Business / Train ticket

Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system

By Huang Zhiling in Chengdu, Qiu Quanlin in Guangzhou, Peng Yining and Wang Shanshan in Beijin (China Daily) Updated: 2010-02-01 07:46

 Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system

More than 70,000 passengers passed through the platforms of Harbin Railway Station, Heilongjiang province, on Saturday, the first day of the annual 'spring rush', a peak travel time. [China Daily]

Confident scalpers laugh off predictions that the new train ticketing system will wipe out 'yellow bulls'

As the man strolled beside the long lines outside Beijing Railway Station, occasionally stopping to chat with random strangers, the casual observer would be forgiven for thinking he was just another migrant worker, or even a beggar asking for spare change. Few would immediately recognize this man in a scruffy blue jacket and worn trousers as a ticket scalper.

"I know someone who works for the railway station, so you don't have to line up," whispered the man to a China Daily reporter posing as a potential customer.

He led our reporter to the front of a queue and murmured something to the official ticket seller through the glass. After a moment he turned and announced he could get a ticket immediately - but it would cost the reporter extra.

Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system

"If you want to queue, go ahead; but you will never get the ticket," said the scalper, who refused to give his name. "At the end of the day, you'll come to me anyway."

Being a huang niu - or yellow bull, so called because of the immense power they wield - is a lucrative career in China. Ticket scalping generates about 1.8 billion yuan ($260 million) every Spring Festival, according to government statistics. To slay these "bulls", however, the State is piloting a new system that requires passengers to give their names and identity numbers when booking tickets.

The system has been running at 37 stations across Sichuan, Guangdong and Hunan provinces since Jan 21, but not in Beijing. The plan is designed to prevent scalpers from buying large amounts of tickets during the "spring rush" - the peak time for ticket sales in China - and selling them on for higher prices, which puts extra pressure on Spring Festival travelers.

About 210 million people are expected to travel by train during this year's 40-day spring rush, which started last Saturday, according to figures released by the National Development and Reform Commission, a major policymaker.

One migrant worker trying to secure passage to his hometown for Spring Festival is Yu Xin, 28. He was sat on four large woven bags in the large open square outside Beijing Railway Station while his friend waited in line to buy tickets to Qiqihar in the far northeastern Heilongjiang province.

"I used to work in Shenzhen (in Guangdong) but I changed to Beijing last year because it became too difficult to get tickets back home in time for Chinese New Year," he said as he shivered against the strong, icy wind. "I always had to transfer in Beijing and each time had to sleep several nights outside the station because it took so long to get a ticket. It is a painful experience but I must go home. It's the only time of year I can get together with my family."

The migrant worker said he loathed scalpers and hoped the new system will drive them away. "Their tickets are too expensive, and we cannot get tickets because they buy them all," he said angrily.

 Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system

Thousands of travelers gather at Guangzhou Railway Station on Saturday. The station is one of 37 across three provinces piloting a new system that requires people to give their names and identity numbers when booking tickets. [China Daily]

One scalper approached by China Daily in Beijing laughed when asked about the new ticketing system. "The government is bluffing," he said. "They are just trying to make us panic, but I know the system is not going to happen nationwide. You cannot imagine how many people are making money from the current system."

Scalpers have good reason to be bold. At the main station in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, on Jan 14, huang niu could be easily spotted bargaining with potential customers in loud voices despite being surrounded by at least 50 patrolling police officers and 20 chengguan, urban management officers.

"We only make sure that the station is clean and not too crowded," said a chengguan surnamed Huang who has worked at the station for more than five years.

A police officer stood close to several scalpers said: "We policemen only take care of things that are our duty."

Scalpers in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, were also unfazed by the introduction of the new booking system. A man surnamed Li operating in the city's main station - one of those piloting the new system - offered to buy tickets for a China Daily reporter from a friend working at an official sales point.

"My friend sells tickets in a booth at the station. You can use your own ID card and have your name on the tickets. There is nothing to worry about," said Li, who advertises his services and publishes his contact information on local Internet forums.

A man surnamed He who wanted to travel from Guangzhou to Chengdu on Feb 8 said he was approached by six scalpers at the station. Each offered to use his ID card information to buy him a ticket in exchange for between 130 to 200 yuan. "One told me that because I wanted to travel at the peak time there was no way I'd be able to get a ticket by queuing at one of the official booths," he said.

Under the pilot scheme, customers must call a booking hotline with their identity card information before being given a confirmation number to show at an official ticket booth.

Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system

However, in an article published in Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News on Jan 25, a reporter described how he bought a new identity-tagged ticket from a scalper. The reporter rang the hotline and was told the tickets he wanted were sold out. Yet when he handed over his identity card information to a scalper in Guangzhou Railway Station he was immediately given a confirmation number to buy tickets for the day and destination he desired.

So how are scalpers getting around the anti-scalping system?

"The new system makes things a little complicated but we have our ways," one huang niu explained to Yangcheng Evening News. "Initially, the tickets are under my name, but they are not printed with my name or ID card number. When people find me for tickets they give me their ID card information and their names are printed on the tickets instead."

The reporter added that the scalper refused to reveal how he reserves the tickets in the first place.

Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system

Huang Xin, an official at the Guangzhou Railway Group, which operates 15,000 ticket hotlines and handles more then 1.5 million calls at peak times, dismissed concerns that scalpers were getting tickets through the "back door".

Each ticket contains information about who called and booked it, who bought it at the station booth, who sold it to them, when and where, he told Nanfang Daily, a Guangzhou-based newspaper.

"Scalpers can keep ringing the hotline and reserving tickets, then sell on the confirmation numbers, but we have introduced strong measures to monitor the ticket-selling process. Video cameras are installed in every booth," Huang was quoted as saying. "The scalpers are lying when they say they have connections inside our group. They just want their clients to believe them."

Dai Xinming, a member of the Shenzhen municipal committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top advisory body, has been calling for an identity-tagged ticket system since 2003. If run correctly, he said the system should wipe out huang niu.

"India also has a spring rush but it has no scalpers. The reason is India has long installed an identity-tagged ticket system," he said. "If we increase the fee for ticket transfer, the cost of scalping will go up and scalpers will make less profit. This way we can get rid of scalpers."

Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system

Scalpers should be eliminated because they block the urbanization process, he said. "Farmers travel to cities mainly by train and bus. For urbanization to continue, we need to lower the cost of labor flow and get rid of anything that may add to the cost, such as scalping."

But the new system is not a fix-all solution, said Yang Tao, a procurator in Jiangxi province, writing in the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post. "For those powerful scalpers with connections, the system will only increase the cost of scalping and decrease the profit. It is not going to eliminate scalping," he wrote.

Under the pilot system, scalpers will just work more closely with rail company insiders. They will find clients and collect ID card information, insiders will provide tickets or confirmation numbers, said Yang.

"Scalpers do not work as individuals, they work in groups. Only those scalpers without connections will line up at ticket booths and buy as many tickets as possible. The more powerful scalpers have insiders working with ticketing companies, as well as regular customers," he said. "The identity-tagged system will just cause a reshuffle. Those with the best connections will expand their business, lower ones will be edged out."

Train tickets can only be purchased in China at stations or through licensed agents within 10 days of the intended travel date, and transport experts warn that huang niu are not the only ones making it difficult for ordinary people to get tickets home at peak travel times.

Related readings:
Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system Getting ahead, thanks to the scalpers
Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system 6,600 scalpers seized during festival travel rush
Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system Scalpers sell appointments for 3,000 yuan
Scalpers laugh off new train ticketing system Train ticket scalpers head to court

"Government bodies and large State-owned enterprises can always get their share of railway tickets, even though the number of tickets for ordinary people is very limited," said a Beijing Railway Administration official who did not want to be identified.

Most long queues outside train stations across China comprise of migrant workers, while the most in-demand tickets are for journeys from Shanghai to Sichuan, a major source of the country's migrant workforce, according to Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News.

"The more disadvantaged some people are in society, the more difficult it is for them to get the precious tickets ahead of Spring Festival," said a manager for China Youth Tourism Service in Beijing who asked to remain anonymous. "When it comes to the competition for such rare resources, I'm afraid it comes down to the law of the jungle. It's every man for himself."

Zhang Ao in Chengdu, Gao Tao and Wang Yao in Guangzhou contributed to the story

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