BEIJING, Jan.18 -- "Chunyun" has become a very
special word in the modern Chinese vocabulary. The word, literally meaning
"spring transportation," has many implications. For people that work away from
their hometown, it refers to the happiness of reuniting with loved ones and the
bitterness of battling for a train ticket; for railway staff it represents 40
days of arduous work; for scalpers it suggests a busy season of business; for
the police it implies a war against theft and luggage containing inflammable
materials; for the government it is a test of administrative ability.
Every year around Spring Festival, hundreds of
millions of Chinese travel from afar to return to their hometowns for the most
important family reunion of the year. No matter how the national economy surges
or lumbers, how the renminbi appreciates or depreciates, how the global climate
warms or cools, how avian influenza bites or mutates, the Chinese will go home
before the end of the lunar New Year.
The scene of the whole family sitting around the
dinner table and toasting amid the steam of savoury dishes and the smoke of
firecrackers is what Chinese most look forward to at this time of the year.
Therefore, a phenomenon that is rare in the rest of
the world occurs annually in China: hundreds of millions of travellers try to
cram themselves into trains, buses, planes and ships during the few days before
and after the Spring Festival. That is the so-called "chunyun."
The Ministry of Railways estimates that 144 million
passengers will take trains during this year's "chunyun" period. Such a sudden
surge in the number of travellers would beat any means of transportation but the
disparity between demand and capacity is especially acute with the railway
system as it is the only means for the large bulk of long-distance passengers.
The problem has plagued the railway system for many
years and authorities have adopted various measures to alleviate the pressure.
The situation has improved a lot in recent years but it is still difficult to
secure a ticket for year-end travelling. An average 3.6 million passengers will
travel by train each day during the "chunyun" period and it could be as many as
4.3 million but the railway system's average daily capacity is only 2.8 million.
The crux of the matter is the shortage of railway
lines. The total length of railways across the country is 75,200 kilometres.
That translates to the length of a cigarette for each Chinese. A vice-minister
of railways predicted a few days ago that the situation could change by 2010,
the end of the 11th Five-Year Plan period. This is too remote a promise. Before
China's railway lines extend significantly, we have to put up with the situation
where three people contend for two tickets.
As a member of the large army of Spring Festival
travellers, I would not complain if I became that unlucky one among the three,
for I understand that building railway lines needs time and large amounts of
money. But I do resent the difficulties involved in the process of obtaining a
First, you dial the number of the railway information
office but you will never get connected. Then you go to a booking outlet but
will be told that booking won't start until four days before the departure. You
have learned from the media, however, that booking during the Spring Festival
period can be made 10 days in advance. Then when you go to the booking office
four days in advance, you will be told the tickets are sold out because "the
selling began yesterday evening." Finally you end up buying a double, or even
triple-priced ticket from a scalper if you don't have the courage (and time) to
queue for 12 or 24 or 48 hours at the railway station.
I did not make up those scenarios. They were told to
me by friends and relatives and other media outlets.
I believe that most travellers would not complain
about the shortage of train tickets but would surely resent the poor service
with regard to information publicity, the rampant piracy of scalpers and the
(much reported) corruption of some railway staff members.
(Source: China Daily by Liu Shinan)