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Tabitha Speelman

As New Year Travel Crunch Goes Digital, China’s Have-Nots Lose Out

A confusing flowchart for the confused traveler. (Via Baike)

The weeks preceding Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, are notoriously miserable for train travelers in China. The holiday is China’s main traditional festival, and it is generally considered vital to return to one’s home region at this time to celebrate with family. In recent years, travel by air and car have greatly expanded. But with roughly 2.2 out of the over 3.4 billion trips Chinese citizens are expected to make during the 40 day travel period, Chinese railways still take the largest share of this giant annual human migration, referred to in Chinese as the chunyun.

Ticketing enters the digital age

Just a couple of years ago, travelers might arrive at to Beijing Railway Station at five o’clock in the morning, unable even then to get to the front square, packed as it was with people standing in line at one of many temporary extra ticket booths. Many travelers would dodge the crowd by spending the night in the cold, waiting for the booths to open at 8:30.

But over this Spring Festival travel season, things began to change. Whether at train stations or small train ticket offices, even in major cities like Beijing long lines were largely absent in the week before the Spring Festival. The lines have been drastically shortened by the introduction of online ticket sales in 2012 (already making up over 50% of all ticket sales), and the expansion of telephone sales, which started in 2006. Headlines reading: “All-night lining up is a thing of the past” and “Online ticket grabs replace overnight standing in line” describe the end of decades of ticket sales madness preceding the festival.

Some of the innovations have been procedural rather than technical. Online and by phone, tickets for this year’s travel rush were made available 20 days prior to departure instead of 12, and regular ticket booths sold tickets 18 days in advance instead of 10. This meant that tickets during this year’s chunyun were already mostly sold out two weeks ago. Tickets were often sold out within five minutes of their online release.

Digitization’s unequal impact

While diversifying ticket sales methods has been promoted as modern, convenient, and tailored to individual traveler needs, in practice it also creates an uneven playing field. For example, migrant workers—who together with university students comprise the largest group of travelers during the Spring Festival — tend not to have regular Internet access, a distinct disadvantage when competing with office workers or university students for the same seats. In fact, migrant workers make up 4% of all Internet users, and cite ticket availability as a more acute problem than ticket price. As a letter from a migrant worker to the Ministry of Railways put it last year: “Each year we migrants stand in torturously long lines to get tickets home for New Year’s. Now we don’t even get the chance to undergo such torture.”

This year, while some stores assisted with online and phone sales and some employers provided collective ticket buying services, this imbalance remains largely unchanged. The Ministry of Railways has advised migrant workers to buy tickets by phone, but the phone menu is notoriously complicated and calls are frequently dropped. As Tea Leaf Nation reported, a couple in the provincial capital of Foshan was recently arrested for opening a service helping migrant workers buy tickets while they were at work.

Some of China’s trains look slick, but getting a ticket can be a hassle. (Mark Fischer/Wikimedia Commons)

Even for those with a computer and a cell phone at their disposal, things have not gotten easy. Those waiting for online tickets must still join a “virtual line,” making demand and shortage invisible from the outside. Success is based on chance, as well as Internet speed and phone signal strength. Even teaming up does not guarantee success. As recent university graduate Li Hong explained to Tea Leaf Nation, “Two friends, my brother, and myself all called non-stop with four phones. At the same time, we were trying to get a ticket online. However, we still did not get through before all the tickets were sold out.”

Ms. Li is not exaggerating. Chinese Wikipedia equivalent Baike has its own wiki dedicated to getting a train ticket. It offers a mind-boggling flowchart introducing online ticket buying procedures coupled with three tips: “1. Do your homework on ticket release times, 2. Search all options, 3. Retain your peace of mind … even when the website fails you.” It also helpfully exhorts, “Patience and luck are your best friends,” adding, in English: “Don’t panic!”

A search on Weibo, China’s Twitter, confirms the wisdom of Baike’s words. In discussions of train ticket purchasing, “paralysis” is a key term. Occasional reports of success follow painstaking waits: “Tried to get on for seven days, and today it finally worked!” (@飘云99088). While some note the increased speed and better display of only official online selling point 12306.cn, many of last year’s technical problems still exist: log in is slow, and it still gives out at peak times, which is not entirely unsurprising given that it receives almost 2 billion hits per day.

Hacking one’s way to success

With the stakes this high, it not surprising that some have hacked their way to success. Some simply download a “Train Ticket Buying Assistance” plug-in developed by a browser company—a new version of jumping the queue.  Then there are professional ticket sellers, called “yellow bulls,” who use the program to get their hand on a large number of tickets, buying a train carriage worth’s of tickets within minutes, then re-selling them at about 25% above the sticker price. One such scheme was recently discovered when a “yellow bull” tried to return 224,000 tickets within a day after failing to re-sell them.  The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has also put out a notice forbidding the sale of software and plug-ins.

The Ministry has responded to hackers and scalpers by complicating the ticket distribution scheme, releasing limited numbers of tickets at different times and locations. But one transportation scholar from Southwestern Transportation University notes that the Ministry decides on distribution numbers without any in-depth market research. There are also rumors that the Ministry never releases the full amount of tickets in order to sell them through unofficial channels linked to Ministry employees themselves.

The rapidly increasing number of high-speed rail connections (including the world’s longest high-speed connection which just opened in December 2012) is another major difference with earlier Spring Festival traveling periods. At about triple the former ticket price, these trains are fast and run frequently, resulting in increased overall ticket availability and transfer options. Again, however, travelers between major urban transportation hubs are privileged above those to more regional destinations and those with less to spend do not necessarily see their options expand. Business class carriages of high-speed trains were practically running empty in the week before New Year, while on the other hand hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were forced to return by motorbike on increasingly dangerous roads – to the tune of 60 casualties in just three days.

In this sense, while the world’s largest high-speed rail network is effectively shrinking China’s vast territory, it is also deepening the distance between the winners and losers of China’s rapid development. The disappearance of Spring Festival lines marks yet another covering up of this growing inequality, a societal gap that — as some bloggers note — traces back to the country’s hukou, or household registration, system, which does not allow migrant workers and their families to settle in the place they work. As migrant worker Zhang Yan, waiting at Beijing Station for her expensive ride home, put it: “Overall, the situation is okay if you have money. But that is true for everything in China these days.”

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Tabitha Speelman

Tabitha is a graduate student in Chinese Studies at Leiden University.