Huge surge of travelers in China for Lunar New Year

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CHENGDU, China — Every year at this time, China’s rail system groans under a huge surge of holiday traffic. Travelers endure waits of hours — even days — in the winter chill to buy tickets. Once aboard trains, they overcrowd seats. Some sit in aisles. Others are forced to stand for trips of a day or longer.

Veteran travelers such as Wang Ping plan ahead for the arduous trips, knowing that the trains are so crowded that even getting to the bathroom can be a heroic feat.

“You eat very little. You drink very little,” she said. “There are too many people sitting in the aisle, so it’s very difficult to go to the toilet.”

The travails of travel around the weeklong Lunar New Year festival, China’s most important annual holiday, are more than a passing irritant to the 188 million Chinese who will board trains during the 40-day peak period. They’re also of concern to China’s leaders, who worry that holiday emotions could turn ugly and trigger social unrest at railway stations.

Severe snowstorms a year ago stranded tens of millions of passengers.

So it was little surprise that even President Hu Jintao weighed in with some sharp words for railway authorities before the holiday, which is also known as the Spring Festival.

“The Ministry of Railways must use its brains to work out many measures to help the people,” Hu said on Jan. 15. “They should make these measures known to the public in order to lessen social tension and ensure the Spring Festival mission is completed in a smooth manner.”

As in past years during the holiday, complaints have mounted this year of under-the-table sales by rail employees to scalpers. One angry traveler took a video on his cellphone of a railway employee refusing to sell him a ticket. The video clip, which spread rapidly around Chinese Web sites, shows the stone-faced railway employee ignoring angry travelers outside the window as he prints out tickets. Postings with the video accused the employee of intending to sell tickets on the black market.

Sensitivities are so high that the Railway Ministry called a news conference and apologized for “hurting the feelings” of passengers. It vowed to probe illegal ticket sales.

Deputy Railways Minister Wang Zhiguo said 30,000 police officers were keeping order at railway stations, and that they had detained 2,390 scalpers and confiscated 78,200 tickets.

Wang said ticket vendors are barred from carrying mobile phones to their windows to prevent them from colluding with scalpers.

At root, though, the problem is a lack of rail capacity to handle the throngs who want to travel at this time of year. The railway ministry said 232 million Chinese want to travel during the Spring Festival period, but 44 million of them would not be able to buy tickets.

Experts on China’s rail system said its development has not kept pace with the nation’s runaway economic growth, even as the country now builds sleek, high-speed bullet trains and plans new lines along heavily traveled urban corridors.

China’s railways are the busiest in the world, handling a quarter of the world’s cargo and passenger travel. Yet the system has only about 49,000 miles of track, a third of that in the U.S., a country of similar geographic size but with a fraction of the population. The U.S. rail network, however, carries mostly freight.

In the next five years, China plans to quadruple investment in railways, more than doubling the length of high-speed passenger and freight lines.

“China’s rail system faces huge pressure during holidays, especially the Spring Festival,” said Peng Qiyuan, dean of the college of transportation at Southwest Jiaotong University here. “In recent years, transportation has improved dramatically. But … there is still a big gap between demand and capacity.”

In the meantime, railway shortcomings remain particularly acute at Lunar New Year, which arrives this year on Jan. 26 with a weeklong mandated holiday. The travel surge, which tapers off by mid-February, is the largest mass movement of people in the world.

“The trains are at double capacity. There are two people for every seat,” said Zhou Leishan, a rail expert at Beijing Jiaotong University. “At many places, just getting on the train is the goal.”

Indeed, crowds of migrant workers enduring chilly winter air one recent day at a railway station in Hangzhou, a city in the Yangtze River Delta, were all waiting to purchase tickets.

“We’ve spent one day and one night trying to buy tickets,” complained Yan Li, 31, who sought to travel to Sichuan province in China’s southwest.

“There are five of us, so we take turns,” added Zhao Zigui, a steel tube plant worker guarding the luggage of his travel companions, all hoping to go home to Sichuan province.

Police keep tight order outside big stations, where outdoor portable toilets serve the crowds. Their main concern seems to be controlling migrant workers, some of whom have lost their factory jobs in the global financial crisis, and dealing with foul weather that can snarl rail traffic.

Even the slightest hints of irregularity in ticket sales can trigger a cascade of complaints.

A Beijing-based magazine reporter, Hu Xiong, wrote in his personal blog last week that after waiting in line four hours at the Beijing West Station, he was happy when the clock tower showed that 9 a.m. had arrived, the time when ticket booths were to open.

Suddenly, the hands on the clock tower were turned back 15 minutes, which he interpreted as giving the ticket vendors a quarter-hour to churn out tickets for scalpers.

When he got to the window at 11:30 a.m., all tickets were already sold out.

Hu got so many queries on his blog posting he asked journalists to stop calling him.

“For the sake of ordinary people to whom you once belonged, please go and taste the hardship by queuing up,” Hu wrote in a remark aimed at journalists.