Passenger Rail Transport in China

Traveling by train has been one of the principal transport methods in China for decades. In recent years, with the improved and efficient operation of railway system, rail transport has become even more popular, and this brings a great volume of passengers.

In 2021, a Covid-hit year, China railway still hopefully transferred 2,540 million passengers. From 2013 to 2019 before covid-19, the transport volume grew stably. This contributed a lot to the operation of high speed railways, as more passengers were willing to travel by rail due to the high speed, reasonable ticket price, comfortable cabin environment, and more departures of the high speed trains.
Year Passengers Volume (million) Growth (%)
2022 1,610 -36.6 (Hit by COVID-19)
2021 2,540 17.6 (Hit by COVID-19)
2020 2,160 -39.5 (Hit by COVID-19)
2019 3,570 7.7
2018 3,317 9.2
2017 3,038 9.6
2016 2,773 11.1
2015 2,496 9.9
2014 2,324 12.0
2013 2,106 10.8
Travel by Rail
Passengers Travelig by Rail
Railway Travel Rush
Crowded Station during New Year Rush

The greatest challenge to China's rail transport occurs during holidays. Within these periods, train rides shoot up dramatically, especially during Chinese New Year holiday and National Day holiday.

Passenger Rail Transport During Chinese New Year
Rail transport accomodates the largest number of passengers during Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), known as Spring Festival Travel Rush. It lasts about 40 days, including 15 days before Chinese New Year's Day and 25 days after that. Passengers mainly consist of migrant workers, college students, and tourists.

New Year's Eve Reunion Dinner has great significance regarding Chinese traditions; most rural migrant workers will return home from work in distant developed cities, and train is the most affordable way for them. Meanwhile, the students begin their winter vacation and return home from study places in large cities, so they are also a big part. In addition, the Spring Festival holiday is one of the longest holidays in the country, which is a good opportunity to travel for those who have gone through a whole year working hard.

In 2019, passengers traveling by railway during the rush reached up to 410 million, about 28 million more than the same period in 2018.

Year Passengers Volume (million) Growth (%)
2022 253 16
2021 (Influenced by COVID-19.) 218 3.5
2020 (No Chunyun this year because of COVID-19.) / /
2019 (January 21st - March 1st) 410 7.4
2018 (February 1st - March 12th) 382 6.8
2017 (January 13th - February 21st) 357 10.1
2016 (January 24th - March 3rd) 325 10.2
2015 (February 4th - March 15th) 295  10.4
2014 (January 16th - February 24th) 266 12

Passenger Rail Transport During National Day Holiday
China’s National Day holiday usually starts on October 1st and ends on October 7th, the other longest holiday in the country besides Spring Festival holiday. The climate during the period is very pleasant, neither too cold nor too hot. So many people go traveling, which brings great money for the tourism industry, hence reputed “Golden Week.” Actually, the “Golden Week” of the rail transport starts 3 days ahead of the holiday on September 28th and lasts for 10 days. During the “golden days” of 2019, roughly 138 million trips were made by train, increased by 5.4% over the same period of 2019.
Year Passengers Volume (million) Growth (%)
2022 72.16 -39.87 (Caused by COVID-19)
2021 120 -5.4 (Caused by COVID-19)
2020 126.87 -16 (Caused by COVID-19)
2019 138 5.4
2018 131 10.8
(One day more than other years
due to Mid-autumn Festival on Oct.4)
132 11.6
2016 108.34 9.7
2015 98.80 8.6
2014 91.01 10.8
2013 82.12 12.5

Tips for traveling by rail during peak seasons:

1. Although temporary trains are put into operation to meet the increasing demand in these peak seasons, the carriages may still be overloaded with more passengers, especially in the hard seat carriages, which make the jouney rather uncomfortable. In this case, foreign visitors are not suggested to travel by train during peak seasons, or make your China trip another time.
2. Train ticket will be in great demand and it is difficult to get one. If you have decided to travel by rail during the peak seasons, buy a ticket as early as possible. The tickets are now available 15 days ahead of departure.

 Further Reading: China Train Travel Tips

Railway Freight Transport in China

In 2022, the overall freight volume on trains reached 3.9 billion tons, 0.18 billion tons more than that in 2021. The main freight goods are still coal, ores, and minerals.
Year Goods Freight (billion tons) Growth (%)
2022 3.9 4.7
2021 3.72 4
2020 3.58 4.1
2019 3.44 7.8
2018 3.19 9.3
2017 2.92 10.1
2016 2.65 -2.3
2015 2.71 -11.6
2014 3.07 -4.7
2013 3.97 1.6
- Last updated on Jan. 12, 2023 by Brenda Lian -
Questions & Answers on Passenger Rail Transport in China
Asked by E. Fred Elledge from UNITED STATES | Feb. 26, 2020 21:16Reply
Can a non=citizen travel by rail from Xi'an, China to Almaty, Kazakhstan with tourist stops?
Answers (1)
Answered by Lvk from USA | Mar. 11, 2020 22:51

It is no problem to travel by train within China if you have passport and train ticket in hand, but for the international train to Almaty, I heard it was stopped due to the virus problem.
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