Big Iron's broken promises

Promises from the Ministry of Railways

Spring Festival Rush (春运, chunyun): the two-week period when all of China goes home for the holidays. The mass migration taxes the country’s transportation network, particularly the railways.

In the run-up to the peak travel crunch each year, long lines and pushy scalpers hassle prospective travelers, and tickets always seem to be in short supply.

For several years now, the Ministry of Railways’ response has been to promise to end the problem, but as commentator Cao Lin shows in an op-ed for the Youth Times, these promises have not been kept. In fact, Cao argues, the promises can’t be kept: by continually promising a swift end to Spring Festival ticket shortages, the Ministry undermines its own credibility.

Solving the Ticket Shortage

by Cao Lin / YT

Every year at the Spring Festival rush, the voice of public opinion inevitably addresses the ticket shortage issue, and this year is no exception. Of course, it is no surprise that the Ministry of Railways offers up to a ticket-needy public its usual basket of words: in a few years, there won’t be a ticket shortage. In the face of public complaints, vice-minister Wang Zhiguo said at a Spring Festival Rush press conference a few days ago that while the ticket shortage is not solvable this year, by 2015 it would be history.

“History by 2015” obviously means that by 2015, buying tickets will no longer be a problem, and returning home for the Spring Festival will no longer be so difficult. For ticket-seekers standing futilely in line, suffering the winter cold, this promise was no ray of hope; rather, it brought only despair: ticket difficulties will not be resolved in the near future.

Why would such a promise bring despair to the public? Because the public hears the same promise practically every year. Only the time frame is different. Online, one can easily find the timetables issued by the Ministry of Railways. In 2007, Ministry spokesperson Wang Yongping said that the situation would be substantially resolved by 2010. But in 2009, Wang Yongping pushed the timetable to 2012, three years in the future, and said that by that year the situation would be basically resolved. After he was questioned, he stated resolutely, “there is a basis for this claim.” But now in 2011, the timetable has been pushed back again, to 2015. Running off the mouth like trains, do they really expect anyone to believe all of this?

Perhaps the Ministry will say that the “substantially resolved” of 2007, the “basically resolved” of 2009, and the “become history” of 2011 mean different things. But what is the point of playing language games over the ticket shortage problem? What is the standard for “basically resolved”? How is “substantially resolved” evaluated? Most critically, who supervises the Ministry’s fulfillment of its promise, and what is its liability if the promise is not kept? The reality is that these promises have no legal force. Making them is meaningless. Anyone can make an empty promise.

And truth be told, it is unfair to place all of the blame for the ticket shortage on the Ministry of Railways. First of all, railroads aren’t solely responsible for transport. There are also highways, waterways, and airways; it’s just that more people go home by rail, so the Ministry of Railways faces the highest expectations and is under the greatest pressure. Few people lash out at Civil Aviation. Second, hoping for the railroad to resolve the ticket shortage is an unrealistic expectation. The Spring Festival Rush is a Chinese thing, but such a large, concentrated migration would tax the rail system of any country, no matter how developed. If use the Spring Festival Rush period to evaluate the strength of the railroad, it will never measure up, but if it were made strong enough for the brief peak of the Spring Festival Rush, then once that two-week period was over, the enormous costs of idle installations and maintenance would be too much to bear. Apart from peak-shifting, or turning to the marketplace, the ticket shortage is an irresolvable issue.

Even so, the Ministry of Railways ought to face reality, be totally open with information, and make its difficulties known to the public. It ought to resolve such problems as its own abilities allow, rather than casually making empty promises about problems it lacks the capacity to solve. Where it cannot resolve problems, it ought to be honest with the public about its situation and be open about the associated costs so that the world can see the efforts it is making. Although people may be upset when they can’t buy tickets, they will be understanding once they think about things rationally. By making casual promises, giving the public mere words to raise their hopes about unsolvable problems only to fail to deliver once the time comes, and by time and again pushing back the schedule, the ministry has totally erased its credibility. Don’t imagine that your past statements are gone, and that you can pretend to have forgotten them. The public is not so forgetful. When the time comes, they will turn around and ask you why you haven’t kept your promise. The public’s unrealistic expectations about the solution to ticket shortages were to a large degree pumped up by the Ministry of Railway’s string of empty promises.

Complaints about ticket shortages and criticisms of the Ministry of Railways do not necessarily imply that the Ministry must solve the problems immediately. Rather, the public hopes that the Ministry will what it can to alleviate the situation. First, it should fight corruption. In many places, railway officials collude with scalpers even as they cry “Stop, thief,” and the largest gang of scalpers are actually insiders who drive up ticket prices so that the average person can’t get one for the price printed. Second, it should make fewer luxury carriages and more budget carriages. Many routes are adding additional luxury carriages and eliminating budget ones, or forcing ordinary routes to yield to luxury ones. This only exacerbates the Spring Festival Rush. Third, it should push forward the design of an ID-based ticket system to effectively combat scalpers.

The Ministry of Railways has ducked public opinion in the matters it can achieve, but has poured out a stream of words and empty promises about issues it cannot. Every year a new promise, a different promise every time, is nothing but a joke.

As Cao Lin predicted, the Ministry of Railways has elected to play language games. The Shanghai Morning Post contacted a Ministry official for comment:

“Some online articles were really taking things out of context. Statements by officials did not actually contradict each other,” one official with the Ministry of Railways’ Political Propaganda Department told the Morning Post yesterday. “Basically resolved” is a different concept from “totally resolved,” and hence press spokesperson Wang Yongping’s statements about “substantially resolutions” and “basically resolving the ‘bottleneck’ restriction problems” were not at odds with vice-minister Wang Zhiguo’s statements about “total resolution and relegation to history.”

“Resolving the ticket shortage is something that the Ministry of Railways has been constantly engaged in for years. Railroad construction has been going on as the Spring Festival Rush has been growing, and we have only been able to offer predictions about a timetable for resolving the problem. It is not absolute.” The official told the reporter that the Ministry’s operational shortcomings are concentrated during the annual Spring Festival Rush, but he hoped that the public would realize that there is much room for improving capacity, and that several million railway workers are striving toward that goal. “As capacity increases, demand also grows. Even in 2015, when the ticket shortage no longer exists, the Ministry of Railways will continue to grow as before.”

As for online criticisms, the official said he was aware of them, but he took issue with the notion that “the Ministry of Railways is hoodwinking the public.” “I hope that the people will see how we have been constantly working to solve the problem, and I also hope that the media won’t make such a big deal about a few little words.”

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