- On a recent trip through Asia and Europe, I had the opportunity to ride bullet trains in China, Korea, and Russia. Last year, on a trip to Tokyo to launch Business Insider Japan, I rode a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka.
- China’s bullet trains stood out for their speed and the extensiveness of their network; Japan’s trains were notable for their cleanliness and comfort; Korea’s trains were easy to navigate and had great Wi-Fi, and Russia’s trains had the best food options.
- While China and Japan’s bullet train systems were exceptional and Russia’s Sapsan felt luxurious, I think China currently has the edge – here’s why.
As Business Insider’s International Correspondent, I have spent a lot of time over the last four months on any number of trains, planes, and metros.
But my favorite thing to do in any country is ride the high-speed bullet trains, if one is available.
Why? They just aren’t available in the US.
First, let’s look at the trains. Given that China’s high-speed rail has developed over the last 15 years, it would be expected that the trains would be new. While Chinese rail used to rely on technology from Europe and Japan, the country unveiled its newest Chinese-designed-and-made Fuxing class train last year.
While Japan’s bullet train, the Shinkansen, was introduced in 1964, the country has continually updated the trains as the technology is a major Japanese export. The latest trains, the E5 and the slightly modified H5, have been in service since 2011 and 2016 respectively.
Korea’s Korea Train Express launched its services in 2004. The initial trains were developed with Alstom, one of the main companies behind France’s high-speed train system. In recent years, Korea has developed its own trains, primarily with Hyundai Rotem.
Russia’s Sapsan train began service in 2009. The train technology comes from German conglomerate Siemens, which has provided high-speed rail technology for Germany, France, Belgium, China, and others.
Most new high-speed railway stations in China look more like airports than train stations. This is the one I encountered in Xi’an, a city of 8.7 million people. It had high ceilings, futuristic architecture, and nicely spaced gates for the platforms. Most railway stations I encountered were directly connected to the city’s metro making for seamless travel.
I took the Tōkaidō Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka. It is by far the most traveled line in Japan and one of the most popular in the world. You leave from Tokyo Station which is a gorgeous historical station, but not nearly as modern as China’s stations.
In Korea, I rode from Seoul to Busan on Gyeongbu line, the first high-speed railway line in the country. It left from the new Seoul Station, which opened in 2004. The station and its counterpart in Busan, while clean and easy to navigate, were nothing special. They looked like big malls.
I took the Sapsan in Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It left from the Leningrad Station. While architecturally beautiful from the outside, the Leningrad Station and its counterpart in St. Petersburg were dark and crowded on the inside.
China’s railway network served nearly 3 billion passenger rides in 2016, a figure that has increased by about 10% each year. It’s little surprise. The nationwide system covers 15,500 miles, a figure made more impressive when you consider the first line was built in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics.
China’s first high-speed rail line was a single 70-mile demonstration line built specifically for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The country has set aside $550 billion in its current five-year plan (2016-2020) for expanding China’s railway system, with an emphasis on high-speed rail.
With more than 50 years of service, Japan’s Shinkansen network is extensive, reaching nearly 37% of the country’s population. You can take high-speed trains to all major cities on the main islands of Honshu and Kyushu. There are a lot of expansions under construction as well, including a mag-lev train between Tokyo and Osaka.
The KTX network in Korea has four major lines with more planned. The most recent line, the Incheon Airport-Gangneung Line, opened earlier this year in time for the Winter Olympics. What is perhaps most impressive is that the network already covers 44.7% of the population.
High-speed rail in Russia is limited to one line (or two, depending on how you count). The route goes from Saint Petersburg-Moscow-Nizhny Novgorod and takes a little over eight hours, about the distance from New York to Chicago. Driving would take about 14.5 hours.
I bought my rail ticket for China on CTrip, the country’s top e-travel agency. But for some reason, you still have to pick up your ticket in person if you are a foreigner, which requires navigating to the ticket lines and finding the English-speaking counter. If you are a Chinese national, your ticket is loaded onto your national ID so no ticket pickup is necessary. I learned it’s important to book ahead; popular lines get sold out.
While you can purchase tickets for Japan’s Shinkansen online, it will be a hard deal without understanding Japanese. Though ancient-looking, the machines at the station are easy enough to navigate. And there are tons of trains on the major lines so it’s likely you’ll be able to get a seat.
You can purchase your ticket in Korea via the Korail website but since there are only a few lines, since they tend to run often. With so many trains, I wasn’t worried about not getting a seat so I bought a ticket at the counter in the station. There are ticket machines as well.
Tickets for the Sapsan can be easily bought online via the Russian Railways official website. But watch out, there are a ton of companies with similar names (RussianTrains.com, among others) that will “help” you book while charging sometimes double for the ticket.
The interior of China’s G-Class trains looks like the interior of an airplane with three seats on one side and two on the other. There is luggage storage at the end of the cars.
Japan’s Shinkansen cabin looks relatively similar to China’s cabins. Japan’s trains had a nifty hook to hang your jacket next to your seat.
Korea’s KTX train was a bit narrower and seemed a bit more worn. The cabin reminded me more of a commuter rail in the US than a sleek airplane cabin like Japan and China’s trains.
Russia’s Sapsan cabin was by far the nicest of the four. Note the winged headrest and the smoother fabric on the seats. In addition, every few rows there were the seats that faced each other on a table, which gave it that classic train journey feel. All four trains had places to plug in electronics.
I was very happy with my seat on the high-speed trains in China. The seats were big and comfortable, with lots of legroom. Even with my backpack in front of me, I was able to spread my legs out fully.
Same goes for the Shinkansen. Plenty of room, even with a backpack. The seat itself was a bit stiff however, as was the seat in the Chinese train.
Things were a bit tighter in the KTX trains. There was also a tray table that unfolded, instead of coming flat down. It made for a tighter workspace when I was on my laptop during the train.
While I regret I didn’t get a picture of it, the legroom on the Sapsan was huge. The seats themselves were large as well and comfortable to sleep in. The tray table reflected the size of the chair — wide enough for me to set my laptop and some USB accessories.
Some high speed trains in China have a dining car, but it’s not like the dining cars of old. Rather than cook onsite, they offer prepackaged microwaveable meals. On the Beijing-Xi’an and Zhengzhou-Shenzhen trains I took, there was no dining car. Instead, a train attendant came by with a trolley selling snacks, drinks, and instant noodles. I brought food from the station.
Food on the Shinkansen is even more sparse. Just a cart with some drinks, snacks, and instant noodles. Most passengers stop to pick up a bento box at the station before boarding.
Because KTX rides are so short (usually no more than three hours), there are minimal dining options. Just a few vending machines. But KTX gets bonus points because it was the only one with working Wi-Fi. That will change in the future — both China and Japan have said they will add Wi-Fi to high-speed lines soon.
The Sapsan was far and away the best for food. Firstly, many economy-class seats come with coffee, a drink, and a sandwich.
The Sapsan train also has a cafè car with microwaveable meals, alcoholic drinks, and coffee. I had the borscht and a salmon dish. Both were delicious.
China’s G-Class trains can reach up to 350 km/h (217 mph), but generally top out around 307 km/h (190 mph). A newly developed Fuxing Hao train can hit 400 km/h (248 mph).
The Shinkansen H5 and E5, the two newest trains, hit top operating speeds of 320 km/h (198 mph), though the trains have to run slower on some lines.
High-speed rail trains currently in operation in Korea are designed for a top speed of 350 km/h (217 mph) and and operating speed of 300 km/h (186 mph).
The Sapsan train runs at a maximum speed of 250 km/h (155 mph), though that is upgradeable to 350 km/h (217 mph).
So which high-speed rail was the best? In my opinion, China’s system stood out for its state-of-the-art trains, stunning train stations, and impressive network, though its check-in process and on-train food options could be improved.
While I think that China’s high-speed rail was the best overall, that’s not say it was the best in every category.
China’s sparkling new stations stood out as architectural marvels and its 15,500 mile-network is the most extensive in the world. China’s trains were also the fastest and newest of the bunch.
But Japan’s network was equally impressive in some regards, with 36.55% of its population covered by its high speed lines. While Korea’s network was only four lines, it covered a whopping 44.67% of its population, no doubt boosted by the fact that it connects the country’s two major cities.
While Russia’s Sapsan trains only connected St. Petersburg, Russia, and Nizhny Novgorod, the trains themselves were nicer than China’s, Japan’s, and Korea’s. Those countries’ trains felt functional and efficient, while the Sapsan felt like a mix between fast high-speed rail and old-school, romantic train travel. The included food-and-drink service on the Sapsan added to this impression.
Overall, I enjoyed my ride on all of the high-speed rail lines, which made destinations usually only reachable via an overnight train or flight a quick trip away.
The main thing I was left wondering after my four trips was less which one was the best, and more: why don’t we have high-speed rail in the US?