Not-So-Happy New Year: Rail Website Woes In China

The scramble for train tickets for people traveling for the Lunar New Year, China's most important holiday, is always intense. The launch of an online ticketing system has created new headaches. Here, hundreds of people line up to buy train tickets at a railway station in Hefei in eastern China's Anhui province on Dec. 29, 2011.


RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST: Chinese New Year starts Monday. And during the holiday season, more than 200 million Chinese will travel to their hometowns and villages in the world's largest annual migration.

Every year, Chinese people tell horror stories about trying to get train tickets. This year was supposed to be different, because China's Rail Ministry created a website to reserve seats. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, it hasn't quite worked out as planned.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is Shanghai rail station, and there are thousands of people right now, actually a river of folks going past me trying to make their way inside. Most of them are dragging things in roll bags. A lot of people have presents and fruit in plastic shopping bags. There's a guy who just walked past me with stuff in a paint bucket, all trying to make their way home for Chinese New Year.

A migrant worker surnamed Li is warming himself in a pedestrian underpass. He's waiting for a train home to see his family in far Western China.

LI: (Through Translator) The Internet ticket site was comparatively crowded. I found several co-workers and we used three computers - three computers continuously for five to six hours. Then we finally got into the site and ordered two tickets.

LANGFITT: Many people weren't so lucky. Volume on the new train ticket Web site was so heavy - one day it got 1.4 billion hits - that it often crashed. Other times, the Web site charged people money without actually giving them tickets. Public criticism has been withering.

Perhaps none more so, than from Huang Qinghong. Huang lives in East China's Zhejiang Province, where he works as a driver for a hardware company. Like most Chinese, his quest for a ticket home began at a train station.

HUANG QINGHONG: (Through Translator) I went to the station four times. When I got to the window, there were no tickets left. Later we learned we could buy tickets online, but we couldn't get on the site. And even when we did, there were no tickets.

LANGFITT: Huang became so frustrated he wrote a scathing letter to China's rail minister and a provincial newspaper. Huang not only said the ticket Website was a mess, he also noted that the people who travel the most during Chinese New Year - migrant workers - have little education and don't know how to use computers anyway.

Quote, "You guys, sitting on couches in air-conditioned offices, sipping tea, smoking cigarettes, and coming up with buying tickets online, have you ever considered our lives," Huang wrote? "Have you experienced the agony of buying tickets?"

The letter went viral. Huang became something of a folk hero.

QINGHONG: (Through Translator) When I was interviewed by Chinese media, I said its best if more tickets could be available at booking offices. Because if tickets are sold online before they are available at the train station, people with no Internet skills won't be able to buy them.

LANGFITT: China's Rail Ministry spent more than $8 million on the ticketing Web site. Rail officials say they underestimated demand and have increased bandwidth. Earlier this week at Shanghai Railway Station, ticket lines were only 10 to 12 deep. Most tickets were sold out several days in advance, but not all.

Li Xiusheng, who paints building interiors, bought a seat back to Central China's Anhui Province on the same day.

LI XIUSHENG: (Through Translator) The ticket seller told me there was only one seat left to my hometown. I said thank you. Thank you, Lord. I gave the ticket seller an orange. I'm really happy.

LANGFITT: Li, a Christian, thinks getting the last seat involved divine intervention.

As for Huang Qinghong - the migrant worker who wrote that scathing letter - he finally made it home. The newspaper he wrote to bought him a plane ticket. Speaking by cell phone from his village in Western China's Sichuan Province, Huang said it was only the second time he'd ever flown.

QINGHONG: (Through Translator) My fellow villagers all said flying must be very comfortable. They felt happy for me and they were envious.

LANGFITT: With good reason. Usually, Huang's New Year's journey is a 30-plus-hour ordeal in packed railway car. The plane flight: a mere two and a half hours.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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