The role of neoadjuvant therapy in the treatment of locally advanced esophageal carcinoma still remains controversial. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effects of neoadjuvant radiochemotherapy on pathological staging and prognosis in the patients with locally advanced esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. Between January 1991 and December 2000, 473 patients with advanced esophageal carcinoma diagnosed by endoscopic biopsy underwent surgical resection in our center. With informed consent, they were randomized into four groups: neoadjuvant chemotherapy, neoadjuvant radiotherapy, neoadjuvant radiochemotherapy, and surgery alone (control group). The preoperative computed tomography staging criteria were the following: Stage I, the tumor limited to the esophageal lumen or the thickness of the esophageal wall varied between 3–5 mm; Stage II, the thickness exceeds 5 mm but no invasion to the mediastinum or distant metastasis; Stage III, the tumor invades adjacent mediastinal structure; and Stage IV, there is distant metastasis. The tumor resection rate, pathological stage, treatment-related complication, and survival among groups were compared. The radical resection rate for the patients in radiotherapy and radiochemotherapy groups was increased in comparison with the control group (P < 0.05). Their pathological stage after esophagectomy was regressed significantly than that of the control group (50.85%, 55.08% vs. 0%, P < 0.05). The adjuvant chemotherapy group did show significant improvement on resection rate and pathological staging compared with the control group. The treatment-related complication in the three neoadjuvant groups had no significant difference from that of the control group (P > 0.05). The 3-year survival rate of radiotherapy and radiochemotherapy groups were significantly higher than that of the control group (69.49%, 73.73% vs. 53.38%, P < 0.05). The 5-year survival rate of radiochemotherapy group was higher than that of the radiotherapy group although did not show a statistical difference (P > 0.05). Rational application of neoadjuvant radiochemotherapy seems to provide a modest benefit in radical resection and survival in patients with locally advanced esophageal carcinoma.