Trains

Some problems with train tickets and the Ministry of Railways

JDM100301tickets.jpg
Farewell to scalpers, hello to ID thieves

ID-based train tickets have not been a smashing success this holiday season.

To fight the widespread ticket scalping that plagues China's passenger train network every Spring Festival, railway bureaus in a number of regions tested out "real-name systems" that link each ticket to a single individual.

The non-transferable tickets did make things more difficult for scalpers, but ordinary passengers were inconvenienced. More seriously, printing personal information onto a train ticket makes it valuable to certain unscrupulous individuals.

Many train passengers discard their tickets once they exit the station. In the past, this was not a threat to their personal privacy, but "real-name" tickets are printed with identifying information: the passenger's name and ID number (which encodes date of birth, sex, and issuing agency). "Ticket collectors" who hang around train station exits can pick up from several dozen to several hundred real-name tickets a day, which they sell for cash, the Shenzhen Evening News found:

This reporter obtained a buyer's number from one of the "ticket collectors" and called it, claiming to have a large quantity of tickets for sale. A meeting was set for the morning of the 22nd. The man inquired about the source of the tickets, so I said, "Through my own efforts, picking each and every one up off the ground at the station." The man, named Sun, said that was fine.

As for the price, he said rates were favorable for large quantities: "I can give you 18 yuan apiece." "What are you going to do with these tickets once you buy them?" Mr. Sun said he was not at liberty to say, but under the reporter's persistence, he said, "I've heard that there's a gang who, once they get the tickets, primarily uses the information on them to fabricate fake IDs, or puts it to other use."

What's the solution? The Changsha Evening News spoke to a police officer, who recommended taking special care of real-name tickets and destroying them after use.

So a threat to privacy has been substituted for the inconveniences of scalping. And resourceful scalpers still managed to use their connections within train station ticket offices to obtain tickets to routes that were ostensibly sold-out.

The railway system contributed to ticket scarcity in another way, writes Maomy, a Beijing-based media and communications scholar. In up a blog post put up last week, Maomy complains about the ticket office's insistence that he buy a ticket to a station several stops beyond his actual destination:

Shanhaiguaned

by maomy / Oh My Media

On the fifth day of the Spring Festival I went back home to visit my parents and other relatives and friends. Transportation on the way there from Beijing was a plane flight and then the Wuhan-Guangzhou High-Speed Railway, because I had the mileage to exchange for a free ticket.

I didn't book a return at the time, because Hunan was trying out a real-name system for train tickets during the Festival. In addition to calling up to make a reservation, there were strict rules on pick-up: tickets booked between 7 am and noon had to be picked up before midnight; tickets booked between noon and midnight had to be picked up before noon the following day. And you had to go in person with your ID card and a couple other forms of ID. Which basically cut off the possibility of booking a return ticket from out-of-town.

Once I got home, I immediately started trying to book a ticket. Every morning I began calling before 7, and it wasn't hard to get through. The problem was that for the next ten days there were basically no tickets at all for the two express trains from Chenzhou to Beijing; occasionally, a couple seatless tickets would turn up. Even more perplexing was that for several days, when I called at 7, practically all of the tickets had already been booked: there were no soft or hard sleepers or seats, just seatless tickets. What was going on?

One day I had a sudden thought. The T14 train, an express from Guangzhou to Shenyang, heads to North Tangshan and then Shanhaiguan after it stops in Beijing. Last year when my parents went to buy tickets to visit me in Beijing, the clerk at the window said: If you want to go to Beijing, buy you've got to buy a ticket to Shanhaiguan.

Why?

That's the rule!

So my parents had to spend an extra 50 yuan per ticket for the privilege of being "Shanhaiguaned." They also said that on the trip, most of the berths in the hard sleeper carriages were empty, and the passengers from Shaoguan, Guangdong who were going to Beijing had also bought tickets to Shanhaiguan.

So when I suddenly remembered that incident, I immediately called up the ticket hotline, at 9 pm, and I entered in the area code for Shanhaiguan....then, oh-so smoothly, excitedly, and indignantly, I booked a hard sleeper for five days later. So there really was an express train from Chenzhou that stopped in Beijing, but at both the counter and on the real-name system reservation hotline, you had to pretend like you were going from Chenzhou to Shanhaiguan. No wonder there were no tickets at 7 in the morning — they weren't going to sell you a ticket to Beijing in the first place!

When I boarded the train to go back to Beijing, I discovered that the more than 100 passengers in that hard sleeper carriage had gotten on at Chenzhou. When the conductor came by to check tickets, I noticed that all of the tickets in his folder were labeled "Chenzhou—Shanhaiguan." But when we reached Beijing, everyone got off.

So we'd all been Shanhaiguaned. Everyone had to spend an extra 50 yuan, which wasn't all that much. But why? Big Iron's monopoly means that ordinary folk have no say about prices, but forcing everyone to buy tickets for a leg of the journey they won't even use — is there any basis in law or policy for these hard-sell tactics? As far as I am aware, Shanhaiguaning has been going on for several years, at least as far as the T14 is concerned.

If we want to complain, who do we complain to? The consumer association?

Big Iron still has a long way to go to "serve the people." Just on the subject of the real-name system, when I wanted to check out which cities are conducting trials and for how long, I couldn't find any official information from the Ministry of Railways online and had to scrape together bits and pieces from news reports instead. When I wanted to find out national train schedules and ticket prices, I couldn't find authoritative information on the Ministry website, so I had to visit smaller websites whose URLs are groups of letters and numbers and which focus on railways, trains, ticket reservations, and ticket exchange, which meant I couldn't what year the schedules were from, and I had to suffer those distracting ads in the sidebar.

Is it really that hard to put up a notice about the real-name system? Is it really that hard to put a timetable online and periodically update it?

Big Iron, at least, can't seem to do it.

Links and Sources
There are currently 2 Comments for Some problems with train tickets and the Ministry of Railways.

Comments on Some problems with train tickets and the Ministry of Railways

the reason of being "Shanhaiguaned" is that train tickets are divided into different groups according to destination. For example, say a train goes from A to B then to C. There'll be two kinds of tickets start from A : A->B and A->C. And there will be a number of tickets reserved for the longer trip.

@nichtich,

very true, especially the sleepers. Which is why is there is you could usually get a sleeper upgrade when you get on the train with a "standing" ticket. Would be better if the train system uses real time yield management system that southwest airlines uses in the states. (though I don't know how people would feel about stand-bys and train company selling more ticket than there are more seats or beds...)

China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
laomo2010x80.jpg
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives