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The Globe and Mail

China's rail system tested as massive migration begins

Passengers wait in lines to board their train last week at a railway station in Hefei, Anhui province. Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the biggest of two 'Golden Week' holidays, giving migrant workers their only chance of the year to return to their home provinces with gifts for their families.


The world's largest internal migration has begun.

In the 40 days before, during and after the Chinese Lunar New Year festival, Chinese authorities estimate more than three billion trips -- the equivalent of two trips for every single person in China -- will be taken via planes, trains and buses, as millions of people head to their home towns for the biggest holiday of the year.

The result is a travel backlog that dwarfs Canada's Christmas rush several times over, with interminably long lines at railway stations, and crammed, body-against-body standing-room on train platforms and carriages. A new online system for train ticket reservations came to a crashing halt under an incredible two billion clicks per day in the first week of January, leaving frustrated passengers running to the nearest ticket window to see if their reservation had in fact been received.

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An estimated 235 million people are expected to travel by train over the holiday season, making it a test for the troubled Chinese railway system. Last year its top boss was ousted for corruption. Its rapid expansion into super high speed trains came to a crashing halt with a terrible accident in Wenzhou last summer, in which 39 people were killed and another 200 injured after a signal failed in a thunderstorm.

A massive safety review followed, other bullet trains were pulled out of service, and the pace of expansion slowed dramatically.

This week, the World Bank tactfully suggested China's rail industry might benefit by looking at other countries' approaches to rail networks, following a study of eight other countries including Canada in which the Ministry of Transport does not simultaneously own, operate, profit from and regulate railways.

"Today China has by traffic volume the world's second busiest freight railway and the busiest passenger railway. This remarkable growth in China's railway network was achieved under a railway governance and institutional structure unique to China. Changes in transport competition together with the desirability of a more coordinated national transport system suggest that China's railway industry may wish to consider an alternative structure," read a World Bank release on Wednesday.

In the meantime, though, long lines and frustration are an inevitable part of the annual crush.

"I have very little hope of getting a ticket, I think. Either online or in line," said Sun Li, a 34-year-old accountant, as she walked away from a travel agency ticket window this week empty-handed after a mercifully short midday wait. Trying to get home to her family in Qingdao has become more difficult in each of her 10 years in Beijing, she said. "Ten years ago, there were not so many people in Beijing," Ms. Sun said. "Last year you could at least buy from scalpers but this year there's no way to buy a ticket. If there's no ticket, there's just no ticket."

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