train and couple hours stopover in Chicago. I learned a few things about the differences between US and Chinese train travel. I should first mention that this trip closely mirrors a trip I took just last year in China. It also involved 3 nights on a train with a short stopover after the first night. However, my US train took me entirely across the country, from Washington D.C. to L.A. My Chinese train took me from Kashgar (far northwest) to Xi’an, which would be more like Seattle to Chicago in the US. But I think this had more to do with the speed of the train. Anyway…

> From my half-dozen Amtrak trips between Sacramento and San Jose, I knew that 1) there would be very few people on the train, and 2) there are electrical outlets and tables by most seats. From the info I had gathered from Amtrak’s website, I knew 3) private cabins would cost a bit more than a flight (around $350) but would allow me to travel in great comfort.

> Yeah, well, I was wrong about all that stuff. I must have been looking at the seat prices because my seat from D.C. to L.A. cost me $299. Private cabins cost $1,000 and were booked up “until September” according to one conductor. The train was also overbooked, and I witnessed the familiar sight of people scrambling to get on the train before everyone else. See, I had a ticket for a seat, but not a specific one. Some people got put in the lounge car until seats cleared up in the coach cabins. And finally, you guessed it, no tables or electrical outlets. There were 3, only 3, outlets in the lounge car within an unused snack counter area. I managed to get up early enough one morning to stake a claim on one and charge up my cell phone and iPod. And believe me, I protected my outlet from other power-starved travelers like a lion over its kill fends off circling hyenas.

> Now, a seat on a Chinese train for 3 nights would be an amazing feat of stamina and bladder control. I’ve never done that. The longest I went for was a 26-hour stint which I emerged from as if I had just climbed Everest. A seat on a US train for 3 nights is about a hundred times more comfortable because it’s 1) a bucket seat and not a bench, 2) much better climate controlled, 3) bathrooms are clean and well-stocked with necessities, and 4) the lounge car provides another place to hang out with wall-to-ceiling windows and TVs showing movies in the evening.

> That said, however, I wouldn’t recommend the train to anyone who wasn’t ready to spend a boatload of cash to make it more comfortable. While the seats were spacious, they didn’t fully recline and I never found a comfortable sleeping position. I mostly passed out from exhaustion. Several times I pondered the pros and cons of sleeping in the aisle, but the cons always won out.

> Also, the train is not merely kept well air-conditioned, it’s kept refrigerated. I actually love to crank the AC up, but I was absolutely freezing during the first night. I noticed that everyone else on the train took out thick blankets and heavy sweaters. They had obviously done this before. I shivered all the way to Chicago. During that stopover I bought a hooded sweatshirt, which wasn’t easy to find but I knew my health depended on it. And folks, I’m really not exaggerating. It was amazingly cold. Amtrak might be experimenting with cryogenics. Well ok, now I’m exaggerating a little.

> The food available wasn’t all that bad but keep in mind that my standards for western food are very low. It was definitely overpriced microwaveable stuff. But they really had a great variety of it. Still, this is no advantage over a Chinese train. If I were on a Chinese train the food would come to me on snack carts roaming the cars every half hour or so.

> In conclusion, I would have to say that Chinese trains are better. Really. Because for the same price as my US train seat, I could have bought a super nice cabin (soft-sleeper) on a Chinese train and traveled in great comfort … with an electrical outlet!

> I kept wondering why so many people were on the train at all. “Um, excuse me, doesn’t anyone here realize we could’ve flown for cheaper?” Apparently not.

Thanks to Shelley for letting me publish this.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. My guess is that almost everyone on the train falls into one of two groups: afraid of flying or like trains/want to have the experience. Otherwise, I have no idea why you would travel for 3 days across the US when you can fly Southwest in 6 hours for $300.

  2. Could it be he was traveling during the security alert on the airlines? That could account for the greater than usual number of train travelers. Trains were allowing liquids & gels on the carry-ons, I’ll bet.

  3. Actually, that last comment was mine; I forgot to change the name.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: August 16, 2006 at 9:11 am

    “Chinese trains are better”?! Well, only for people who can’t–or aren’t willing to–afford private cabins on American trains. Maybe a more appropriate opinion would be “Chinese trains are better for middle- to lower-class Americans.” Personally, trains are only good when you’re on vacation. As a means for transportation, they suck, especially stateside where you can find the same route for the same or even cheaper flying.

  5. The US still has trains? I thought they only carried corn and hobos.

  6. When I lived in the south, we had NO train service. If you wanted to go from say, South Carolina to Alabama, you either drive, fly, or Greyhound…

  7. @John: Great post. This has long been a pet peeve of mine, as train service in Canada is the same. Costly and inefficient. I guess they’ve got a bit of a market for people scared to fly, but still… when airlines are offering these crazy cheap flights to boost falling (no pun intended) business, why would anyone sit on a train for three days?

    I did a cross-Canada tour by bus once, and that was about three days as well. It was cheaper than flying and I only had a bit of my luggage stolen. It was ace.

    @88s: Corn, hobos and Aussies that went to Europe first 😉

  8. I was laughing on a Canadian train, slowly making its way from Windsor to Toronto, after a short trip to Michigan with my friends. I kept telling them about the Shinkansen in Japan and how local commuter trains were better and faster than VIA. I’m going to Beijing next week, perhaps I’ll have a chance to try out their train and subway systems …

  9. The commuter trains in the Northeastern US are heavily used, fast, and cheaper than flying. There’s also some good train lines in CA where it’s needed – say, Stockton to Bay Area (a crazy-long commute) is heavily used, and even the LA-SF train is OK if you can’t get a cheap air ticket and don’t want to drive the annoying ass I5 long-haul.

    But yeah, if you’re talking about flyover country, train service doesn’t make much sense. Maybe if you have time to kill. Amtrak used to offer a $600 unlimited travelling for a month deal – almost did that as a college student and I really wish I had.

    When I’ve taken trains (I’ve flown much much more), the cheap tickets were always very comfortable and clean, maybe comparable to Chinese tourist trains, except better. I’ve only taken a private cabin once on a train, as it’s very rarely offered on Amtrak trains. The service offered was exactly the same as with normal tickets. The idea that Amtrak could even think of offering service worse than Chinese train service is goofy.

  10. I had a chance to take a soft-sleeper from Harbin to Heihe (Russian border) with two friends. There were four bunks, so a Chinese guy was in there with us. Anyway, it was nice and cozy, but no easier to wash up than in hard-sleeper so if I had been paying for it, I would have gone hard-sleeper. If I didn’t wear contact lenses, I would like long distance travel a lot more.

    It’s probably been 15 years now, but when my family took Amtrak from Chicago to Boise, it was frigid. Must be a long-term experiment.

    I didn’t know there was a train from Windsor to Toronto. Recently I wanted to try to use Amtrak to get from Grand Rapids to Toronto, but there was no such thing. Maybe I could Greyhound to Detroit or Windsor?

  11. I really like traveling on Chinese trains. It’s something I look forward to every trip back. The sound of going over the tracks is really soothing and it’s interesting to talk to people on the train. I don’t know why you’d hold it in…I mean the bathrooms aren’t that bad.

    Oh, and months after submitting my website to the official blog list, waiting, then deciding to email you about it and getting no answer, well, I’ve resorted to asking on here. WHh isn’t my blog on it yet? It meets all the criteria.

  12. parasitius Says: August 17, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    Outlets ? OUTLETS ? On a Chinese train ? Once someone told me that B.S. rumor, and I actually believed it and wasted a boatload for a soft-sleeper from Jinan to Shanghai. I got on, all happy that I could probably play with my laptop all night — and asked the girl. She looks at me like I’m on crack. “IS THERE A POWER SOURCE?” She finally gives a half-hearted “It’s in the bathroom” on my third attempt. YEAH, I’m sure a SHAVER outlet is going to power my laptop, and I’m sure it is going to be fun standing HOLDING a 10lbs laptop over two sinks while people constantly shuffle in and out washing their faces and brushing their teeths. Don’t believe the stupid RUMOR.

  13. I’ve traveled on Amtrak several times. The midwest and west routes are notoriously late because Amtrak uses tracks that belong to freight carriers and must yield to those trains. A long journey can be a relaxing and pleasant way to see the country, and sleeping berths aren’t terribly expensive if you book ahead during the off-season and if you split the cost with a travel buddy. Sleeping berths include nice sit-down meals served on china in the dining car.

    I took the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Flagstaff, perhaps the same route you took to LA. The train departs in the afternoon, so passengers can sleep through Kansas and wake up to the beautiful arid mountainous scenery of southeast Colorado. I also took the Lakeshore Limited from DC to Toledo. The hilly scenery near where Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia meet was pretty, but otherwise the trip was unremarkable. I took it only because a one-way ticket, even with a sleeping berth, was cheaper than a one-way flight. I took one more trip from Port Kent, NY, across from Burlington, VT, to NYC. Occasional glimpes of water and hills, but no postcard pretty views.

  14. Scenery. Yes.

    See, Amtrak isn’t considered a transportation method. It’s a tourism destination. There is no reason whatsoever to take the train – none. Amtrak is always late, the service is terrible, and the price is higher than the airlines. However, if you want to take the family on a trip to “see America”, and price isn’t a problem, then you take a multi-day trip on Amtrak. How many of the world’s utilitarian trains use 2-story Superliner cars?

  15. Professor Loco Says: August 21, 2006 at 12:35 am

    I remember my first (and last) Amtrack trip: San Diego to Los Angeles. As soon as I purchased my ticket, an announcement was made that the train was going to be late. “Sorry, no refunds….” A two and a half hour car trip turned into an eight hour bus-train-bus-train-bus nightmare. I think those signs showing the outlines of people running across the freeway aren’t for illegals, but for Amtrack passengers fleeing the broken down trains.

  16. I’m a champion of the train. Although I must admit, I only take the train for short trips on either LA rarea commuter trains or Amtrak short distance traince.

    I take the San Diego to Los Angeles route quite often. The train is timely, confortable, and a much better alternative to driving and often faster due the immense traffic on the roads these days. It’s cheaper than driving when traveling alone. Professor Loco had a bad experience, but I’ve never had a bad experience on Amtrak Pacific Surfliner yet.

    I’ve only had the rode the train in China once, an express line from Shenzhen to Guangzhou East station. Wow.. talk about a crappy train. The seats unfortable and seemingly unoperable… the whole operation just wreaked of a state run system. I love it when they smoke inside the cabin.

    KCR trains in Hong Kong are very nice, but they are essentially subway cars… and well in Hong Kong… a train rides are so short…. is it even possible to ride the train for more than 30-40 mins at a time?

  17. I too was stunned to read about outlets on chinese trains. Perhaps the new Z trains (non-stop ueber express) have them (almost as expensive as the cheapest flights, at 400 kuai xian-beijing in a four person cabin, or 200 for a cabin with private toilet. I wish I had paid more attention to report back on this development. Very nice though, with a plush lounge car, bar, and excellent meals, and tv screens for each bunk. Before that we took an N class from Dunhuang to Xian. The restaurant was fun, but the carpets and everything were rank. we were next to the toilet, and each time we stopped a pong wafted up from the bogeys through the vents. Yum. Of course, China is good for trains provided you don’t need to be guaranteed a ticket back to where you came from. For a kashgar-beijing silk road mission, we ended up booking flights for each leg with and cancelling them at each stop, and wearing the 0-10% of ticket price. Still ended up saving a chunk of change, especially when you factor in airport transfers and savings on accommodation. In each instance we managed to get train tickets 2 days ahead, even though for part of the trip we were travelling during the national holiday, though from xian to bj only the z train had berths available. z train tickets to beijing in hand 400rmb, triumphing over the xian railway station ticket hall during the october holiday: priceless.

Leave a Reply