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Spring festival travelers in China frustrated by new online ticketing system

By Chi-Chi Zhang, CNN
updated 5:31 AM EST, Mon January 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's a struggle to buy train tickets during Spring Festival
  • A new system has caused more grief than relief
  • China's rail system is expected to handle 5.9 million trips a day through February 16

Beijing (CNN) -- After more than a week of visiting the train station to wait in line for tickets and leaving empty-handed, Qin Yun has given up.

He and his wife, both migrant workers in Beijing, hoped to buy tickets that would take them more than 2,000 km (1,242 miles) home to the southwestern province of Sichuan to spend the annual Spring Festival with their parents and teenage kids.

On Monday, Qin managed to buy a train ticket for himself -- a standing-only ticket on a cramped train for more than 40 hours. It's been a year since the two of them have gone home.

"Standing is better than nothing," said Qin. "My wife isn't strong enough to stand for so long, so she'll stay behind and spend the holiday alone."

As hundreds of millions of Chinese travel home for the annual holiday as part of the world's biggest migration, it's also a struggle to buy train tickets home.

To ease people's woes, the central government this year launched a new online ticketing system to curb long lines at stations and prevent scalpers from selling them in the black market.

To incentivize online buyers, the railway ministry increased the number of train seats available through the Internet and ticket hotlines.

But the new system has caused more grief than relief.

Not only does the site crash on a regular basis, but most elderly and migrant workers -- those who often struggle to buy tickets to begin with -- find the system discriminatory, according to travelers at the Beijing station.

"It's not really fair. Most migrant workers don't know how to go online and the ticket hotline is always busy. So all we can do is come here and wait in line," said Qin, who works as a laborer in Beijing. "Maybe the railway ministry can find an easier way or a solution for migrant workers to get tickets during during the New Year."

Fueled by anger from low wages, inadequate labor conditions, a lack of access to education, health care and basic resources, migrant workers have become increasingly vocal about an ever-widening rural-urban wealth gap.

Some have even written letters to complain.

Huang Qinghong, a Wenzhou-based driver in eastern China's Zhejiang province, was rewarded by the railway ministry for his anger.

After writing an open letter to complain that the online system gave the poor less of a chance to buy tickets because they were Internet-illiterate and didn't have access to computers, Huang was given free airline tickets for his Spring festival journey to his hometown of Chonqging.

Others like Qin, who only holds a primary school education, haven't been so lucky.

"Sometimes, wealthier people have connections who can buy them tickets or computers at home, so they can go online," said Qin. "We could always buy plane tickets, but it's a financial sacrifice for migrant workers and not so realistic."

China's rail system is expected to handle 5.9 million trips a day through February 16. It's a mighty crowd that will only grow as the country's urban population is expected to reach nearly 70% over the next 20 years.

Although it is still far from perfect, China's railway officials have pledged to revamp its train ticketing system to meet the country's growing needs. In an effort to reduce the daily volume, travelers are only allowed to purchase tickets 12 days before their travel date.

But still, the online ticketing system hit 1.66 million in daily transactions during its peak period in January, surging well above its designed capacity of 1 million, the official Xinhua news agency reported last week.

A total of more than 3 billion trips are expected to be made during the 40-day Spring Festival travel period, with about 5.9 million trips expected to be made daily by rail through February 16.

For some, traveling -- even if it means standing 40 hours straight and being with family members during the most important holiday of the year -- is priceless.

"As migrant workers, we are always away from our children, so it's as if we are strangers when we go home," said Qin. "In person, we don't even converse that much because they have nothing to say to us so I wish I can spend more time with them."

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