- 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 extensive network; Japan’s trains were notable for their cleanliness and comfort; Korea’s trains were easy to navigate and had great WiFi; and Russia’s trains had the best food options.
- While China’s and Japan’s bullet-train systems were exceptional, and Russia’s Sapsan felt luxurious, I think China has the edge. Here’s why.
As Business Insider’s international correspondent, I have spent a lot of time over the past four months on any number of trains, planes, and metros.
But my favorite thing to do in any country is ride a high-speed bullet train, if there is one.
Why? They just aren’t available in the US.
Amtrak’s Acela Express, which travels from Boston to Washington, DC, is the closest thing Americans have to a high-speed train. But with a speed that tops out at 241 kilometers per hour (150 mph), it pales in comparison to train systems in China and Japan, which are both faster and more extensive.
On recent trips to China, Japan, Korea, and Russia, I made sure to ride the high-speed bullet trains so that I could get a sense of how they compare from country to country.
In each instance, the train systems were impressive and efficient. But which is the best? Let’s find out.
(Disclaimer: This is based on my personal experience. For a more numbers-based comparison, go here »)
First, let’s look at the trains. Given that China’s high-speed rail has developed over the past 15 years, you would expect the trains to be new. While China’s rail used to rely on technology from Europe and Japan, it 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 Siemens, a German conglomerate that 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 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 South Korea, I rode from Seoul to Busan on the 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 Leningradsky Station. While architecturally beautiful from the outside, the station and its counterpart in St. Petersburg were dark and crowded on the inside.
China’s railway network served nearly 3 billion passengers in 2016, and ridership has increased by about 10% each year. It’s not surprising. 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 five-year plan (2016 to 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 Maglev train between Tokyo and Osaka.
The KTX network in Korea has four major lines, with more planned. The latest 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 about 45% of the population.
High-speed rail in Russia is limited to one line (or two, depending on how you count it). The route goes from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod and takes a little over eight hours — about the distance from New York to Chicago. Driving would take about 14.5 hours.
- Wikimedia Commons
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 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 hard 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 you’re likely to get a seat.
You can purchase your ticket in Korea via the Korail website. There are only a few lines, but they tend to run often. Because there are 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 website. But watch out: There are a ton of companies with similar names — like 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 that 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 did.
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 seats that faced each other with a table, giving 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.
Same goes for the Shinkansen — plenty of room, even with a backpack. The seat was a bit stiff, however, as was the seat in the Chinese train.
Things were a bit tighter in the KTX trains. The tray table unfolded instead of coming flat down, making for a tighter workspace when I was on my laptop.
While I regret not getting a picture of it, the legroom on the Sapsan was huge. The seats 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 on it.
Some high-speed trains in China have a dining car, but it’s not like the dining cars of old. Rather than cook on-site, it offers 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 WiFi. That will change in the future — both China and Japan have said they will soon add WiFi to high-speed lines.
The Sapsan was far and away the best for food. Many economy-class seats come with coffee, a drink, and a sandwich.
The Sapsan train also has a café 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).
Source: Asia Times
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 operating in Korea are designed for a top speed of 350 km/h (217 mph) and an operating speed of 300 km/h (186 mph).
The Sapsan train runs at a 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 China’s high-speed rail was the best overall, it wasn’t 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 37% of its population covered by its high-speed lines. While Korea’s network was only four lines, it covers a whopping 45% of its population, no doubt boosted by the fact that it connects South Korea’s two major cities.
While Russia’s Sapsan trains connect only 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 the high-speed rail lines, which made destinations usually reachable only 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?”