This week has seen the start of the world’s largest seasonal migration. Each year tens of millions of Chinese, mainly migrant workers and college students, get on the road for Spring Festival – or Chinese New Year, as it is known in the West.
With an estimated 3.16 billion rail passenger trips expected over the 40 days bracketing Spring Festival (equivalent to everyone in the country travelling twice), the event will place a strain on the nation’s transport infrastructure that would cripple most other countries. But, like with other large-scale projects, China manages – albeit with quite a few problems along the way.
The main issue of Chunyun - the Mandarin for ‘Spring Festival travel season’ – is that China’s railways have a daily capacity of less than 4 million passengers. The vast majority of Chinese cannot afford to fly, and most do not have cars, so the rail network carries the bulk of the migration.
With such asymmetry between supply and demand, the Government has adopted various measures to alleviate the problem. Putting on many temporary trains (train numbers starting with letter L), extending the working hours of ticket booths and opening up more booths have all been brought in.
The trial has also begun of a ’real-name train ticket policy’ to ease the situation. A common complaint about Chunyun has been on the massive price hikes that have been levelled on desperate travellers, on transport, food, and accommodation – sometimes many multiples of the normal price. Ticket touts have seen the railways as an annual bonanza, and the Government has brought in rules to ensure that tickets are only available with an ID card.
Yet this has done nothing to reduce the core problem of congestion. The train ticket website has buckled with a billion hits per day, and special hotlines are always engaged. Not surprisingly, tempers at the ticket booths often flair, and many more police are on duty to handle the passengers.
The press have been divided on the Government’s handling of Chunyun so far this year. The China Daily has focused on Beijing’s efforts this year to make the event smoother than before, with photos of train stewardesses practicing their smiles and articles on how hard it is to be a ticket seller. Beijing Railway Station, for example, was “not as crowded” as expected.
The Global Times – normally a staunch Government supporter – has not been so lenient. The paper pours its ire on the new real-name registration system, which has hit migrant workers hardest, asking “How did the policy go wrong?” The answer is that “the people who created it spend all day sitting in comfortable offices. They have no concept of what it’s like to labor all day at a construction site without having the time or resources to surf the Internet.”
Yet despite the torrent of problems, the fact is that millions of people will succeed in travelling home for Spring Festival.
China, in its push to modernize, is quick to copy best practice from around the world. In Chunyun, there may be lessons for other nations on how to move huge swathes of the country around, quickly and relatively safely. India, with a staggering 36,000 killed on the railways of Mumbai alone over the last decade (equivalent to 10 a day) is an obvious candidate, but how many Western nations could do anything approaching this? Britain’s rail managers could do worse than spend a few days in China this spring.