Stranded travellers see light at end of the tunnel

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 February, 2008, 12:00am

Guangzhou-Beijing services resume after five days but weather still threatens

As train services on the Guangzhou-Beijing railway route finally resumed on Wednesday after being paralysed for five days, hundreds of thousands of travellers who had lost hope of returning home for the Lunar New Year finally saw a glimmer of light.

But local authorities, trying to put on a brave face, especially after Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to the station on the same day, knew full well there was one thing they could not control - the weather.

The Central Weather Bureau says in its latest weather forecast that the heavy snow and rain are expected to hit the southern part of the mainland again in the next few days.

Any repeat of the severe weather - which has already affected more than 2.48 million people and caused economic losses of more than 1 billion yuan in Guangdong - could have unimaginable consequences.

Guangdong relies heavily on neighbouring provinces for food and energy. Reports have suggested coal supplies at power stations in the province are down to reserves of only two days.

News that transport services had resumed prompted more than 180,000 travellers to converge on the Guangzhou railway station yesterday hoping to get on any train bound for home.

Guangdong railway authorities described services as having 'mostly returned to normal' and said they would strive to send all passengers holding valid tickets home by 6pm today. CCTV quoted the Ministry of Railway as saying that about 400,000 passengers could travel on the Guangzhou-Beijing line each day.

According to the Guangdong railway officials, 161 trains carrying 330,000 passengers left the five major railway stations in the province from 6pm on Wednesday to 6pm yesterday, with the Guangzhou station dispatching 80 trains carrying 160,000 people.

But amid the positive signs, the authorities also struck a cautious note: 'If the weather deteriorates, we don't rule out the possibility that transport will be affected by it.'

To deal with electricity cuts in some of the hardest-hit areas, such as Hunan province , 135 diesel-powered locomotives had been deployed to push trains as they passed between Shaoguan and Zhuzhou , the officials said.

After a near stampede on Wednesday, a heavy police presence enveloped the Guangzhou station, with gates being opened to send passengers to the platforms batch by batch.

Yet chaos seemed hard to avoid. Anybody was allowed to board a train as long as he had a valid ticket, irrespective of the date or the train service stated on the ticket.

That attracted tens of thousands of anxious passengers who tried to break through the barriers to board trains.

One of the lucky ones was Chen Hai , who succeeded in getting on a 2.20pm train from Guangzhou to Taizhou in Jiangsu .

He had returned his ticket for a Sunday train to the station earlier, but bought another one from a ticket scalper after hearing news of the improved situation on Tuesday.

An agitated Mr Chen said he felt 'cheated' by the railway authorities because they had persuaded people to move from outside the station to the nearby Canton Fair Exhibition building and other areas on a drizzly night because of the premier's visit.

He said about 150,000 passengers were waiting at the railway square around midnight, but by Wednesday morning - when Mr Wen arrived - only 23,000 people were left.

While the police tried hard to control passengers squeezing to get onto trains, many criticised them for failing to let more passengers onto platforms for some trains, like one to Hunan that left without being full yesterday.

Surging food prices - not only on the streets but on board trains as well - have also become a major concern for local and central authorities.

Zhou Yuncheng , head of the Taizhou train services team, said if everything ran smoothly, the train would arrive in Taizhou in 26 hours, 'but to prepare for any change in weather, we have stored up to 10 times the amount of food that we normally prepare for the journey'.

One couple who worked in Meizhou in Guangdong and were travelling with their three-year-old daughter managed to board a train for Chongqing . The husband said: 'I really don't know who to blame. Do you think I have to blame the sky, or I have to blame myself for the bad luck that I carry, or I have to blame others?'

According to Ministry of Public Security spokesman Wu Heping, three parts of the Beijing-Zhuhai Highway - the main link between the north and south of the mainland - at Xiangtan in Hunan, from Daxin to Xiaogan in Hubei , and at Shaoguan in Guangdong, were still closed.

'More than 100,000 PLA soldiers, policemen and local officials are working at the front line to clear ice on the road,' Mr Wu said.

By last night, less than 500 passengers were stranded at Guangzhou's airport, mostly waiting for flights to Changsha and Hefei . It was in sharp contrast to the situation on Tuesday, when the numbers hit 14,000, according to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport spokesman Qi Yaoming .

But Mr Qi was not optimistic about the situation for the next few days, with fresh snowfalls expected and new passengers arriving at the airport.

'It is hard to say when we can release all stranded passengers,' Mr Qi said.