China Evacuates 50,000 Rail Passengers Amid New Year Travel Delays in Guangdong

Many of those left stranded are low-paid migrant workers from Guangdong desperate to return home once a year to see their parents and children.

Chinese travelers crowd the area outside one of the main train stations in Guangzhou as they arrive for their trains to head home for the upcoming Lunar New Year in southern China's Guangdong province, Feb. 3, 2016.

Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong were scrambling on Wednesday to evacuate hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded at the Guangzhou Railway Station after delays caused by snowy weather.

At the height of the month-long travel rush, during which millions of Chinese people head home to spend the traditional Chinese New year holiday at their parental homes, stations like Guangzhou see a throughput of around 175,000 passengers daily.

More than 100,000 were left queuing for delayed trains on the huge forecourt of the Guangzhou Railway Station on Tuesday, amid new restrictions on crowd sizing for fear of crush incidents, official media reported.

A business owner surnamed Song, who runs a store on the station forecourt, said an emergency plan had begun to reduce numbers at the station in spite of teething problems at the start.

"There were only about 50,000 people here this morning," Song said on Wednesday. "All of them are waiting for trains to try to get home."

"The railroad was blocked by snow, and they have to wait until the route has been cleared," he said. "It's pretty cold for them waiting outside; we are wearing two or three layers here in Guangzhou."

An official who answered the phone at the Guangzhou municipal government offices on Wednesday said the weather had played havoc with the regular train schedule.

"There isn't a single train that is running to schedule right now," the official said. "There were also temporary issues with snowfalls."

"I have no information for you ... you'll need to talk to the railway station authorities about that."

Clearing the backlog

The Guangzhou Railway Group on Wednesday dispatched eight high-speed trains to clear the backlog in Guangzhou, commandeering special subway trains to move the massed crowds out to the high-speed rail terminus in the same city, China Radio International (CRI) reported.

It said the first high-speed train carrying stranded passengers left Guangzhou South Railway Station early on Wednesday.

Numbers waiting in the older railway station had fallen to around 30,000 by 3 p.m. on Wednesday, the station said on its social media account.

State news agency Xinhua quoted Guangzhou Railway Group spokesman Chen Jianping as saying that "emergency measures" had been put in place, "to avoid the dangers of overcrowding."

On December 31, 2014, a deadly stampede at a New Year celebration attended by 300,000 people in Shanghai killed 36 people and injured 49 others, 13 seriously.

The disaster prompted widespread public criticism of the authorities for their crowd control procedures.

Chen said the station authorities had cut turnaround times for trains and restricted entry to passengers whose train was due to leave within two hours.

The station is using social media and messaging apps to communicate with the crowd, Chen said.

Transportation bottleneck

Guangzhou-based writer Ye Du said Guangzhou is a huge transportation bottleneck during the Chinese New Year travel rush, because of the high proportion of migrant factory workers trying to get home for the festival.

"A lot of them are only able to come out to work by themselves or with their wives; they leave their elderly parents and their kids back home," Ye said.

"The only time they get to experience the warmth of family life is once a year, at Chinese New Year," he said.

"They know how hard it is to get hold of tickets, but they place all of their hopes in that one little ticket," he said.

Ye Du also said many of those stranded outside the station in the cold are on relatively low incomes.

"They can't suddenly decide they're going to take the plane instead," Ye said. "Their only way of getting home is by train."

He said China's slow-moving iconic green-painted diesel trains that have transported low-paid workers around the country for decades are still doing so, in spite of the advent of high-speed rail.

"Migrant workers have no choice but to change time for money, by enduring several days and nights aboard those green trains ... the high-speed trains are utterly beyond their means."

According to Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, the workers are further frustrated in their bid to return home by the non-payment of wages by failing factories as the economy slows.

"It's already hard for migrant workers to get hold of train tickets for Chinese New Year, but it's even harder when they didn't even get paid and they have no money to go home with," Huang said.

He called on local governments to put pressure on factory management to ensure wages are paid up by the end of the lunar New Year.

"There are many workers who have been left unpaid for long periods of time, and this ends up creating social tension, and even social unrest," he said.

Reported by Xin Lin and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.