IT worker's ticket browser plug-in upsets railways ministry

IT worker Ni Chao wrote a program to help resend details for online Lunar New Year travel bookings, but officials say it caused more chaos

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 4:45am

When Ni Chao tried to buy a ticket using the Ministry of Railways' online system before last year's Lunar New Year, he failed more than 50 times.

With the website constantly returning a message saying, "the system is busy with too many users", Ni said he had to fill out the ticket information every time he re-sent the request.

"That was really annoying, so I thought I'd develop some kind of tool to save all the trouble," the 27-year-old information technology worker said. "I wrote a script in my spare time, on and off, and it worked. I thought it could help others, so I uploaded it to my personal website on January 9 last year."

That was the genesis of one of the browser plug-ins that have become so popular ahead of this year's Lunar New Year peak travel season.

But his idea also drew some criticism, as Ni was invited to "have tea" - an informal warning - with the authorities, who have blamed the software for disrupting purchases on the website and spreading chaos among anxious ticket buyers.

A migrant worker from Hubei complained to a phone-in radio programme that all train tickets were gone within 50 seconds because the new plug-ins allowed internet users to jump the queue and take them faster than they could be booked through a Ministry of Railways website, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported on Monday. He said scalpers then resold the tickets, charging a 500 yuan (HK$615) commission for a 200 yuan ticket.

Though not a programmer by training, Ni said he enjoyed writing small programs and sharing them online - all for free - and it had become a major pastime. Ni, who majored in civil engineering at university, said developing the plug-in had not been a challenging task.

"Anyone with programming experience could work it out," if they really persisted," he said. "It is only a tool that automatically fills out the information and sends requests, but it still strictly follows the railway ministry's rule that requests can only be sent every five seconds."

The railway ministry's ticketing website, commonly referred to as 12306, was reportedly developed at a cost of 300 million yuan last year. Despite its cost, the website has been criticised for being difficult to navigate, slow and offering poor quality service.

Ni's tool went viral after he was invited to custom-make a plug-in for Kingsoft's Cheetah browser. He said he did not profit from sharing the tool, and had not expected to.

He estimated that the plug-in had been used by hundreds of thousands of people a day - at least - after Kingsoft released it on January 14.

"I didn't expect it would become so popular. Meanwhile it also brought me a lot of pressure from the railways ministry," he said.

Similar services run by other companies have also proved extremely popular. China News Service reported on Monday that the 360 Secure browser had helped more than five million users purchase train tickets in less than two weeks.

The browser plug-ins were still downloadable yesterday despite reports that the railways ministry had sought to ban them. However, it stopped downloads from Ni's site from January 17 after his "tea with Boss Rail".

Cheng Xiandong, director of the Ministry of Railways' transport bureau, compared using the plug-ins to "driving through a red light and disrupting orderly traffic" in the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily yesterday.

But Ni rejected the criticism. "The fundamental problem is there are not enough tickets. Even without such plug-ins, there is still no absolute equity for ticket buyers if you consider the differences in computer performance or internet speed," he said.

Ni said he became even more confused when he learned that the Jike search engine run by People's Daily was providing a similar service.

"It actually went further than my project," he said. "Mine would only alert you whenever a ticket is available, Jike even helps you make the order. The fight for train tickets has now been joined by a national team."

Additional reporting by Fiona Tam