China's railways world leader, except in service

Fed up after waiting in vain to get train tickets home for the lunar new year, migrant worker Chen Weiwei became China's latest Internet sensation, standing unclothed except for his gray jockey shorts and socks, after he stripped and shouted in protest.

Chen's frustrations are shared by tens of millions of other Chinese.

China's 91,000 kilometers (56,400 miles) of railways are the world's longest and, in some cases, the fastest. The country's drive to develop high-speed rail technology rivals its space program in terms of national pride and importance.

But the annual scrum for tickets home for the year's major festival — the world's biggest annual migration involving 230 million people — highlights the wide gap between showcase Chinese infrastructure and the often abysmal services available to the public.

Yin Jie, a 36-year-old electronics salesman, was enduring that reality earlier this week as he waited in the cold night air, along with thousands of other migrant workers, for the chance to buy train tickets back home to Zhenjiang, in neighboring Jiangsu province.

"It is cold, but I'm already used to this since it is my sixth year of staying at the railway station," Yin said. "My boss wouldn't let me off until just before the spring festival."

By this week, most of those lucky enough to have snagged tickets home were already gone. But many others were still trying, as the electronic ticket availability boards flashed red "sold outs" for almost all destinations.

The railway system, run by the Ministry of Railways, employs nearly 3.2 million people — more than the country's 2.3 million army troops. New, modern railways snake across vast deserts and Himalayan tundra, while dozens of cities are connected by high-speed rail "bullet trains" that have vastly cut travel times — for travelers who can afford them.

China will invest 700 billion yuan ($106 billion) in railways construction this year, railway officials say, as it works toward its goal of having 13,000 kilometers (8,060 miles) of high-speed rail in place by the year's end.

That will include a 1,400 kilometer (870 mile) high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai, the country's commercial capital, that will halve travel time to less than five hours. It is due to open in June — a year ahead of schedule. A test run on the line in early December set China's latest rail speed record, of 486.1 kilometers (301 mph).

Having successfully incorporated leading foreign technology into their own research and development, Chinese companies are now competing for projects with top foreign rivals, such as Bombadier and Japan Railways.

But all of that showcase technology has done little to alleviate the struggles of working class Chinese, especially migrant laborers who scrimp and save all year for their one visit back home. With railways running fewer slow, cheap trains, migrants like Chen and Yin often have to try for days to buy a ticket.

Foiled from buying a ticket for himself and his pregnant wife after scalpers butted in line ahead of him after a 14-hour wait in the cold, Chen had had enough.

"Sorry, I was too rash in stripping," state-run media quoted Chen as saying after he stripped off all but his underwear and ran into the railway station office in the eastern city of Jinhua.

As usual, most of those traveling during this year's Spring Festival rush are going by regular train, if they can get tickets.

Those who don't will often opt for a long-distance bus, rather than splash out their hard-earned savings on airfare or on tickets for China's newly built "bullet trains," which often cost just as much as traveling by air.

"The goal is to bump people up-market to faster trains, but they misjudged and people are instead taking the buses," said Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "Their cash is precious, their time is less so."

The troubles with trains reflect the failure of China's planners, obsessed with projecting a modern image both at home and abroad, to fully consider the appropriateness of the technology they are deploying, he said.

So for most of the 1.3 billion Chinese, travel during Spring Festival remains an ordeal from start to finish: Travelers who manage to get tickets then must endure crushing crowds just to get into and out of the trains.

"The annual problems with the railways during the Spring Festival are caused by shortages in capacity due to excessive investment in the wrong kind of railways," says Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University.

"The solution lies in stepping up construction of regular railways. But China is headed in the wrong direction. It's a big problem," Zhao said.

Unlike air carriers, which are also state-owned but must compete for business, the railways remain a monopoly of the Railways Ministry, whose officials often peddle tickets in return for favors, while scalpers snap up what they can get in order to resell them for more.

If China had enough regular railway capacity there would be no illicit trafficking in tickets, says Zhao.

Besieged by complaints, the railways are making gradual improvements. In Shanghai, they added extra, special counters for Spring Festival travel. There are online updates on ticket availability and rewards offered to those who turn in ticket scalpers.

"It does seem a bit easier to buy tickets this year, but it's also more expensive," said Yin, the electronics salesman.

"The cost is rising incredibly fast, beyond what we can afford," he said. "I don't care how fast the new trains run, but I do care about buying tickets easily, so that I can get home to have New Year's Eve dinner with my family."


Associated Press researchers Ji Chen in Shanghai and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.