Off the rails

News of a hike in train fares irks Beijing’s commuters

Passengers board a train at a subway station in Beijing

Beijing’s overcrowded subway

Not everyone likes to dress up for Halloween. But Beijing’s subway authorities were particularly determined not to spruce up for the pagan festivities. Worried that subversive behaviour could crop up in the capital under the guise of the Halloween celebrations, it banned strange outfits in subway stations and train carriages. Witch wear and ghoulish gowns “could easily cause a crowd to gather and create trouble,” the Beijing News reports the local authorities as saying.

Beijing’s subway bosses might be better advised to focus their attentions elsewhere, after stirring an outcry last month by announcing that they are considering increasing fares.

Despite having one of the country’s busiest networks – the number of passengers taking the subway in the capital recently hit 10 million a day – Beijing’s underground is paradoxically the cheapest to use.

In fact, it has only raised prices five times since 1971, when it first started running, says Legal Evening News.

The current ticket price on the metro and light rail network is a flat fee of Rmb2 ($0.32), regardless of the distance travelled. Shanghai charges up to Rmb11 per ride as the travel distance increases. In Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, a subway ticket is valid for only two hours. In Beijing, however, it applies at any time before midnight on the day it is issued.

The result is severe overcrowding. During rush hours, platform attendants have to push commuters into carriages in the busiest stations. Passengers say that boarding trains demands almost superhuman skills. “Sometimes I thought I’d hopped off the train before finding myself being pushed back on it,” one commuter told ET Net. “I wish I had mastered kung-fu to be able to slip on and off the train.”

Analysts say that if passenger numbers continue to rise at the current rate, they could hit 16 million a day by 2020. That’s not only the result of the low fares. The sheer size of Beijing, now home to 21 million people, means that many live far from where they work.

Low fares also mean that the subway system is underfunded. Operational expenditures have risen five times since 2007, when the Rmb2 fare was first introduced, says state broadcaster CCTV. But passenger turnover has increased four times over the same period. Crucially, 12 lines were also added, covering an extra distance of 465km. That suggests that fares must go up, unless the municipal goverment keeps dipping into its own pocket. Last year it increased the annual subsidy given to the system’s operator, Beijing Infrastructure Investment, by more than 50% to Rmb15.5billion.

“Beijing’s subsidy is too high,” Zhou Tianxiang, an infrastructure expert at Guangzhou’s Zhongshan University told the Financial Times. “Rmb2 is not a reasonable price. It will take time for people to accept it, but they will adapt.”

How will tickets be priced in future? Century Weekly says a proposed distance-based fare system will see ticket prices start at Rmb2 or Rmb3, with the average fare at Rmb4.4, or more than double the existing price. CCTV says that one of the longer journeys in the capital – a 30km ride from the east to west of the city – will cost Rmb9 under the new fare. That’s almost five times higher than the current price (although it would still be cheaper than travelling by metro on similar distances in other first-tier cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou).

While no one likes to pay higher fares, experts say the move is badly needed, not least as the subway needs investment in better safety systems. Yang Xingkun, an associate professor of engineering at Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, says the subway’s trains often exceed full capacity, for instance, jeopardising passenger safety.

“A cheap public transit system will eventually crush Beijing,” one netizen wrote on weibo. “There’s a large migrant population that’s pouring into Beijing. The system will collapse someday.”

But naysayers argue that increasing prices will not solve the overcrowding problem. Raising fares will only add to the pressure on many workers struggling to make ends meet. With so many Beijing residents living in the outskirts of the city, the metro is often the only form of transportation available for their commute.

“Most workers in Beijing live really far from the city centre. After the price increase, taking the subway is still the only viable and most efficient travel tool. Even if the starting price increased to Rmb6, most workers will still take the subway, which shows that price alone cannot effectively solve the problem of congestion,” the Beijing Evening News also warned.

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