ON the second-to-last Sunday morning before the Chinese New Year holiday, only about a dozen people were queuing in front of each ticket window in west Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station, while just one or two were operating each automatic ticket vending machine.
Compared with the crowds in the lobby waiting for the trains, the queues to buy tickets were surprisingly small, considering chunyun, the 40-day Spring Festival travel rush that is often referred to as the world’s largest human migration, had already started.
“There were a lot more last year when I queued for more than an hour, and in 2011 and 2012 it was like crazy,” Lin Shanxue, a 32-year-old software engineer, tells Shanghai Daily in the station’s lobby, as he waits for his bullet train to go back home.
The hectic chunyun has long been a nightmare for many people as they sweat over the long lines in front of the tiny windows, worrying that one of the people ahead of them may have bought the last ticket they want.
The battlefield and the queues are not gone; instead they have been switched to the virtual world of the Internet. Most people, including ticket scalpers, are now taking advantage of technology, using software and apps to queue up and fight for the tickets on computers and smartphones.
Lin, a native of Jinan, capital city of eastern China’s Shandong Province, has worked in Shanghai since 2009. For the first two years, he didn’t go home for the traditional family reunion holiday because he couldn’t get any ticket at all.
Since 2011, he went through the so-called Spring Festival syndrome — painful experience to ask for leave earlier, nearly hopeless lines to get the tickets, hustle and bustle to be finally home on Lunar New Year’s Eve, and then crowding all the way back to Shanghai after the tiring holiday.
Many more trips
This year, the New Year’s Day falls next Thursday, which means the 40-day rush started on February 4 and runs through March 15.
China Railway Corporation, operator of the country’s rail network, says that about 289 million trips will be made during this period, up 10.1 percent from last year. That means more than 7 million trips across the country every day. The company plans to run more than 3,063 round trips per day over the period, up by 335 from 2014.
Over the years, CRC has been making new adjustments in the ticket-selling system, including requiring the customer’s ID to be presented when purchasing the tickets, and adding phone, Internet and mobile ticket channels. This year, the corporation released the tickets earlier and approved a more convenient return policy.
The new channels soon became popular, and shortly afterward, many realized the virtual lines were just as crowded. When hundreds of millions of people try to buy tickets on the same web page, many are crowded out when their pages are stuck for hours.
At the end of 2014, this inspired all major Chinese Internet browsing software companies to launch new functions to help customers get unstuck from the queue and have a bigger chance at getting the tickets.
The added functions, often known as “secret ticketing weapons,” basically refresh the page automatically to save power and let the user avoid getting stuck in the line.
This year, tickets went on sale on December 7, and by mid-December it was already hard to get tickets for some areas.
“There aren’t many trains going this way, so it is always difficult to get my tickets home,” says Lisa Wang, a 25-year-old Chengdu native who works in Shanghai. “I tried twice in mid-December, and maybe everyone was trying around that time since it was the first day you could buy tickets for February 17, one day before the Lunar New Year’s Eve. I just couldn’t get any.”
Wang ended up adding 120 yuan (US$19.20) to get the ticket from a scalper her colleague referred her to.
By the first week of February, the national railway police had already busted more than 2,500 such illegal ticket vendors, while in Shanghai three gangs of 54 were cracked. Some were even based in nearby Southeast Asian countries.
“It’s quite dangerous to do the business now, but the bigger the risk is, the higher the return,” says a Beijing-based illegal ticket scalper in his mid-40s.
He has been in the business for nearly 10 years, and used to buy dozens of tickets for the hot routes on the first day they were released when ID was not required.
“Many old pals gave up this part of the business when increasingly more anti-scalper policies were released, but we always have our ways,” he says. “We have hundreds of IDs that we can use, and we have professional machines and software that you can never beat with your personal computer at home and those amateur Internet browsers.”
He says the machine is “professionally equipped to raise Internet speed to its highest” and “installed with our ‘secret weapons’ that can buy 30 different tickets at the same time.”
For each ticket, there is a surcharge of 100 to 200 yuan. He is unwilling to reveal his income since December, but says 50,000 yuan is a low estimate.
“As ticket scalpers, we are the ones following the high-tech trend most closely,” says a Shanghai-based vendor who identified himself as Zhang. “We have to; we smell which way the wind is blowing for a living.
“To give you some tips, first of all, you must avoid the rush hours, and you have to be familiar with when the return tickets are available. Even with the high-tech secret weapons, such information still makes it easier to get tickets,” he adds.
He also suggests those who travel back to extremely popular stops, meaning places with lots of migrant workers returning for the holiday, plan ahead and try alternative ways.
“For example, if you can’t get the ticket for your stop, try the stop after it, and then take the train back. Usually, trains leaving from more developed areas are occupied while the other way is really empty, and it’s the other way around when you come back from the holiday.”
Anna Ke, a senior bank staffer from Shanghai, just experienced the big contrast on her recent business trip to Hefei, capital city of Anhui Province, known to have many migrants working in Shanghai.
Ke rode a fully occupied train when leaving Shanghai, but when she came back to the city last week she was occupying a whole cart by herself.
Having made money from chunyun for the past five years, illegal vendor Zhang used to be the one in charge of spotting and luring customers at the train stations. Now, he works mainly online.
He hangs onto all major forums and search posts with the keywords “chunyun” or “train tickets” and makes contacts with those who posted. Everything, including the payment process, goes through the Internet.
“The old guys in my gang have learned this really quickly too. Once you have money, there is motivation,” he adds.