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Beijing Railway Station on Feb 3 is swarming with people leaving the city to spend the Spring Festival holiday with their families. Wang Jing / China Daily
Car owner Ran Hong (second from left), his girlfriend (left), Liu Chengguo (right) and his wife Tian Xingju pose for a photo before they leave Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, for Chongqing on Feb 3. Liu and Tian have worked in Hangzhou for four years, and they shared Ran's car on the journey home after they were unable to get train tickets. Ran let them ride along for free. Han Chuanhao / Xinhua
Returning home, an annual ritual for most Chinese people before Spring Festival, has become a torturous test of will and persistence for many, China Daily reporters Zhao Lei and Cao Yin find out.
'No matter how difficult getting a ticket is, I have to buy one and return home," Liu Xiaodan, 26, who comes from Changde, Hunan province, and works in a karaoke club in Beijing, said at Beijing West Railway Station on Jan 23. "I came to Beijing when I was 17 and began working in a restaurant," she recalled. "I worked there for more than three years, and my salary helped my parents pay my little brother's tuition after he was admitted to a distinguished university in Shanghai. I can only see my brother once or at most twice a year, especially since he graduated from the university and landed a job in Shanghai. So Spring Festival is a big occasion for me to be with my parents and my brother," Liu said, adding she would spare no efforts to get a train ticket back home. "Last year, I bought two tickets, for me and my boyfriend. I know it is wrong to go to scalpers, but people like me never have any other choice," she sighed. "Before Spring Festival in 2009, I stood in line for nearly five hours on three consecutive days to get a ticket."
She succeeded, but she came down with a fever that she caught waiting in the cold.
"Of course, flying home is much easier and more convenient, but we migrant workers can't afford it. And most of us girls wouldn't consider taking a long-distance bus home out of safety concerns."
In addition to waiting in line at train station ticket offices, Liu said she had asked her boyfriend and colleagues to help check the website for booking train tickets to see if any were available.
"One of my friends said he has reserved a standing-room ticket for me. I came to the train station to see if there were any hard-seat tickets left. After all, standing for more than 20 hours in a train car is no laughing matter."
Fortunately, she did not need to wait in line for hours this year because "most people now use the ticket website or hotline to reserve tickets and then pick them up at railway stations or ticket agencies".
The Ministry of Railways ticket booking website, 12306.cn, handled about 200,000 users per second on its busiest days before Spring Festival, recording as many as 1.5 billion hits each day, according to the ministry.
3.4 billion trips
Chinese tradition holds that people should return home and spend Spring Festival, the most important Chinese holiday, with their families, which creates an annual travel rush that is the world's largest recurrent human migration.
Chinese travelers made nearly 2.9 billion trips during the 2012 travel peak. More than 235 million of those trips were by train - meaning nearly 6 million people took trains each day of the travel rush.
A record 3.4 billion trips are expected during this year's 40-day holiday rush, from Jan 26 to March 6.
Of these, 3.1 billion trips will be made in private cars or buses, averaging 77.4 million per day, 9 percent more than last year, according to a Ministry of Transport forecast.
About 43 million trips will be made by ships during the period, a 1.5-percent year-on-year increase.
Transportation departments around the country will allocate 840,000 buses and 13,000 passenger ships for the travel peak.
Compared with last year's travel peak, this year will see more short or medium-distance journeys on the roads and a larger movement of migrant workers. The number of trips made by rural residents will surge, according to He Jianzhong, a Ministry of Transport spokesman.
The Ministry of Railways expects 220 million train trips to be made during the peak period this year, averaging 5.6 million a day.
To handle the flood of rail passengers during the Spring Festival travel peak, authorities will temporarily schedule 900 extra train trips a day, increasing the total number of daily trips to 5,134, said Wei Ruiming, a Ministry of Railways official in charge of operations.
Wei said 621 comparatively low-speed trains without air-conditioning would run each day during the travel peak for passengers such as migrant workers who cannot afford bullet train tickets.
Extra trains from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province, where large numbers of these migrant workers are employed, were prepared to take them back to Sichuan province, Chongqing and other regions.
The traditional strain on lines linking cities that attract these workers in the northeast and south has been alleviated with the launch of new high-speed lines.
The Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed rail line, the world's longest high-speed rail link, which became fully operational on Dec 26, has become a hot choice for many traveling home, helping relieve the huge burdens on old lines.
Before the travel peak began, tickets for the new line were easier to get than other lines, because of their high prices - a first-class seat costs 1,383 yuan ($221), which is more expensive than an economy-class air ticket, and a second-class cabin seat costs 865 yuan.
Still, almost every ticket for the line's the railway operated before Spring Festival were booked by the end of January, according to 12306.cn.
Return tickets to Beijing and other big cities along the Beijing-Guangzhou line for Feb 16 and 17, when the Spring Festival holiday ends, were sold out on the website because most employers reopen on these days.
Railway authorities have also taken into consideration the needs of passengers with special conditions.
The Zhengzhou Railway Bureau in Henan province has made a series of favorable measures for people with disabilities, including reserving a certain number of seats and sleepers in each car.
The bureau dispatches ticket-selling vehicles to areas with large concentrations of migrant workers and remote, rural areas to help people there buy tickets.
Airports in China will also see their busiest-ever traffic during this year's travel peak.
Nearly 8.8 million trips will be made through the Beijing Capital International Airport, averaging 220,000 each day, a 4.86 percent year-on-year increase, according to airport authority.
Airport workers with tablet computers and printers have been sent to help passengers check in. The practice is proving successful in saving travelers' time and reducing pressure on counters, the airport said.
Travelers to regions that produce many migrant workers and tourist hot spots have more options during the 40-day peak period.
Air China has pledged to add 2,578 flights to major Chinese destinations during the travel peak, and China Southern Airline plans to add more than 5,400 flights.
Carpooling a new trend
In addition to traditional ways of going home, Chinese people have increasingly turned to a comparatively new idea - carpooling.
Yue Hanshi, 52, decided like many others to return home with some new friends who would share expenses in his car.
Yue, who works at a property management company in Guangzhou, Guangdong, said it would be his first time giving others a lift on the way back to his hometown - Jingmen, Hubei province.
"My company said our holiday starts on Feb 7, a bit later than other enterprises, which created problems for me. It was very hard to get a train ticket for that time, and flying is too expensive for me," he said.
"I considered driving back home by myself, but the cost of gasoline and the road tolls made me hesitate," he said. "Then some of my young colleagues suggested I could take some people with me who are going to the same area. I thought it was an interesting idea, and my passengers can share the costs."
He advertised for companions on the Internet and asked anyone who fit his requirements and was interested to give him a call.
"If they call me, I'll be able to verify through their accents that they are from my hometown or nearby. I don't want to take people who will add extra distance to my route because it will take more time and bring unnecessary errands."
Yue also required the passengers to provide their ID cards and pay him 200 yuan each. "I have strict standards about who I take because I don't want my trip ruined by troublemakers," he said.
"And I won't let them drive my Chevrolet because I'm more familiar with my car and can guarantee our safety."
Yue was not alone in sharing cars.
"I have an SUV and plan to drive it home from Chongqing to Zhuzhou (Hunan province). I plan to leave on Feb 8 and take highways for the whole trip," Guo Long, a construction engineer from Zhuzhou who works in Chongqing, wrote on a carpooling website.
"Besides my wife and me, there are extra three seats in my car, so I'm looking for three passengers. Women are preferred, and those who are interested should be healthy and non-smokers. Ideal passengers would have a driver's license."
Guo said he thought it is impossible to buy train tickets for his wife and himself, and air tickets, though easier to find, are too expensive, so driving home seems a reasonable option.
He calculated the cost of each means of transportation.
"A hard sleeper ticket from Chongqing to Zhuzhou costs 248 yuan, an air ticket around 900 yuan. The road distance between the two is 1,100 km, which means gasoline will cost 900 yuan and the highway toll will come to nearly 500 yuan.
"If I can find three passengers, the cost per person will be 280 yuan, which is about the price of a hard sleeper ticket."
Since the beginning of January, ride-sharing information has surged on several marketplace websites, including 58.com and picker365.com.
Wang Yi, product director of the carpooling service at 58.com, a popular website for information sharing and item exchange, said more than 30,000 posts about car sharing were posted every day since January, almost 30 percent more than usual.
Nearly 1 million people would view those posts per day before the festival, he said.
A survey by 58.com found that nearly 50 percent of netizens who sought co-travelers found companions on the website.
Netizens began flooding the website searching for carpooling information in early January, Wang said, adding that his subordinates were busy editing information based on netizens' places of departure and destinations.
"We encourage those who seek car owners to submit their ID information and cellphone numbers on our website, but it's not obligatory," Wang said. "However, the more information you provide, the more replies you can get and easier it is to find companions."
In addition to the information database, the website also provides a sample of safety contract for passengers and drivers, he said.
"We encourage every passenger to sign the contract online, and tell their families about car owners' information, because this can help ensure passengers' safety and help the their families to know their routes," he added.
Since 2008, carpooling has become an increasingly popular choice among Chinese people returning home during Spring Festival, according to Wang.
Car sharing can make full use of the transport resources and alleviate traffic during Spring Festival. In addition, it is affordable for most people and provides them a chance to make friends, he said.
There are no set, unified price standards for sharing a vehicle, Wang said.
Xue Junying, chief executive officer of picker365.com, a website specializing in the carpooling that opened in 2010, said the website is designing carpooling application software for cellphone users.
Information about carpooling is available on the Internet, but this brings inconvenience to those who are unable to access the Internet but want to seek a car to share. Therefore Xue's engineers are conducting research for an app for smartphones to help travelers find shared cars at any place and any time, Xue said.
"Our website is just a bridge between car owners and passengers, so we do not intervene with their deals," he said, adding they will popularize an online insurance this year, aiming to help users to enjoy a safer and more assured journey.
He added that there is a remarkable surge in information of the carpooling as national holidays such as the Spring Festival and National Day approach, and it is becoming a feasible and affordable way for young people, especially migrant workers, to travel or return home.
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(China Daily 02/15/2013 page1)