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In 1993 when working in Guangzhou I hoped to discover more of this country during the Spring Festival holiday. However, I was told by my colleagues that would be very difficult. Only one railway at that time went north from Guangzhou and every train would be full with migrant workers “going home”! Also, trying to purchase a train ticket would probably be impossible. Tickets had to be purchased at the railway station and every day thousands of hopeful travelers would crowd into the booking offices - English then was not spoken!
During the later 1990s I watched rail travel improving. In Beijing the main stations had special ticket offices for foreigners, which were then a big help. Also, by 1999 computerized ticketing was starting. Speeds were increasing with intercity trains, for example, travelling nonstop from Beijing to Xi'an or Shanghai and comfort was greatly improving, but overnight journeys were the norm.
Major developments came in 2007 with high-speed CRH trains running between Beijing and Tianjin at 300 km/h. This was a catalyst for massive changes. Such trains had a level of comfort previously unknown on China's railways with every passenger having a comfortable seat, for example. A modern ticketing system allowed ease of purchase - indeed in recent years passengers are buying tickets online, even with smartphones. Indeed I can check timetables, prices and availability of tickets which for travel planning is excellent.
Today China has the world's largest high-speed network with the vast majority of tickets now bought online. This has greatly improved the situation for travelers trying to return to their hometowns during the Spring Festival. However, not all services are by high-speed, now running up to 350 km/h. Many older “green train” still run offering slower but cheaper services, and they also can be booked on-line.
China's railways have certainly improved greatly since my first journey in 1987 and I have been very fortunate to have experienced the transformation first hand, as a keen train traveler.