China’s online railway ticket sales goes berserk; a rural migrant’s letter to railways officials

January 5, 2012Jing Gao3 Comments, , , , , , , , , ,

China’s Ministry of Railways has rolled out an ambitious plan to sell highly sought-after train tickets online for the upcoming Spring Festival Rush in an effort to ease the burden of securing a ticket. However, most people that tried to use the official online system experienced great difficulty and frustration while placing the order, and many were even charged for tickets that would not be issued to them.

A post on the microblogging site Sina Weibo with screenshots has vividly illustrated the pain in the neck. According to the post author “Yuandian Yinxiang”, who currently lives in Beijing and desires to go back to his hometown Ganzhou, Jiangxi province for the Chinese New Year, he kept refreshing the web pages on, the booking website, and getting error messages, while the number of tickets available was, as the search results showed, decreasing. After nine hours of trial and error, he finally placed his order.


Previously, the only legit ways to purchase a train ticket in China are wait in line at a train station or purchase at a ticket agent office. During Spring Festival Rush, or chunyun, nicknamed after the huge flow of traffic before and after the Chinese New Year when an estimated number of two billion trips are made for family reunion, getting a train ticket home often involves ridiculously long waits, huge crowds and heightened anxiety. That is why soon after the online system was introduced, an unprecedented number of visitors flocked to the website, which was ill-equipped to meet the bandwidth demand, and caused unprecedented traffic snarl-up.

A cartoonist who goes by the name Xiao Mao satirized the ticket booking website’s inaccessibility in his work: a Chinese user, after trying to visit Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and getting error messages for each one of them, thinks to himself, “Ai, if the foreign ones don’t work, let me try a domestic one,” and keys in ‘,’ the official ticket booking site. He is amused by the result.


Left: Net user “Yuandian Yinxiang” kept getting error messages. Right: A cartoon satirizing the poorly constructed ticket booking website.

At least he got the ticket. Many people told Jinghua Times that they were billed by the website and thought they had secured the tickets home. But when they showed up at the railway station to pick up tickets, they were told that the order did not go through.

The Railways Ministry replied that according to the original scheme, all ticket transactions must be completed within 30 minutes, or the user would still be charged and the ticket would return to the pool of available tickets. Even though the Ministry has promised full refunds for customers who lost their money within 15 days and extended the time-out limit to 45 minutes, complaints and criticism run high on the Internet.

On the other hand, it turns out that the online ticket sales system, even if engineered perfectly, is not welcome by everyone. According to Wenzhou Metropolitan News, a rural migrant worker currently living in Wenzhou wrote an open letter to officials at Ministry of Railways. In the letter, he accused the online booking system of being unrealistic and unfair. The following are excerpts of his letter translated by Ministry of Tofu.

To officials at Ministry of Railways,

My name is Huang Qinghong. I am 37, from Pengshui, Chongqing. I have been working in Wenzhou for more than a decade. I only saw you on TV. I guess I will not have the right to meet you for the rest of my life, but I have so much to say. So I have written a letter. But I have no idea where it should be sent. Then I thought about news, so I asked the reporters at the newspaper to publish this letter.

Today, I went to the train station to buy a ticket for the fourth time. I wanted to try my luck, but still, no ticket is available. Each time, the workers at the windows told me, tickets are (available) a few days earlier online and via telephone booking service. As soon as they are made available, they are all snatched away online, and no ticket is left for the windows.

I know, the original intention of the Railways Ministry is to avoid (pulling in) crowds at the windows. That’s why they came up with this stuff. Now, the lines at the windows are indeed shorter, and pressure on you guys is indeed lighter. You can leave work earlier and have your dinner at home. But to us, we at least had a little hope with queuing overnight. Now, there is nothing. The more I think about it, the more upset I get. I really want to say, a piece of bullshit, Railways Ministry!

I work at a hardware plant in the suburb of Wenzhou. None of the 40 plus workers at our plant can use computer. Our boss is sympathetic with us, and wanted to help us with going online and getting the tickets. However, he spent a long while in vain. He either couldn’t access it, or the tickets were sold out. Our boss said, even if there are tickets, we’ll have to open some online banking service. We are rural migrants. Not white-collar workers. How do we know how to open online banking? Did you come up with this idea by using your toes to think?

The leaders at Railways Ministry, you can surf the Internet every day. You can buy whatever you want. But we can’t. We are worried about our food each day.

Then we try call the phone booking service. As soon as we have a break at work, we make the phone call. We keep calling after work and even at dinner table. But we never get through. Among the 40 workers, only one got through after several days of trial and bought a ticket to Jiangxi province. That worker was so thrilled, whereas the rest of us were green-eyed. Buying a train ticket is so like winning a lottery.

In the past few years, buying tickets during Chunyun only involved queuing. Those who came early had the opportunity. We competed with our stamina. So I always came over to queue before dawn. This year is different. The online ticket sales is so complex and unrealistic to us. This is in fact very unfair. We are even stripped of the chance to buy a ticket. You would say, “That’s pretty simple. Just learn to use computer!” But to people like us who work from dawn to dusk, where do we find the time to learn computer? Where do we get the money to buy a computer?

In the past dozen years since I came to Wenzhou, I went home every other year, for buying a ticket during chunyun is so painful…My daughter is 6 years old. It’s been a long time since I last saw her. Don’t know if she has grown any taller or learned more (Chinese) characters. The price of a train ticket home is 190 yuan. A long-distance bus ticket costs 560. I don’t want to take the bus. It’s a few hundred yuan more! I usually grudge my daughter what she wants. How great it is if I can save this money and spend on my daughter!

During each year’s chunyun, queuing for buying a ticket is an affliction to us rural migrants. But we will not have this affliction this year, even if we so want it.

You stay in air-conditioned rooms, sit on a couch, smoke a cigaret, drink some tea, and then you come up with this online ticket sales thing. Have you thought about our life? Have you experienced the pain of buying a ticket? We don’t even have a ticket to let us stand (on the train) dozens of hours to get home. We only have a stomachful of grievances, but nowhere to air/vent.

January 2, 2012

Selected comments on Sina Weibo

万吼吼:I want to say, I am not a rural migrant, and yet I can’t get a ticket either…[泪]

goood123:Exactly! And why phone/online book can start 12 days in advance, whereas ticket sales at the train station start only 8 days in advance!

流浪远方只为自由:Haven’t bought any ticket for chunyun for years. So lucky. Still remember at the time my legs got so sore. Those at Railways Ministry are a bunch of idiots. It’s been more than a decade, and the problem remains unsolved. [汗]

筱筱静箫:All sectors in China claim they want to keep abreast with the international standards without considering their own hardware and equipment. The final result is, no keeping abreast with; no advancement of technology; no improvement of the sectors. So pathetic.

王皓泽1993:Um. Just issue the paper tickets together with the E-tickets. Otherwise it is really unfair. After all, before doing anything in China, think well. Because the base is so big, the situation is complicated. But we can’t go back. We have to advance. Rural migrants need to ride a train, other people also need to ride a train. We are equal in this respect. But it also has to be ensured that the situation each one is faced with is equal. Among the three methods, phone and internet bookings shouldn’t have had a two-day advantage. Just change it…

新周刊: Some people say, they must learn if they don’t know how to use (computer) and follow the trends. Easier said than done. Even people like us who brag today on Weibo can’t be sure we are still able to keep abreast with the technological developments at the time we reach 40, and still able to use cellphones and computers at that time.

吉祖宗: It is unreasonable. But the online ticket sales itself is not wrong. Should have arranged more group-buying tracks for rural migrants to protect everyone’s interests and crack down on ticket scalpers and corrupted officials.

guzh:Great article from our rural brothers! Several days ago, I tried to buy one ticket for my aunt. First, the site was inaccessible. Then after a long while I was lucky to visit it, the verification code for registration must have been designed by Homeland Security. I refreshed several times for a different one until I finally could recognize it. I finally completed registration after having much ado. Then the ticket search system went out of order. I waited until the evening to visit the site again. Then the pop-up told me the server will be under maintenance until 6 a.m the next morning. I rose up early in the morning. All tickets in the next 12 days are gone… They deserve to be called ‘Iron Big Brother.’ Nowadays, can you think of anything else that is only purchased at an exclusive agency?

Fox_摇摆: Is the era advancing or a disappointment? Does it mean that our comfortable life has to be premised upon the sorrows of another group of people? This group of people has given more to this country than anyone else. Why the country seldom considers an issue from their standpoint?

外贸招聘:I tried it. First, this website is unusually shitty, like that of an unlicensed, bogus company. Second, it always reported too many visitors when I was logging in. I tried logging in dozens of times. When I placed the order, it said system error. I repeatedly placed the order three or four times. Moreover, I really don’t think the Railways Ministry will make the entire pool of tickets available online without leaving any to the window. Before, if they announced sold out the moment the sales started, they might be pelted/stoned. But now, they can easily say the ticket is sold out online, and your glowering at them will not help a bit.

Corly吖权微博达人:Decision makers didn’t even consider this? Are you pig brains? [猪头] A few days ago, my colleague complained about the great difficulty of telephone booking…Damn you. Now I know life is the hardest for those at the bottom of the society!!!

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3 comments to “China’s online railway ticket sales goes berserk; a rural migrant’s letter to railways officials”

  1. [...] released some marvelous photographs of the start of the Chinese New Year travel season, known as chūnyún (春運). Millions of migrant workers return to the countryside every year to spend the new year with their [...]

  2. Guy In China | January 16, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Ridiculous. I never though the internet in China would be overcrowded as well.

  3. [...] har fået over 1,4 milliarder besøgende, og er i den grad bukket under. Ministry of Tofu har skærmbilleder af hjemmesiden med fejlmeddelelser. Set i bakspejlet var det måske heller ikke så smart, at [...]

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