Tag Archives: train

The Complications of Beijing Train Stations


WeChat Image_20170710095554

I almost didn’t make it.

It was hot and humid in early morning July. The taxi cabs were lined up bumper to bumper around the station and everyone seemed to be in a rush to go somewhere, although no one was quite sure where that place was exactly.

No matter how many times I go to train stations in Beijing, they always seem to confuse the heck out of me. In other cities it’s more streamlined and there are less people. But in Beijing, for one reason or another, it’s always a zoo.

Having bought my ticket to Wuhan on the C-Trip app, I still needed to pick it up at Beijing West Station. First, I tried to use the self service station, but that machine required using a shenfenzheng (身份证), or Chinese ID card.

In a rush I asked a few different shop attendants where I could pick up the ticket. They all gave different answers. Eventually I figured out that I needed to go into the station and stand in one of the lines that oozed out like an ice cream cone in the sun.

The first line moved quickly and I was relieved. I checked my phone, and saw that I would still have time to grab a coffee and something quick for breakfast before departure. Perfect.

Abruptly the line began to thin. Soon I reached the front, only to find out that the attendant was closing the register. Apparently she had been working all night.

I moved onto the next line. This time deciding upon one that read “English Service” above the register.

About halfway into the line I began to hear yelling. Men who were slightly bigger than the others were throwing their voices around in hopes that they could either rush to the front or speed up the already stressed out cashier.

A moment later one of the men appeared in my vision above the crowd, crouching on a metal bar in front of the cashier’s station where a rotating gate stemmed the surge of passengers who pushed each other from behind. Like some sort of line-cutting troll he shoved his ID card under the window and demanded his ticket.

A moment later, another a man who had cut the line was walking away when he got into a shouting and shoving altercation with a man standing in the line that he had cut. They raised their voices and puffed out their chests, cursing each other.

Ultimately the man walked away, throwing insults over his shoulder as the other stood fuming in position at the center of the line.

And yet still we waited, and waited. I checked my phone and realized now that the gap between me boarding the train and it departing was becoming narrower and narrower. Fending off a few more old men trying to cut the line and passing through the steel gates, I managed to pick up both departure and return tickets for an extra five RMB.

Outside, I began to hurry. I now had to find a way to enter into the station, but the heat and crowds of people befuddled my head. Eventually I made my way to another set of turnstiles between the crowd and train platforms.

At the final set of turnstiles, I realized that I again needed a Chinese ID card to pass through. Pleading with the guard to let me jump over the gates as I was in danger of missing my train, she smiled and shook her head.

So, out of time and luck, I made my way as if I was to go back out of the line, but then casually ducked under a red rope to the side of the turnstiles.

Rushing through the final security check, grabbing two meat pies and a bottle of water, the attendant looked at my ticket and urged me to hurry onto the platform before my train departed. I dashed away towards the incorrect cabin, but a cabin nonetheless, and onto the train leaving for Wuhan.

Had I not ducked under the red rope, I would have missed my train and had to return to the line and exchange tickets. A task that would have cost me another hour, minimum, and further exposed myself to the not-to-be-taken-lightly early morning summer sweat.

Does Beijing Still Believe Foreign Technology Is “Clever But Useless”?

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Beijing has never been known for its hospital weather. Sandstorms, arid conditions, and pollution are all commonplace in the capital of the People’s Republic of China.

When you look at Beijing’s location on a map, next to the Gobi Desert and Mongolian Plains, it is incredibly difficult to understand why it is such a populous city in the first place.

That is to say, throughout history prosperous cities have had an ecological reason. Shanghai started out as a fishing town and Guangzhou made it’s name via port trade and industry, for example.

So, why are there so many people in Beijing today?

Beijing’s Political Clout

Beijing has little in terms of ecological advantage. In fact, the biggest reason for it’s importance today is the city’s colorful history.

  • Beijing was first dubbed a capital from 1264 until 1267 under the Khans’ Mongol empire.
  • In the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1421 until 1912, Beijing again regained its status as the center of China, only to be displaced by Sun Yat-sen in the forming of the Repulic of China via the Xinhai Revolution.
  • Finally, in 1949 it was made the capital again, as it remains today, when Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army won out in a civil way against Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (Singh, 2007).

These dates and the significance behind them illustrate why Beijing has had both incredible strategic and political significance through the past millennium in China. And while the strategic importance of Beijing’s position as a military location has decreased somewhat over the years as military technology has advanced, its political clout remains as strong to today as ever.

As mentioned above, the city’s geographical position is less than ideal. The air quality is abysmal and the climate perpetually arid. Yet, the Chinese still flock to the capital in search of opportunity, exacerbating  its overpopulation problems.

Notably the CCP doesn’t seem to be sitting on their laurels when it comes to the issue of making Beijing more livable. In fact, it is rapidly expanding and building more subway lines as part of its plan to help workers commute from the suburbs and mitigate the myriad of problems that come from so many people living in one area. 

A Short History Of Beijing’s Railways

train station

Beijing’s recent love affair with rail networks is very interesting when you consider their attitude historically towards outside influence. Moreover it is incredibly telling when discussed in terms of China’s march towards modernization and its relationship to the outside world.

When the British first tried to sell railways to the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, one mandarin was famously quoted as having said that the trains were “clever but useless”.

(Sidenote: The source for this quote is broken on the wikipedia page where I originally read it. Perhaps it is misreported, but nevertheless is a good metaphor for how the Qing Dynasty viewed trains in the 19th century).

The British did not let their initial attempts to sale rail technology disuade them, and in 1876 the British trading firm “Jardine, Matheson, and Co.” built the “Woosung Road” railway. This ran from the American Concession to Zhunbei District in Shanghai. Presumably this was an attempt to market the such railway systems to the Chinese. But, it ultimately failed when the government decided to pull it up after two weeks of operation. 

In 1881, the Kaiping Tramway was completed by the imperial Railways in north China to transport Coal from Tangsun mines. This time the project was not undone, as it was backed by powerful government supporters. However, they did need the direction and guidance of the English engineer, Robert Reginald Burnett. 

Interestingly enough, in order to secure support for the railway, a government official made a present of a smaller railway for the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1888. This rail was built between her residence in Zhongnanhai and dining hall in Beihai.

The Empress Dowager, however, was concerned that the sound of the train would disturb the fengshui of the imperial city. She therefore decided to have her eunuchs pull the train, rather than use a steam powered engine .

Foreign Technology, Still “Clever but Useless”?

Today, it is safe to say that the original “clever but useless” sentiment towards foreign influence in China has made a one hundred and eighty degree turn. Now, we see both the CCP and private enterprise adopting foreign technology and partnering with foreign companies to help advance both the country’s and their own interests. 

In fact, the Chinese railway system, once decried as “clever but useless”, is now centerpiece to the governments modernization plan.

In 2016 “China’s top economic planner approved a 247 billion-yuan ($36 billion) railway plan to link Beijing to neighboring cities as part of a government effort to improve connectivity around the nation’s capital” (Lyu, 2016).

This rail system will effectively link Beijing with the neighboring cities of Tianjin as well as other cities in Hebei Province. If completed, it will represent a a project which is the first of its kind both in intricacy as well as scale.

Moreover, this project is just one of many in which the government plans to use foreign technology as the solution to their unique situation. The Bohai Strait Tunnel, subways and bridges in Guangdong, as well as the Gansu Wind Farm project are just some of the many examples taken from the governments thirteenth Five Year Plan.

With so many problems caused by overpopulation and the Party’s determination to meet GDP targets, China seems to have adopted a strategy in complete opposite to the late Qing Dynasty.

These projects, if completed, will certainly put China “on the map” and give them even more credibility in a time of uncertain global affairs. The question that seems to be on everyone’s mind, is if Chinese organizations can properly manage these types of never-been-done projects.


Singh, R. (2007, Jan 20). When did Beijing become the capital of China?
Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/When-did-Beijing-become-the-capital-of-China/articleshow/1343312.cms

Lyu, D. (2016, Nov 28). China Approves $36 Billion Rail Plan for Cities Around Beijing
Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-28/china-approves-36-billion-rail-plan-for-cities-around-beijing

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