The specific word you use to describe “those funny trains running underneath the city avenues” varies depending if you’re a Londoner (the Tube), from Paris (the Metro), or are part of the Big Apple aka New York City (the Subway). China seems to have standardised on the Parisian variant (the Metro) except for Beijing and references from national railways (the Subway).
In any case, it’s important to familiarise yourself with the “underground dragon”, as Lonely Planet has referred them as. Traffic above-ground is often brought to its knees by the scariest of all rush-hour jams; underground, you might have to wait for the next train, but at least you’ll be guaranteed to be on the move. Some of these systems are also incredibly cheap.
This As-Is Guide gives you an idea of the city metro systems in China, and tells you how the system works.
CITY METRO SYSTEMS IN CHINA
In more recent years, an increasing number of cities in China have these systems (it all began with Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai). Here’s a full list (the list includes “conventional” metro systems, as well as light rail, monorail and non-high-speed maglevs):
Mainland China: Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou Guangzhou, Shenzhen; Changchun, Changsha, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Foshan, Harbin, Kunming, Nanjing, Ningbo, Shenyang, Suzhou, Wuhan, Wuxi, Xi’an, Zhengzhou
Outside Mainland China: Hong Kong, Taipei*, Kaohsiung*
* On Taiwan
Just about every city in China that has a city metro system has a local “smart card” system (like the Oyster Card of London) that facilitates access. Nearly all cities also charge according to the distance travelled (Beijing itself is considering a change to a distance-based model).
Distance-based fares are determined by the mileage or number of midway stations travelled through. Fare zones such as those in Western Europe are not yet in operation.
Single Journey Tickets will not be returned to you at your exit station and will not work for exit interchange arrangements.
Expect steep penalties if you attempt fare evasion. In Beijing, the penalty is ten times the standard ticket charge. You may also be handed over to police for prosecution.
In 2008, Beijing became the first city in the world to introduce compulsory security checks on all travellers. Baggage had to be scanned through an X ray machine. At first, smaller bags could be checked by security staff; however, the rules were soon rewritten so that X ray machines were to be used by all.
Current systems with a mandatory security check include those in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. The list is expected to increase. Already now, Chinese law permits searches in city metro systems (as is also the cases in overseas systems such as London).
At a few stations, or during special events or times of heightened security, you must go through airport-style checks.
DON’T TRY THIS ON THE GO…
- Smoking has been outlawed nationwide. The use of cigarettes, cigars and pipes is strictly prohibited. It is also not advisable to use e-cigarettes.
- Security checks are required by all where this is needed. Failure to do so will result in denial of travel.
- Dangerous items are strictly prohibited throughout any city metro system.
- Photography is restricted. In Guangzhou, commercial photography requires permission. In Beijing, photography is not banned by law, but can result in members of staff requesting you to move due to loitering or failure to follow staff instructions. In Hong Kong, you cannot take moving pictures or videos without special permission. On Line 9 in Tianjin, photography is de facto prohibited without prior authorisation.
At the vast majority of interchange stations, you can change from one line to another simply by following the lines.
A handful of stations allow for cross-platform interchanges. This means you simply need to move to the opposite platform to change lines. Otherwise, you must proceed to another level, or use interchange passageways via station concourses. Be aware that some transfer routes are clearly signed as one-way passages.
At a few stations, you must complete either an exit interchange (known elsewhere as an “out-of-station interchange”) or a transfer to another fare system.
Nearly all trains have a route map of at least this line. Most often you will also find a general route map of the city’s entire network, or at least central parts of the network.
Stations are generally announced over the PA system in mandarin Chinese, English, and at times, in other dialects or languages.
All doors on trains are operated by the driver. Do not board or exit when the door alarms are heard.
QUICK GUIDE TO TRAVELLING BY CITY METRO IN CHINA
- Pick your station and undergo security checks where required.
- Get tickets (you may need to do this after going through security). Always input your destination (choose by line first). If you have problems, use a staffed counter where available. You must pay by cash (ideally using coins) and exact change is preferred.
- Touch in through the entry gates and choose your line and direction of travel by terminus.
- Wait for your train. Allow passengers off the train first.
- Listen to announcements or watch signage for your exit station.
- Follow signs to either exit or to connect onto your next line of travel.
- If exiting, insert single tickets into the machine. Touch out if using stored-valued transit cards.
- Choose exit and leave the system. Note that at some stations, you must choose your exit in advance, as separate concourses may be used.