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New Year's Travel Strains China's Transportation System

  • Celia Hatton

Transportation networks in China are overloaded with travelers this time of year, as millions of people travel on planes, trains, cars and ferries to celebrate the Lunar New Year with their families.

The staff at this Beijing travel agency has been working overtime for the past few weeks to deal with the onslaught of travelers ahead of China's Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival. Chinese traditionally take a week or two of vacation to mark the holiday, which this year begins February 9.

Millions travel home to spend China's most important holiday with their families. According to China's state-run Xinhua news agency, travelers are expected to complete nearly two billion journeys by air, rail, car and ferry over the 40-day period surrounding the Lunar New Year.

Airports will be packed with passengers, flying to both domestic and international destinations. Although many families still choose to celebrate the holiday together at home, some young professionals seize on the Chinese New Year as a chance to take trips away from home. Xinhua reports that Chinese people are expected to take nearly 13 million plane trips over the holiday this year, up more than 12 percent from 2004.

But not everyone in China can afford to travel by airplane. Most people in China's growing cities have no choice but to battle the crowds at busy urban rail stations to buy a train ticket. Many camp out at stations for days before the holiday to buy their tickets and then squeeze onto jammed trains.

The New Year is the only time of year many migrant workers can leave their jobs in the cities to return to their rural hometowns. As China's migrant population expands, so does the number of people traveling during the February holiday.

This traveler, Mr. Jiang, says his home is far away and he takes the train because he cannot afford the plane. He says that although ticket prices have been raised, no matter what the price is, people in the working class who do not have a lot of money can only take the train.

The Chinese government has been scrambling to deal with the problem of overcrowded trains. The China Daily, China's state-run national newspaper, reports the rail network can handle about 2.7 million passengers a day, well below the number that will attempt to travel during the New Year.

More than 200 extra trains will operate to carry students and migrants from the cities to help ease congestion.

But just buying train tickets can be a stressful ordeal. This woman, Mrs. Xia, has just arrived in Beijing with her twin girls for the holidays, but she already worries about buying train tickets for her return journey.

Mrs. Xia says she worries that she will have to spend three or four days of her vacation trying to buy train tickets to go home.

The government raised rail ticket prices 15 to 20 percent for the New Year period to help control passenger volumes. This train passenger, Mr. Lei, thinks the higher prices are necessary.

He thinks the price increase is a reasonable measure, and helps control the number of people and to a huge peak in traffic flow.

The government also is cracking down on fake tickets and black market ticket sales, common problems as New Year travelers make desperate bids to reach their final destinations.

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