Chinese New Year
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Lunar New Year

Third time lucky? Chinese railways website updated ahead of Spring Festival rush

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 4:09pm

The ticketing website run by China Railways is bracing itself for the annual onslaught of millions journeying home for the Chinese New Year next month after two years of embarrassing failures in dealing with the world’s largest annual migration.

The website, which for many has embodied the corruption endemic in the state-run railways sector during former Railways Minister Liu Zhijun’s 10-year tenure that ended in 2011, has been updated to handle a part of the mass onslaught on tickets soon to be bought for next month’s peak travel season.

Last year, 240 million railway journeys were recorded in the 40-day Lunar New Year period, according to the Ministry of Transport.

The ticketing service has yet to survive a Chinese New Year without crashing.

It first went into operation in June 2011 after years of development and four months after Liu was detained in a corruption probe. He was later given a suspended death sentence for taking 64.6 million yuan in bribes and is now serving time at Beijing’s Qincheng prison for senior cadres.

On its first Chinese New Year last year, the website was quickly overwhelmed and crashed much to the chagrin of Chinese travellers, earning nationwide ridicule. Cartoons circulated showing computer users wrestling with their monitors for tickets.

The platform wasn’t cheap. Taiji Computers, a Beijing-based software developer, said it received 320 million yuan (HK$404 million) to set up the ticketing platform. Citizen journalist Zhou Xiaoyun shared contracts on weibo last year, which pointed to total expenses exceeding 500 million yuan shortly after last year’s New Year rush.

But when the website crashed again this year, it created a small, new industry. Dozens of software engineers wrote macros that constantly tried to access the site as soon as it came online again to buy tickets. They would then sell the rare tickets at a premium to travellers.

The ministry countered by pushing security services to block github, a popular coding platform, in China to stop the spread of code by website crawlers. Lee Kai-fu, the former head of Google in China and one of the country’s most prominent microbloggers, was among the many that rallied against the block. “Github has no ideology or reactionary content,” he wrote in a post, which has since been shared 97,000 times.

On Friday, the site’s first day running with the upgrade supposed to prevent another crash, microbloggers reported problems selecting seats and paying with Alipay, Alibaba’s popular electronic transaction service.

“I’m on the new ticketing site ... but nothing has changed,” wrote one netizen.