The Long Way Home: Chinese New Year Travel Gets Worse

China has spent billions of dollars upgrading its rail infrastructure, but migrants, students and others complain that the system is less accessible to them now than it was before

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Li Anhua and his wife Shi Huaju wait for a taxi as they start their annual trip for Chinese New Year in Shanghai on Jan. 27, 2013

You know there’s a train-ticket crunch when taking eight trains over 24 hours of solid travel to get home is considered a success. With China’s New Year festival approaching and demand for train tickets surging, Wang Dong, a Shanghai Ph.D. student, found that he, like millions of other Chinese travelers, simply could not get a coveted ticket to get back to his hometown in Sichuan province to celebrate the holiday with his family. Undaunted, he charted out a route via eight local train services and, over the course of a single day in early February, crisscrossed his way across the country.

“It’s very hard to buy direct train tickets during the Spring Festival time, but if you buy short-trip tickets and transfer along the way, that’s much easier,” Wang explained on his microblog after he bought his tickets. Amazingly, despite the numerous transfers, he arrived in his hometown 13 hours earlier than he would have had he been able to take the direct train.

Compared with some, his eight-train cross-country jaunt was not a particularly arduous trip. Indeed, Chinese media have reported on a student in Xi’an who cycled 1,000 freezing kilometers over eight days to get home, and on another unlucky migrant worker in Hangzhou who had to take 46 local buses, a ferry and then walk for 100 km to reach his family. But Wang’s exploits have made him an Internet hero in China, with netizens celebrating his ability to game the railway-ticketing game, which many now complain is stacked against the lower classes.

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China has spent billions of dollars upgrading its rail infrastructure over the past decade. The investment is in part to enable the system to cope with the astonishing strain during Chinese New Year. Before the festival, up to 220 million people, many of them poor migrant workers or students, take to the rails to get back to their families. But despite massive government spending, migrants, students and many others complain that the system is less accessible to them now than it was before.

The country’s much vaunted high-speed trains, for example, are more expensive and carry fewer people than the slower trains they replaced. A high-speed trip from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou in the south would take eight hours and cost 850 yuan, or about $136, for the cheapest ticket. A slow train, by contrast, would take more than 21 hours, but the cheapest tickets would cost 70% less — just 250 yuan, or $40. The 600-yuan difference is more than a week’s wages for the average migrant worker in Beijing. And with fewer seats available, competition for tickets is much more intense.

Migrant workers have also complained that a fancy new online-ticketing service launched last year discriminates against them because they don’t have computers. The migrants, who make up the bulk of China’s New Year travelers but have limited access to computers, say Internet-enabled travelers snap up all the tickets online before the migrants can buy them in person at the train stations. In late January, authorities arrested a couple in Guangdong province who had helped migrant workers buy tickets online for a 10-yuan (about $1.60) commission. Police accused the couple of scalping.

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The heavily criticized online system has also been plagued by problems since it was launched last year, adding to user ire. Tech-savvy observers have grumbled that the system is designed to only work with Microsoft’s ancient Internet Explorer 6 browser and that the booking process during peak times is maddeningly unpredictable. Users complain that they have to wait in long queues and even then have no guarantee of getting a ticket. In January, enterprising software developers launched a range of browser plug-ins that automated the most tedious parts of the booking process — including the queuing. The plug-ins proved so popular with users that they repeatedly crashed the website, forcing the government to request that the software developers withdraw their tools.

Most galling for train travelers is the fact that rampant corruption has accompanied the massive investment in the rail network. The government minister who oversaw the massive high-speed rail project, Liu Zhijun, now languishes in prison awaiting trial on corruption charges. He is accused of siphoning off millions of dollars into personal accounts, which he reportedly used to maintain 18 mistresses.

Funds for the online-ticketing system, too, are said to have found their way into official pockets. In late January, Weibo whistle-blower Zhou Xiaoyun claimed on his microblog that the Ministry of Railways had spent more than 500 million yuan ($80 million) to develop the heavily criticized website. A fervent critic of the lack of transparency in the tendering for the process, Zhou alleges that the ministry favored a local software developer called Taiji. “The Railway Ministry rejected bids from IBM [for the ticketing system],” Zhou wrote on Weibo, “but Taiji’s system is actually just made up of IBM products.”

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