Chinese New Year is around the corner and more than 224 million Chinese people are expected to travel by train to celebrate the holiday with their relatives.
This year the busiest travel period will start January 26, a couple of weeks before the Year of the Snake starts on February 10.
These days, the train is still the most popular transportation system used by Chinese citizens. It continues to reign as cheapest mode of transport compared to flights and it connects most of the small and big cities around the country.
For most passengers the most important factor when booking their ticket home is price, not the amount of time it takes to complete the journey.
This is the case of Wang Heting, a 24-year-old student from Fudan University, in Shanghai. She is originally from Sichuan, a province located in the far west. Her train ride will take around 40 hours.
“I take the train home each summer and winter vacation. The ticket costs me RMB400 (around $64), but as a student I can get a discount,” said Wang in an interview with Asian Correspondent. Wang explains that she got the train ticket at her university without having to endure massive queues.
But not all Chinese people have it so easy. Many travelers have a hard time trying to get a ticket. They wait in long lines at train stations, make endless calls to ticket service hotlines or just sit in front of their computers and wait until 10am, when tickets are put on sale every morning at 12306.cn, the official website authorized by the Ministry of Railways.
Since last week, the average daily hits on this train ticket booking website has topped 120 million, according to official data.
But not all of them are lucky enough to get a ticket. This is the case of a local from Anhui province, whose case has been published at the official newspaper Global Times. He complains about this situation saying that the, “The familiar chunyun (Spring Festival travel rush) feeling has gone, give it back to me!.”
Authorities have set up new policies to make purchases easier, allowing passengers to buy tickets 20 days in advance, and have added extra trains on many lines to give service to all customers.
But another big problem is dealing with illegal tickets. As the official Chinese news agency recognizes: “In extreme cases, the anxiety over tickets can drive people crazy.” This can mean paying extra money for tickets that are not proven to be legal.
In the southern province of Guangdong, it has been reported that a couple ended up in jail for helping others to buy tickets by charging an extra 10 yuan (US$1.60) for each one.
But even though there are many complaints, the Chinese railway infrastructure has never stopped growing in the last few years. Of particular interest are the high speed lines that have already reached 9,300km, while the target for 2015 stays at 18,000 km.
According to experts, around 600 billion yuan (US$96.4 billion) will be invested this year.
Under the current Five-Year Plan China will spend over 1.3 trillion yuan building more than 20,000 kilometers of railways from 2013 to 2015.
Some of the bridges and tunnels to be built for this expansion are considerable, specially the railway section between the cities of Chengdu and Lanzhou, where 75 percent of the railway is bridges.
In total, it is said that the Ministry of Railways has amassed debts of more than 2 trillion yuan, while also dealing with some concerns about the safety of the construction due to the fast expansion and the collision of two high-speed trains in 2011 that killed 40 people.