In February 2019 during our trip to Hong Kong, we took the opportunity to travel across to Guangzhou in mainland China. After a six-year delay, the first high-speed rail services had commenced from the new Hong Kong West Kowloon Station to mainland China just months previously on 23 September 2018, and we were excited to try out this new high speed rail route and see if it was worth the wait!
Despite officially being a part of China, Hong Kong maintains separate customs and immigration procedures, meaning that crossing between the the region and the mainland is a similar experience to travelling internationally. Because of this, most options to cross the border take a considerable amount of time, such as the East Rail Line to the border, the “slow train” to various cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai, and cross-border busses.
Compared to the previous options, the high speed rail is a fantastic and efficient opportunity for travellers to get between Hong Kong and mainland China, with direct services connecting West Kowloon to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, as well as to Beijing, Shanghai and other mainland destinations. Travellers can also connect to anywhere in the China high speed rail network, or beyond to the trans-Siberian rail network from Beijing. Unlike other options, customs and immigration for both Hong Kong and mainland China are completed before boarding the train, so you can arrive in mainland China as if you were a domestic traveller without any further formalities, meaning the high speed rail is a truly streamlined option.
Unfortunately this unique route was suspended in January 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and remains so as of April 2021. Between the world-class station, the fantastic quality trains and the seamless transition between Hong Kong and mainland China, it’s clear that a lot of investment went into this route. It’s sad that it was so short lived and hopefully it can resume before too long.
Arriving at the station
Hong Kong West Kowloon station is the hub for all high speed rail services. It can be reached either by taking a taxi/ride share service, or by taking the MTR subway. West Kowloon station is directly connected to Austin station on the West Rail Line, and it is a somewhat longer (though very well-signposted) walk from Kowloon station on the Tung Chung line.
We arrived at Austin station by travelling from Tin Hau, with transfers at Central and Tsim Sha Tsui station (with a 5 to 10 minute walk to East Tsim Sha Tsui station for the latter). The directions to West Kowloon station were well signposted at the station exit.
After arriving with plenty of time to spare, we took the opportunity to take the lift to the rooftop of the station, where one of the best free views of the Hong Kong skyline can be seen from the new Sky Corridor. We also took advantage of currency exchange facilities to obtain some Chinese Renminbi, fully aware that it can be quite tricky to find internationally-friendly banking facilities once in the mainland.
Getting our tickets
After we completed these important errands, we headed to the ticket concourse to collect our pre-purchased tickets. We handed over our passport and ticket reservation details at the designated counter, and were promptly provided with our boarding passes for the trip to Guangzhou.
Crossing the border
The next step after picking up tickets was to “cross the border”. While the border legally remains the Shenzhen River, sections of the West Kowloon Station are designated as “Mainland Port Areas”, allowing you to clear immigration and customs formalities for both Hong Kong and the mainland before getting on the train. An important note at this point is that you need a valid visa to China pre-arranged before you arrive at the station. Unlike some other air and land entry points, there is no facility for “144 hour visa free transit”, “visa on arrival” or any other arrangements at this stage.
We provided our passports and tickets to the officers at the departure gate and then used our tickets to go through the automated gates. Following this, we went through security checks with our bags, then followed the “Departures” signs to an escalator (lists are also available), which took us down from level B1 to level B3.
On level B3, we entered the “Cross-boundary restricted area”, going through Hong Kong departure immigration formalities, then crossing the “border” between the “Hong Kong port area” and the “Mainland port area”, where there were some duty free shops open for the keen shoppers. We then went through mainland Chinese immigration and customs formalities.
One thing we wish we had known in advance is that we needed to stock up on all the food and drinks we needed for the journey before going through immigration. As of February 2019, there are no food and drink facilities after clearing Chinese immigration and customs formalities, although there are spaces for shops to open up in the future.
Departure terminal and lounge
Having cleared all formalities, we entered the departure concourse. While there are plenty of seats to relax in within the main concourse, we had splurged on the way over to travel in First Class. Because of this, we could utilise the “Business Lounge” on level B2. The business lounge provided comfortable seats and was far less crowded than the main departure concourse, but it was otherwise rather sparse with only tea and water available, and no food at all.
15 minutes before the departure time it was time to board the train. The announcement for boarding was broadcasted in English, Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, and was displayed on boards throughout the station. Boarding closed five minutes before departure. After getting through the departure gate, we boarded the train and made our way to the First Class cabin.
On the train
Both the standard mainland CRH-branded high speed rail trains and MTR-owned “Vibrant Express” trains run between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. In our case, we had booked the Vibrant Express as we had travelled on CRH trains many times in previous trips in mainland China.
The Vibrant Express trains feature first and second class cabins. As the trains are brand new, both classes are perfectly adequate and very comfortable for the short journey. The second class seats feature a bit less leg room and they’re arranged in a 3-3 configuration. First class is mostly configured in a 2-2 configuration with more leg room. There is, however, a “Front first class” just behind the driver’s quarters which is arguably superior with more leg room, fewer seats (just 6 in a 2-1 configuration) and no overhead storage to give a roomier feel. We had been told about this special first class cabin and had managed to snag some tickets through the online booking system. As it costs the same as the main first class cabin, we would highly recommend this “front first class” cabin if you are able to find tickets.
The train left right on schedule to the minute, and for the first 15 minutes we travelled through seemingly endless tunnels at around 200km/h. Before too long, though, we emerged into daylight again and found ourselves already arriving at Shenzhen North station – we were officially in mainland China! After a short stop and exchange of passengers (mostly leaving rather than boarding), we resumed our journey. There are a number of other stops available on the high speed rail between Shenzhen and Guangzhou, however we were on an express service that was non-stop between these two stations. Leaving Shenzhen, the train was able to speed up to its mainland authorised maximum of 300km/h, and after another 30 minutes through suburban and semi-rural landscapes in one of the most densely-populated regions on earth and we arrived at Guangzhou South station. Departing the train, the only requirement was to rescan our tickets and we were free to head out into the station and down to the Guangzhou South subway station which took us to our accommodation in Guangzhou.
Returning to Hong Kong
We ended up spending four days in Guangzhou, enjoying the mountains, the lantern festival that was on at the time, and of course all the amazing food that Guangzhou has to offer. Finally, it was time to return to Hong Kong for the last day of our trip. Compared to departing from Hong Kong, returning from mainland China is a somewhat more straightforward affair. We already had our tickets as they had been provided, so we arrived at Guangzhou South station around half an hour before our departure time.
Once again, the train boarded around 15 minutes before departure. For the return journey we had booked second class, which as mentioned before was perfectly adequate, very clean and quite comfortable, despite near full occupancy.
The train whisked us back to Hong Kong in just 45 minutes, with just the single stop in Shenzhen once again. Arriving back in West Kowloon station, we took escalators up to level B2, the arrivals concourse. Clearing customs and immigration for both mainland China and Hong Kong, we were once again free to explore the station and beyond. The arrivals concourse was much better resourced than its mainland counterpart, with ATMs, exchange facilities and well-signposted directions to take a taxi or train to our next destination. Impressively, it also had check-in facilities for Hong Kong International Airport, and you can easily walk through covered overpasses to Kowloon Station, from where you can take the Airport Express train to the airport. After obtaining more cash, we headed to the taxi stand to travel to our final accommodation in Hong Kong.
Overall the high speed rail from Hong Kong to mainland China was an excellent experience in both first and second class. Aside from the efficiency of the train itself, the station infrastructure is world-class and clearly the result of years of meticulous planning and investment to better connect these regions. A few hiccups remained when we travelled, such as the lack of any food or drinks after clearing immigration on the Hong Kong side, the requirement for a full Chinese visa rather than visa-free options available when flying or taking the “slow trains” across the border, and the lack of international-friendly banking facilities in Guangzhou South station. Undoubtedly these will be ironed out in good time, and this will be an excellent travel option into the future.
Thanks for reading about our experience taking the high speed rail from Hong Kong to mainland China. Make sure you check our our other Hong Kong articles – 5 of the best experiences in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and 5 incredible experiences in Hong Kong. And be sure to comment below – what’s your favourite high speed rail experience?