Anger Over Ticket Scams

Corruption is preventing Chinese Lunar New Year travelers from purchasing train tickets by legitimate means.

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newyeartrain305.jpg People wait in line to buy train tickets at the Beijing Railway Station, Jan. 22, 2011.

Desperate Chinese passengers scrambling to buy train tickets to return home for the Lunar New Year celebrations say they have tried to dodge black marketeers and all-night queuing sessions at railway stations, only to be ripped off by the government itself.

An official telephone booking service, heralded as the best way to avoid lengthy queues, small sales quotas and inflated black market prices, is almost as pricey and less reliable that the shifty ticket touts who line station forecourts during the new year rush, passengers said.

"I made a call to that number that cost more than 100 yuan (U.S. $15), and I didn't even succeed in booking my ticket," said one traveler in Shenzhen surnamed Zhang.

"Sometimes you can't even get through, and even if you do get through, you can't always buy a ticket," he said.

"[My relatives] stayed up all night doing it, and they dialed that number 157 times," Zhang said.

The authorities are expecting that around 700 million people will travel during the "spring rush," which some say is the largest mass movement of people on the planet, ahead of the Feb. 3 Lunar New Year.

Railways vice-minister Wang Zhiguo said on Wednesday that China's railway system has added more than 13,000 trains across regular and high-speed routes since the beginning of 2010.

But he said the system was still far from meeting demand, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

'Disguised money-spinner'

A traveler in Guangzhou surnamed Qiu complained to the local media that he had spent several days dialing the number non-stop.

He said the phone line could cost up to 100 yuan in call charges, and there was no guarantee that a booking would result.

Online activist Liu Mingming said China's national railway bureau and state-run telephone companies were profiting from the chaos.

"This telephone booking service is really a disguised money-spinner," Liu said. "The railway bureau is a state-owned organization, not a private corporation, so they should serve the ordinary person."

"They should not take advantage of the situation to take people's money. How is such a high fee acceptable?"

Liu said the fact that it was very difficult to buy a ticket at all made the fees even less acceptable.

Under traditional ticketing arrangements, each railway station along a given route is given a sales quota which is too small to meet booming demand during mass travel seasons.

Tickets are commonly believed to find their way into the hands of railway bureau employees, their family and friends, and inevitably the racketeers who line the station forecourts, offering coveted tickets and prices many times the official rate.

The railway bureau has responded to criticism in the Chinese media by pointing to its current high-speed rail network expansion, pledging that the new services will relieve pressure on existing routes by 2015.

But the media has countered by saying that railway officials pledged to resolve ticketing pressure in 2007 by 2010, and scarcity in 2009 by 2012.

Rampant corruption

Liu said he saw no way to resolve the problem amid current rampant corruption around railway tickets.

"If people can't get tickets at the railway stations, and the ticket touts are able to get them, then there is a problem with ... corruption in the railway bureau," he said.

"Chinese people aren't angry about the fact that they can't get hold of tickets," Liu said. "They are mad that they can't get hold of them through legitimate channels."

"The last train trip I made ... only two people in 10 managed to get their tickets by legitimate means," he added.

Some passengers have taken to car-pooling via the Internet to get back to their ancestral homes for the traditional new year dinner, bypassing the rail network entirely.

Netizens can post available seats if they are driving home, and search for cars going in their direction across China's burgeoning network of highways and expressways, Xinhua said.

Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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