By Xinhua writer Wang Aihua
BEIJING, Sept. 25 (Xinhua) -- Even with an expanded web of railroads and upgraded computer systems, Chinese travelers still find it ironically difficult to buy train tickets for national holidays.
The upcoming extended "Golden Week" holiday, which starts on Sept. 30 and runs through Oct. 7, encompassing Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day, has dumped a new test on railway authorities.
The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has upgraded its ticket booking website, 12306.cn, which was first opened late last year. However, it was met with sharp criticism as the site crashed periodically amid fielding hundreds of millions of page views daily before the holiday season.
One particular subject of complaint is the "queuing" -- often, even after users submit orders, a reminder pops up saying they have to wait for half an hour to find out whether the orders are finalized and no success is guaranteed.
"Booking a ticket from the website is just as difficult as climbing Mount Qomolangma," one critic wrote on Twitter-style social networking site weibo.com.
To passengers and observers, it is certainly hard to understand why the website, with a reported investment of 330 million yuan (about 49 million U.S. dollars), failed to function properly like major online retailers do with similar number of visits.
The MOR says visitor flow to 12306.cn neared 1.5 billion page views at peak times. However, given China's population of 1.3 billion, this challenge could surely have been anticipated and worked on.
Some have questioned whether corruption has hamstrung the new website project, the bid for which was made by Taiji Computer Co., Ltd. and Tsinghua Tongfang Co., Ltd. for technical support, affirming the public's lack of confidence in the transparency of railway departments.
One rule peculiar to the Chinese railway system and widely believed to be the culprit for difficult ticketing is that passengers are only allowed to start purchasing tickets 10 days ahead of the departure date, which always triggers a rush to booking sites on the first day of availability.
Unlike sales of air tickets in China, train tickets may only be bought at agents designated by the MOR and its official booking website. Loosening its monopoly and allowing professional online ticket agents to compete is believed to be the key to solving the lingering problem.
The MOR has listed various reasons why it has not been able to "open up" ticket distribution to competitors, citing management difficulties and technical barriers, but if it insists on a tight grip, the ministry really needs to work hard on its own distribution channel, probably by learning from counterparts in developed countries.
Repeated complaints from a billion or so passengers whenever major holidays arrive will only undermine the public's opinion of capabilities and further, credibility of the railway authorities.