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Ellen Li

Web Users Gripe as Chinese Infrastructure Groans Under Lunar New Year Travel Load

A couple travels through Chengdu during the 2012 Spring Festival rush. (iStock photo)

The Chinese Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is drawing closer, and once again the accompanying annual travel rush began weeks ahead of time. Hoping to celebrate China’s most important holiday with their loved ones, a large number of migrant workers, students and visitors left cities around the country for their hometowns. With authorities anticipating that Chinese will take about 3.1 billion trips over a 40-day period, the Spring Festival travel rush is probably the world’s largest population migration.

This annual peak in travel always puts great pressure on China’s transportation system and subjects many aspects of the country’s infrastructure to a harsh test. Unfortunately, train ticket shortages and the frequency of traffic accidents have proven that the country still has a long way to go to ensure the ability of its transportation system to handle so many people travelling at once.

Trains are generally the cheapest and fastest transportation option, and therefore the most popular choice among travelers going home for the Spring Festival. China has long been aware that demand for train tickets greatly exceeds supply during the Spring Festival holiday period. Every year, huge crowds of people crowd into the country’s train stations, desperate to obtain tickets. Knowing the severity of the problem, China’s government has devised a number of measures to satisfy the great demand for train tickets. In order to prevent scalpers from buying and reselling tickets, the Ministry of Railways declared that purchasers would be required to give their real names when purchasing tickets. Other measures included increasing the number of trains during the period, increasing the number of ticket booths, extending working hours, and setting up an online ticket purchasing system and 24-hour hotline.

However, these measures have not resolved the underlying issue. Many people make their way to the ticket counter only to learn that tickets to their destination are sold out. On Weibo, China’s Twitter, many netizens have tweeted about their negative experiences buying train tickets during the Spring Festival travel period.

Weibo user @李子鸣李奇睿 wrote: “My first attempt to book a train ticket online was a failure. I got home late and stayed up until two o’clock in the morning just downloading the online booking tool and reading through the ticket-buying tips. But in the end, I still didn’t get my ticket. The most annoying thing is that there are only few tickets going to your destination, and so many people trying to buy them. Being only one second late will ruin your chances. This ticket-purchasing process is just exhausting!”

Another user, @____从简, wrote, “I used to think that the most heartbreaking words ever were ‘Let’s just be friends,’ or ‘I’ve fallen in love with someone else,’ but recently, I found I was wrong. The real winner is, ‘All tickets are sold out, including standing-room-only tickets’!”

Compared to trains, highways are more accessible, and thus a popular choice among short-distance travelers. But there are serious safety risks associated with road trips. On February 1, Yichang Bridge in Henan Province collapsed, ostensibly due to an explosion caused by a truck carrying fireworks; at least ten people were killed.  On the same day, a bus carrying 29 people drove off a cliff in Luzhou, Sichuan Province. According to a report by Sina, ten people lost their lives in the accident. A similar tragedy occurred in Ning County, Gansu Province, when at least fourteen people died when a bus crashed through a guardrail and plunged into a ravine. The very next day, two other car accidents occurred in Congjiang, Guizhou and Daxin, Guangxi.

These five road accidents, all occurred within a two-day period, sparked widespread debate online about safety during Spring Festival travel. In response to the frequency of traffic accidents, many netizens on Sina Weibo called on the Chinese government to take action. @小兔二月wrote “ ‘Going home for Spring Festival’ the saddest words for me now. Over the years, we have been having an astounding number of car accidents all over the country during Spring Festival travel. So many innocent people have lost their lives just because they were trying to go home and spend the holiday with their families during this so-called traditional holiday. How come all these man-made tragedies still persist? Is this not serious enough for government to reflect seriously and come up with solutions?”

Some blamed China’s infrastructure. User @发現佩儀妹 observed, “The army of motorcycles started their trips home for this year’s Spring Festival…if we had a perfect transportation system and a well-run operating scheme for train tickets, who would want to travel in snow and cold, bearing the risks of traffic accidents and carrying huge pieces of luggage that outweigh even themselves?”

Some have seen the Spring Festival travel crush from another angle. User @适意人生 wrote from a Beijinger’s perspective: “Outsiders really are tough burdens for cities to bear. Ever since the mobile population returned home for Spring Festival, it’s been much easier to get a taxi. Roads are no longer jammed by traffic; there are fewer people on the streets, and you don’t have wait for hours for a seat in a restaurant. Outsiders have made great contribution to cities, but at the same time they occupied the space that originally belonged to the locals. I’m not being parochial or exclusive, but I do feel that Spring Festival travel has been a relief to locals in huge cities.

Spring Festival travel is an extremely systematic and complex project that involves a wide range of government departments. In order to make the travel rush smooth and orderly, it is true that government must take responsibility for strengthening cooperation and coordination among different sectors and different regions. Have transportation enterprises done a comprehensive, strict security check before allowing vehicles depicturing? Have staff received road safety education and do they clearly know the relevant regulations? In addition, governments would do well to open themselves to more public supervision.

According to a report by Beijing News, two lawyers from Beijing, Wenbin Xiao and Gangquan Ma, submitted a petition to the Ministry of Railways in January asking for the disclosure of more ticket information during the Spring Festival travel period. They asked to see a daily update of the total number of available tickets, total sales, how the tickets are distributed, and other statistics from the Ministry. Xiao and Ma believe that transparency will lead to greater accountability and thus greater efficiency. One cannot help but hope the two get their wish — but given the sheer numbers involved, travel during China’s Spring Festival will likely never be easy.

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Ellen Li

Born in Jinan, China, Ellen is now studying Economics and Political Science at Bryn Mawr College. She has a strong interest in journalism and law, and recently became passionate about microfinance and socio-economic development in developing countries. She also enjoys morning running, Chinese calligraphy, and traveling.