The world’s largest annual migration of people is going on in China this week as hundreds of millions take planes, trains and automobiles to travel home to mark the beginning of the Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival.
The first day of Chinese New Year falls on January 28, but for many the aim is to reach home before the all-important pre-festival family dinner on January 27.
State media reported that travelling Chinese are taking whatever mode of transport is available – roads, air and waterways.
The word “Chunyun”, meaning the Spring Festival rush, was first coined by the Chinese media back in 1954, says the China Railway Corporation. Six decades later, that “rush” has taken on a whole new meaning.
This year, according to state media, “2.98 billion trips are expected to be made during Chunyun", which lasts from January 13 to February 21. The figure is up slightly from last year.
India doesn’t have any similar mass migration tradition on a festival or holiday.
Bloomberg provided a comparison: “While some 49 million Americans undertake a significant journey for Thanksgiving, Chinese citizens will rack up 3 billion trips during this year’s travel-fest.”
A report by official Xinhua news agency, quoting transport authorities, forecast that among the total number of expected trips, there would be 2.52 billion trips by road, 360 million by train and 58.3 million by air.
Needless to say, the sheer number of people travelling around the Chinese New Year puts massive pressure on China’s public transport systems and civic amenities along the routes.
“Chinese have never been more affluent and keen to travel, nor have there ever been more migrant workers in cities far from home. Every year, the stresses on the country’s transportation systems increase, despite improvements in infrastructure over the past few years,” state-run China Daily newspaper said in a report.
One way of tackling the pressure is to increase the length of the high-speed railway network, which anyway is the longest in China.
“To reduce crowds during the rush and to boost transport efficiency, China has been stepping up construction of high-speed railways, the total length of which exceeded 20,000 km this year, making it the world’s longest high-speed railway system,” the report said.
Advance booking for train tickets began in December, with the government shortening the pre-booking window from 60 days to 30 days; which means, millions would have spent hours waiting online to find a ticket for convenient routes.
Nearly 17% of railway travellers would have stood in queues for hours despite having valid tickets because of the rush.
Journeys are not made any easier because of the season – much of China is in the middle of winter and cold snaps coupled with fog and smog often make travel that much tougher.