Lunar New Year travel scramble gets under way

Travellers swarm into rail stations, as some camp out in hope of tickets

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2013, 5:33am

The 40-day Lunar New Year travel rush - the largest annual migration of people on the planet - began yesterday with the first wave of home-bound passengers crowding into major transport hubs across the mainland.

In big cities such as Guangzhou, huge queues formed at the entrances to main train stations, as shown by texts and photos posted on Sina Weibo.

Large numbers of police controlled crowds in the square outside Guangzhou Railway Station.

A few tents were erected for new mothers to rest and feed their babies. And hot water and congee were offered free to those who had been camping in the square for days and nights.

Traffic around the giant Beijing West Station came to a standstill because of the influx of passengers. In Shanghai, migrant workers have already spent nights in cold, damp pedestrian tunnels near main train stations as they wait for seats on trains to become available.

The government expects more than 3.4 billion journeys will be made in the coming six weeks, 8.6 per cent more than last year and nearly three times the mainland's population.

Last month the government issued orders to every municipal and provincial head warning them that, while it was important to summon all means of transport to get people moving, the sudden increase in traffic could lead to more accidents.

The Ministry of Public Security said more than 70,000 police were deployed to train stations across the country to manage queues and ensure travellers' safety yesterday, Xinhua said.

The rail network's capacity would expand to carry 225 million passengers, but could not meet the demand for tickets which was 10 times that, the government said.

The Ministry of Railways told Xinhua yesterday that people should not have unrealistic expectations of the railways.

Though the rail sector had consumed the biggest slice of infrastructure investment in recent years, and had opened landmark lines such as the world's longest high-speed railway between Beijing and Guangzhou, the network's capacity had increased by only 4.6 per cent in the past year. For some migrant workers, buying a train ticket this year could be more difficult than ever.

As most tickets are sold online, they need to book seats on the ministry's website and make payments with a valid online bank account. Many older workers have never touched a computer keyboard.

The largest flow of passengers will be on the roads. The Ministry of Transportation said more than 3.1 billion journeys would be made by bus, a 10 per cent increase from last year.

And researchers with the ministry said fog that had affected many parts of the country couldpose further uncertainty for road travellers.

Airlines will also be busy. The government estimated a 5.2 per cent increase in air travel, or about 35 million trips, during the holiday season.

According to Xinhua, all airports had been ordered to provide passengers with bottled water and instant noodles in case of delays due to bad weather.