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All aboard for the curious train trip to nowhere
By Nie Xin

Many older Chinese people harbor memories of a time when the drab green trains of China’s railway system were the only way to travel long distances in the county.

It’s not surprising then, that one entrepreneurial family has chosen to capitalize on rail nostalgia with the opening of the Train Inn on Jiangyue Road in Pujiang Town four months ago. On this “train,” customers go nowhere. Instead, they are treated to relaxation amid iconic surroundings.

The restaurant, bar and hostel facility is built around retired rolling stock. Three of five old green carriages, imported from East Germany in the 1980s, have been converted into 16 soft sleepers for overnight accommodation. The remaining two coaches house the restaurant and bar.

In the middle of the inn complex is a 300-square-meter central square containing a steam engine from the 1970s. It’s there purely for decoration, but its presence sets the tone for the inn.

Expensive ‘hobby’

“My father collected those vintage carriages from trains,” said inn manager Wang Siying. “It inspired us to open this venue.”

 Wang’s father, who owns an industrial estate adjacent to the inn, started his “hobby” about 10 years ago, buying a steam engine made in the northern Chinese city of Tangshan in 1972. He then went on to buy the East German-made carriages, which were imported by the China Railway Bureau and mainly served important Chinese political leaders of that era.

But housing and maintaining his railway “toys” proved expensive, so the family decided to turn them into a moneymaking venture, utilizing tracks already installed near his industrial park.

“My father and I wanted to find a place to display his collection without high rental fees and maintenance costs,” Wang said. “Opening a commercial venue helps balance the maintenance costs. It has turned out to be a good idea.”

Wang, who graduated from the Communications University of China in Beijing, majored in playwriting and has worked in television and magazines. But she said 9-to-5 jobs didn’t suit her.

The construction of Train Inn started in the autumn in 2012. The biggest cost, Wang said, was transporting the carriages to the site.

Wang’s father spent about 10 million yuan (US$1.7 million) acquiring the old rolling stock. Wang, invested 1 million yuan in interior decor and furniture. There are two other partners in the project.

In the first four months of operation, the site has kept costs in balance with revenue, she said. Wang expects to get full return on her investment in two years.

 Architects and designers from a Singaporean-Japanese firm were invited to work on the design of the site. The open central square contains a partial underground area reserved for art exhibitions of photography and paintings. Mini concerts will also be held in the square, and films screened occasionally.

The inn features a modern glass-and-steel structure that serves as the grand hall and café. It can be a bit cold in winter because the only heat comes from a vintage oven.

The restaurant serves classic Shanghai cuisine. Room rates in the carriages start at 200 yuan a night.

‘Space of life’

Wang said she looks at the Train Inn as a “space of life,” where friends can meet for coffee, read books, dine with family or enjoy browsing in a flea market held on every second Saturday of the month. The market offers arts and crafts, books and magazines, hand-made postcards and organic foods from nearby farms.

 “It’s a comfortable space rather than a luxury high-end destination,” Wang said of the inn concept. “We are targeting people, especially young people, who appreciate the finer, more idiosyncratic things in life.”

 It has turned out to be a popular venue for weekend and holiday getaways by people from inner districts of Shanghai, she said.

The inn employs 20 people, including seven in the kitchen, four in property maintenance, four waiting tables in the restaurant and the rest involved with stocking, management and marketing.

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