C Trains and Tianjin

The following is a trip report from a journey taken in 2011, when I was on holiday in Beijing.

I woke at 9:30 and immediately decided, on a whim, to go to Tianjin for the day. Tianjin is a city approximately 120 km south of Beijing and has become a commuter city for people who work in Beijing but can’t afford the exorbitant rent in the city centre. The cities are linked by a high speed rail line, with several express trains per hour. These trains use the same CRH380 stock as G trains, but are classified as C trains.

I took the subway from my hotel to Beijing South station and approached the ticket window. I wrote down the C2021 on a piece of paper (the number of the train I wanted to catch) and said “Tianjin” to the booking clerk. She responded with: “Passport”. Damn! I had forgotten that China’s long distance trains (including C trains) require an ID card or passport and had left my passport at the hotel! I shrugged my shoulders and she said “no ticket!”. I am was about to walk away from the window, when I had a brainwave; my Australian driver’s licence was in my wallet. I proffered the license and said “Au-dalia ID card”. She scrutinised the license, shrugged and sold me a ticket.

I had about 30 minutes before my train departed, so I bought a coffee at the Starbucks rip-off in the modern Beijing South station. I waited in the airport-style departure lounge, and about 15 minutes before the departure time of my train, it was called to board.

The non-stop, 300km/h journey was over almost before it started, taking just 33 minutes from the doors closing at Beijing South to the doors opening at Tianjin. I exited the platform, and in the underpass was an old lady selling maps for ¥8. I was sure it was a heavily inflated price, but I needed a map, and it was only about A$1.40.

I attempted to exit the large station, but took a wrong turn, and found myself walking down a seemingly endless corridor. I had discovered a metro station on the map I had just purchased, but couldn’t seem to find the exit leading to it. It was supposedly on the north side of the station, and I could only find exits on the south side. I asked a security guard where the metro station is, and point to the map, but he only shook his head. I presumed he didn’t know.

I continued on down the corridor, and a slightly scruffy, middle aged man approached me and tried to tell me something. I didn’t understand what he is saying, but he shows me an iPhone, and I presume he is trying to sell it to me. I tell him I’m not interested, but he was persistent, and followed me, showing me the features of the phone as we walk. I held up my hand and told him very firmly “NO”, but he still wouldn’t go away. I walked in the direction of a police booth, and he disappeared very quickly.

Still unable to find the northern exit, I took a southern exit and find myself in a bus and taxi parking station. Every second person yelled out to me “Hello, taxi!!” I just shook my head and walked on, determined to find that elusive metro station. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a way around to the north side of the station! Everywhere there was a wall or a building or a fence blocking my way. On the map, the metro line appeared to run on a flyover across a nearby intersection. I walked to the intersection in the hope that I will be able to follow the metro line and find the station.

When I arrived at the intersection, I discovered the reason that I can’t find the station. The area was a huge construction zone, with “Tianjin Metro” written all over it. The line hadn’t been built yet, but appears on the map as if it is already in operation! I curse the map and the little old lady who sold it to me! When I lament this tale to a Chinese speaking friend later, I was given the reply: “The speed of printing maps is fast, the speed of building subways is not”. Very Zen.

As a side note, the subway station at Tianjin railway station was opened in October 2012 and is now served by lines 2, 3 & 9.

Hoping that the rest of the map is correct, I walked towards a subway station that I knew was already open on subway line 1. After about a 45 minute walk, I arrived at the subway station and took a ride on the train. It was unremarkable and very similar to other Chinese subway trains; platform doors, longitudinal seating, locally made.

At the time of my visit, Tianjin only had one other Metro line, which is known as subway line 9, or the Binhai Mass Transt line. It is not really a subway line, as all but a small part of it is on elevated track. It runs for about 45 km from the centre of Tianjin (now Tianjin Railway Station) to the port of Binhai via TEDA (Tianjin Economic Development Area). It is more a suburban line than a subway or metro, with trains every 15 minutes. The trains have 2+2 seating and are 4 cars long.

Line 1 and line 9 (Binhai line) do not intersect, and at the time there were no interconnecting lines. There are buses connecting them, but none of the signage was in Engilsh and I didn’t fancy taking a mystery tour of the city! The closest stations on lines 1 & 9 are several kilometres away from each other. I used the map (quite handy except for the extra subway stations) to find the two closest stations and decided to walk from Fuxingmen on line 1 to Zhongshanmen on line 9. The walk took about an hour and was through a featureless, uninteresting part of the city. The day was hot and the city is dirty, by the time I arrived at Zhongshanmen I was sweaty, grimy and parched.

After gulping down a bottle of water, I took a ride on the elevated Binhai line. It runs through the industrial part of Tianjin and provides a very interesting view of this part of the city. The line frequently crosses freight only railway lines, and I saw many goods trains running into various industrial sidings.

A train on Tianjin Metro line 9 (Binhai Mass Transit)

A train on Tianjin Metro line 9 (Binhai Mass Transit)

I left the train at TEDA station and walked down the stairs. This was not a random choice, Tianjin has a tram that runs through TEDA, from the metro station right up the main street. I followed the signs which say Modern Tram (Tianjin once had a reasonably large tram network that was ripped up in the 1970s) and found the tram stop right outside the station, with a tram sitting at the stop.

TEDA trams are a drab yelowy-green, articulated with 3 sections. The TEDA tramway was manufactured by Translohr, and has only 1 rail. The rail runs underneath the centre of the tram and is a guide rail only. The tram is supported and driven by 8 rubber tyred wheels, 2 at each end and 2 under each articulation.

A tram stands at the TEDA metro station

A tram stands at the TEDA metro station

The tram stop at TEDA station has 2 platforms; the tram arrives at one platform, shunts to a dead end and then runs back into the other platform before commencing its next run. There appeared to be a problem with the point motor for the rail leading from the dead end into the departure platform, and there was a small army of workmen standing around scratching their heads. Every so often, one of them would prod at a piece of the mechanism, without much effect. When a tram waned to use the crossover, it was operated manually by one of the workmen, carefully inspected, and the tram waved across. The workmen then went back to looking at it and scratching their heads.

A small army of repairmen attempt to fix a points failure at TEDA metro station

A small army of repairmen attempt to fix a points failure at TEDA metro station

I decided to take some photos before I went for a ride, so I waited for the tram to depart. When it was time to go, something surprising happened. The Driver lowered the pantograph (the part of the tram that collects electricity from the overhead wires) before departing, the tram then ran out of the stop (presumably) on battery power. It’s only then that I noticed that there is about 100 metres of unwired track where the tram crosses a major highway – an interesting work around for oversized trucks.

A TEDA tram passes along an unwired section of track

A TEDA tram passes along an unwired section of track

The trams are not particularly frequent, and about 10 minutes passes before the next tram rolled into the terminus. The maintenance guys were still there scratching their heads, and they waved the tram through and into the stop. The two dozen or so passengers at the stop boarded the tram, and the tram departed. We travelled about 3 metres and there was a loud CLUNK. The tram immediately stopped and the Driver started talking into the radio. After about 2 minutes, the conductor evicted us all from the tram, and handed us vouchers for the next one (we have all paid our ¥2 already). The tram was shunted back into the dead end siding and the Driver walked around the tram, inspecting it and looking perplexed.

A defective TEDA tram returns slowly to the depot

A defective TEDA tram returns slowly to the depot

The tram eventually departed, slowly, and with no passengers. We all stood in the hot Tianjin sun and waited for the next tram, which departed without incident, and we were soon bouncing up TEDA’s main avenue. I say bouncing, because the tram ride is quite rough. The road is not well maintained, and the rubber wheels on the uneven tarmac are nothing as smooth as 2 steel rails would be. Aside from the rough ride, the system is set up well. The tram is not on reserved track, but has its own lane down the centre of the avenue. The stops are platforms in the centre of the road, on the departure side of each cross road. The traffic lights must have some way of sensing the tram’s approach, because we were rarely blocked.

A tram passes along TEDA's main street

A tram passes along TEDA’s main avenue

On the way back to the metro station, I alighted a couple of stops early. On my map, I had seen a railway station and I wondered if I could catch a train back to Beijing from TEDA, without having to travel all of the way back to Tianjin. Following the map, I walked through a light industrial area, full of workshops and building supply companies. The area was a huge mess; with machine parts, building materials and trucks everywhere. The footpaths were not fit for human traffic, so I walked down middle of the road, dodging speeding cars, truck and forklifts.

I found TEDA railway station without too much trouble. It is an ugly, 2 story brick building with a single platform under a bright blue, wavy iron roof. In front of the station is a large, empty car park, next to a bus bay where there were a few buses parked. I entered the station, which was deserted, and approached the booking window. The booking clerk had very little English, but I managed to work out that  trains for Beijing take roughly 3 hours (compared with 33 minutes for a C train from Tianjin). The booking clerk handed me a business card sized timetable, which showed the next train leaving in just under an hour.

I decided that it might be interesting to take the long way back from TEDA, rather than the fast train from Tianjin (I was in no hurry). I was  just about to buy a ticket, when 2 things occurred to me; the first was that I had never seen a paper timetable for a Chinese train, let alone a business card sized one. The second was that Chinese Railways love to plaster their emblem over everything. Although the station had a Chinese Railways symbol on the roof, the business card timetable does not, and neither does the booking clerk’s uniform. Then I remembered the buses parked outside. In my halting Mandarin, I asked if the service is a bus (da-ba) or a train (hwo-che). The clerk smiled and said “da-ba”.

I caught the Binhai line back from TEDA to Tianjin. At the time, line 9 was not completed all of the way back to the railway station, so I walked the last 2 km or so from Dawangzhuang.  I was little worried that the clerks at Tianjin wouldn’t accept my Driver’s licence as an ID card (which would mean that I would have to wait over 2 hours for the next slow train). I needn’t have worried, as they accepted my licence without question.

My train departed 45 minutes later and the trip was uneventful. The only item of interest is that it took longer to get from Beijing South station to the subway station near my hotel (about 9 km/40 minutes, requiring 3 short subway journeys), than it did from Tianjin to Beijing South (120 km/33 minutes).

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