Rail & Infrastructure

Not fit for purpose

New train internet booking system gets flak

Not fit for purpose

Homeward bound

A project “fitting for the 21st century” is how plans for HS2, a new high-speed railway for the UK, were announced this month.

But although HS2 trains promise to run rapwenidly enough, the programme to complete the line is going to proceed at a much more leisurely pace.

The idea is for high-speed track to cover the 140 miles between London and Birmingham. But the link will take at least a decade to build – and even longer to complete (2033 is the best guess) if the line is extended to reach Manchester.

In almost 20 years the UK – which, lest we forget, invented railways – reckons it can lay 250 miles of bullet train track. China, on the other hand, has completed over 6,000 miles of high-speed railway in just six years, or 24 times as much as the UK in less than a third of the time.

Granted, there are major questions about rail safety in China, especially after last July’s crash in Wuhan.

But in construction terms at least, the Chinese effort makes the UK’s HS2 plans look woefully slow by comparison (and obviously far less ambitious in scale too).

Rather than the speed at which they have been built, the coming weeks will highlight the sheer scale of passenger demand on China’s railways, as the Lunar New Year launches the world’s biggest annual migration. This year the rail network is bracing itself for a record-breaking 235 million passenger trips over the 40 days around the Spring Festival, which begins on January 23. That’s up from 221 million last year.

Transporting that many people is not without logistical challenge, and each year the Ministry of Railways – not a much-loved institution, by any means – struggles to cope with an increasingly demanding public. One issue that generates fury every year is ticketing, especially the inflated price of travel over the holiday period. Often railway officials are blamed, for pre-selling blocks of tickets to traders (for a kickback) who then sting passengers for fares far above face value.

As reported in WiC49, efforts were made to counter the ticket touts in 2010 when a new policy was introduced requiring passenger ID for booking. This made life harder for dishonest officials and the scalper middlemen.

A further effort was made this year to improve the situation with the launch of a new ticketing system – the website 12306.cn – as the exclusive portal for booking train seats. To encourage usage, tickets have been offered for sale online before they are made available to passengers queuing at stations.

According to newspaper CBN, traffic on 12306.cn then surged, with the site rapidly becoming the 106th busiest on the internet. And this has meant a far-from-pleasant user experience. “Several times the website has been on the verge of paralysis and some visitors have experienced failure to get tickets despite being charged,” it reports. “A source close to the railway system has revealed that the main difficulty is too much traffic, making server capacity unable to cope.”

The system allows tickets to be booked 12 days in advance but, as the Economic Observer points out, the potential convenience of buying online is outweighed by the difficulties of completing a purchase. It offers the example of 21 year-old Zheng Xiaotian who said he had to submit his request 20 times before it was finally accepted.

The China Daily added to the criticism, suggesting the new booking arrangements discriminate against many of the passengers that they are designed to help – migrant workers travelling home.

The newspaper says most migrants lack access to the internet, so had little chance to book tickets in the way that planners envisaged.

That rather obvious problem aside, CBN has been quick to blame the Ministry of Railways for the site’s shortcomings. It says the contract for the tech platform should not have been given to one of its affiliates, the China Academy of Railway Sciences. Better to have outsourced to a private sector firm with a track record in the IT world, CBN suggests. That way the railways would have got a a much more reliable booking system.

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