Rail & Infrastructure

That’s the ticket

Why passengers are grumbling about China’s train services

Passengers wait to board a train to Xi'an, at the Beijing West Railway Station

Wish you were here?

Each year the Spring Festival in China instigates what is commonly referred to as the world’s largest act of human migration: hundreds of millions of Chinese embarking on a journey home to celebrate the lunar new year. This national transit also showcases the resilience of the Chinese people as they endure hours and often days of cramped and confined travel, squeezing onto congested trains and buses to return home.

Scenes of 100,000 passengers stuck at Guangzhou train station this Monday only reinforced how tough it can be to travel at this time of year.

Travellers have  just discovered some new causes for complaint. Amongst them the revelation that high-speed rail services have been withholding the cheaper meals they are obliged to provide.

WiC readers will no doubt be familiar with the image of a snack vendor pushing a trolley of provisions down the aisle of a train. In China, where even a bullet train trip can last eight hours (Beijing to Guangzhou, for example) catering services are a necessity. As such, contractors are mandated to offer bento box meals for a low-cost Rmb15 ($2.27). That said, this is a cheap eat many customers will struggle to find, often being peddled a Rmb45 box instead as the ‘cheap’ option, Sina reports.

Recent findings by the People’s Daily show that many train services have not included the Rmb15 option on the menus of their lunch carts, even if the meal is in fact available. One Sina columnist suggests that this exclusion from menus is implemented in order to correct the supply and demand imbalance that would result if everyone knew about the cheaper option: “How many rail cars would it take to carry enough of the meals to satisfy every passenger?” goes one excuse.

This minor scandal would have not caused so much ire if it wasn’t for the fact that China Railway Corporation (CRC) recently announced it was banning the sale of instant noodles onboard its high speed trains – just in time for the lunar new year. CRC claims the introduction of the ban is due to the odour of cup noodles, which may bother other passengers.

Global Times reports many believe CRC is using the issue as a pretext to eliminate the popular yet low-profit option. Instead it wants its captive market to buy more expensive fare from the menu.

Nor was that CRC’s only public relations own-goal in recent weeks. Another was its attempt to improve its ticket sales system with a new app, that quickly became the most download on Apple’s App Store.

Train tickets are notoriously difficult to get during the nation’s peak travel periods, partially due to ticket touts using software to bulk-buy seats so that they can then resell them at a mark-up.

To combat this, the official train ticketing site 12306.cn introduced a new identification system, requiring customers to select from a group of eight pictures the one that corresponds most closely to a phrase.

However, would-be purchasers have complained that the pictures are too low-quality and the phrases too ambiguous to match correctly on the app. One example asks users to identify pictures of ‘carrot salad’ from photos of carrots and salad, leaving ticket buyers puzzled. Often, customers report, by the time they have figured the answer out, the train tickets have already gone.

On January 25 a ‘visually impaired massage worker in Beijing’ sued the CRC after he had been unable to buy tickets online due to these ‘improved’ security checks, reports China News Service. The demands of the lawsuit are modest: that CRC compensates the claimant’s legal costs plus the fare of the taxi he had to take to buy tickets in person at the train station (roughly Rmb100). But the suit also demands that CRC apologises and upgrade the verification processes of 12306.cn.

One writer for Sina wonders if the CRC will eventually privatise its ticket sales service so as to improve its performance.

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