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Using transport network as means to carry bulky items becoming a thing of the past
2015-01-12
By Doug Young

WITH the Chinese Lunar New Year fast approaching, local officials have begun their usual flood of announcements and new policy roll-outs designed to make travel a little more pleasant for the millions of people who will hit the roads during that time.

Many of the moves involve ticketing, but one that caught my attention this week centered on new restrictions for the size and type of items that people can bring on trains.

That got me thinking about the very different role that trains, buses and even our local subway in Shanghai play compared with counterparts in the West. Whereas such forms of transport are mostly used to transport people in places like the United States, in China they seem to play a second role as major transport networks for a wide range of bulky goods.

The situation has certainly evolved over the last couple of decades, with a trend that’s seen the size and volume shrink considerably for goods shuttled around on our public transportation.

Such items have literally also lost some of their liveliness, as the kinds of live chickens, ducks and other animals that used to get carried on long-distance buses and trains are now also a thing of the past in major cities.

While the use of public transport for the movement of bulky goods certainly serves a purpose and even adds a little color to the China travel experience, I personally applaud the Shanghai rail authority for its latest crackdown.

With the rise of so many alternatives, most notably a huge range of courier and other delivery services, this kind of old-school movement of goods on public transport is both a nuisance and can even be dangerous. It belongs in the history books.

The latest news that got me thinking about the subject applies only to trains right now, and forbids riders from bringing bulky items into passenger carriages.

The only two items singled out were bicycles, including folding bikes, and animals. Such items can still be shipped as checked bags that are placed onto separate baggage cars.

The rules also limit the size and weight of objects that can be taken on trains, with the former set at no more than 1.6 meters in length, width and height combined, and the latter at no more than 20 kilograms. Passengers also may not bring objects that can dirty carriage interiors and create obstacles in the carriage aisles.

Such rules would have been laughable even a decade ago, when the aisles of many long-distance buses and trains were often filled with a hodgepodge of boxes, objects and the infamous red, white and blue zipper bags made from indestructible plastic.

Many of my earlier days traveling by bus and train in China are filled with such images, which would have made it nearly impossible to evacuate a bus through the front door if an emergency ever occurred.

But that wasn’t a huge problem, since it was quite easy to get in and out of buses and trains through the windows back then.

One of my other big impressions of that time was people handing crates, bags stuffed with goods and other large objects through train and bus windows to their friends, who would then place most of those bulky items either in the leg area by their seats or in the aisles.

Subway can be obstacle course

Fast forward to the present, where our state-of-the-art high-speed rail network is free of such clutter, and slower trains and buses are also far freer of such objects than they used to be. In one interesting twist on the subject, subway in Shanghai has become a popular network for people transporting goods between various locations in the city.

As a regular rider on the underground system, I sometimes feel like I’m navigating an obstacle course as I thread my way over and around various boxes, suitcases and stuffed plastic bags that often clutter the carriages, especially near the doors where couriers like to gather.

I always know I’m passing by the popular Qipu Road clothing market, because crowds of young men and women towing a wide array of bags and boxes strapped to metal trolleys usually get on and off at the nearby Tiantong Road station on Line 10.

Convenience is certainly a primary factor behind this kind of transport, and so is economics. Who doesn’t want to transport a bag of clothing in just an hour for a trip costing 5 yuan?

That kind of thinking is certainly understandable, but at the end of the day, public safety, convenience and sanitation are more important, and Shanghai should be commended for its new rule on trains and consider extending the restrictions to the local transportation network, as well.

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