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Half of China on the move

The world’s largest annual migration, which happens in the Chinese lunar year, is testing the fastest growing railroad. Reshma Patil reports from Beijing.
Hindustan Times | By Reshma Patil, Beijing
UPDATED ON JAN 30, 2011 12:13 AM IST

Tlast ticket sold out as Chen Weiwei shuffled to third in queue at an eastern railway station where he waited for 14 hours from January 17-18. The enraged migrant stripped in the biting cold and stormed the station director's office to become an overnight national sensation.

Seven hundred million migrants, half the people of the most populous nation, are going home to wait for the lunar year of the rabbit. About 230 million, 12.5% more than last year, are boarding trains ahead of China's most politically charged holiday.

Outside the Beijing railway station, an unstoppable surge of passengers bending against the minus ten degree wind is on the move heaving suitcases, sacks and plastic paint cans stuffed with clothing in the largest annual migration on the planet. “Keep going straight!” passengers shouted as they were separated.

Women pressed against the walls peddled notebook-sized folding stools. For tens of millions boarding trains with supplies of instant noodles and roast duck, a ‘standing ticket’ and a 10-yuan (R70) stool will be their seat on journeys that may last three days across the world's fastest growing high-speed rail tracks.

“Even a fat person can sit on this,” said saleswoman Wang Juan.

During a 40-day peak that strains Chinese transport to the seams, migrants will make 2.85 billion journeys by road, rail and air for ritual family reunions with dumplings, firecrackers and red lanterns for the spring festival — chunyun — on February 3.

This year, China will invest $106 billion in railways and 70 inter-city projects, the People's Daily announced recently.

The mega investment is an irony for Sun Liyue, 33, who is not taking the train from Beijing to Xinjiang in the remote northwest because the 900-1,200 yuan ticket (R6,300-8,400) is pricey for a salesman's salary. "I have gone home twice in the past 15 years,'' Sun told HT. "The train ticket is really expensive and hard to get.''

“Returning home for spring festival, a long-standing tradition in China, now appears to be an unaffordable luxury,” said a recent Global Times editorial.

Software professional Zhao Shan, 29, would wake up at 6am and queue 'cold and hungry' for three hours for a ticket on the train to Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, where her family will welcome the rabbit around a blaze of piles of coal. "I waited 15 days for one ticket,'' she told HT.

By 2010, China had 91,000 km train tracks compared to India's denser network of 63,327 km. It's still not long enough, but questions are being raised. Does China need more bullet trains or more affordable slow trains?

The latest launch of a Shanghai-Chengdu high-speed train where the best berth costs as much as an airline ticket immediately sparked a backlash against bullet trains.

The Chinese railroad will stretch to 120,000 km to its farthest borders and beyond to Singapore, and Vietnam, in five years. By 2012, China will have 13,000 km high-speed rail tracks, up from 8,358 km today, already the world's longest network. By 2015, the high-speed tracks will double to 16,000 km.

In June, the 33-billion-dollar 1,318 km Beijing-Shanghai bullet train will be launched a year ahead of schedule and just three years after Beijing rolled out its first 30-minute bullet train to Tianjin. Shooting at 380 kmph, the Beijing-Shanghai train will cut the 10-hour journey to under five hours. The world's fastest long-distance bullet train connecting southern Guangzhou with central Wuhan is not yet a year old and Chinese engineers are planning trains topping 500 kmph.

The masses are not marvelling at the rail revolution. "High-speed trains can't help relieve the stress on the railway system during this peak travel season as high-speed rail prices are unaffordable to migrant workers, and fast trains skip many small stations where their homes are located,'' said the People's Daily.

Authorities are aware that a ticket scramble and snowstorms can spark mass protests against the government policies and income inequalities. "If Chen could get a ticket by going naked, I will seriously consider doing the same thing next year,'' migrant worker Gui Yi, 24, told the China Daily.

In a mood to appease, President Hu Jintao has made a publicised visit to a low-income housing community.

India does not plan to build high-speed rail before 2012. The challenge, from China’s experience, is pricing a ticket.

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