A China-Size Travel Delay

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 21, 2006

BEIJING, Jan. 20 -- Heavy snowfall in central China disrupted rail traffic Friday just as millions of Chinese headed home for Spring Festival family reunions, stranding countless travelers in frigid northern train stations.

The backup, although limited mainly to north-south travel, dramatized the huge volume of holiday travel during the festival, or Chinese New Year, which this year is celebrated on Jan. 28. Authorities have estimated that more than 2 billion trips will be made during the Jan. 14 to Feb. 22 vacation season, with more than 90 percent by car, bus or train. More than 700,000 buses will be on the road, they said, and 300 extra trains have been put into service to handle the crowds.

Chief among the travelers are students and more than 100 million migrant workers, the sons and daughters of farmers who leave their villages to work in the big cities and send back money. Many have adopted the custom of taking long vacations, or even quitting their jobs, to spend several weeks at home during the Spring Festival, renewing ties with their spouses, children and parents.

Beijing's West Railway Station, the capital's main departure point for migrant workers heading to southern villages, was a mob scene Friday, with thousands of would-be travelers milling about or sitting on their luggage and waiting for extremely delayed southbound trains. Police officers, fearing injuries from trampling, forbade people to sit on the floor and closed the station doors to all but those holding tickets for trains departing within six hours. The others waited outside in daytime temperatures just above freezing. Temperatures dipped below freezing in the evening.

Railway authorities said more than 100,000 passengers were backed up Thursday by delays of up to eight hours. An estimated 20,000 were still idling outside the main entrance late Friday, waiting for announcements about their trains. An electronic schedule board listed a number of delayed trains and promised, "We are in contact trying to find out when they will depart."

Zhao Xueqi, 42, a construction worker from Shangqiu, in Henan province, said that he was scheduled to leave at 7 p.m. for his trip home but that the train was delayed indefinitely. He and his companion were considering looking for a cheap hotel if the delay continued through the night, as he feared.

Zhou Liuyang, 21, was even unluckier. He and his wife, Chongqing natives who work together in a Beijing restaurant, found that tickets to their Hunan province home were all sold out. "If we're lucky, we can get tickets eventually," he said, "but it'll probably be for three days from now."

Chen Dongbao, 40, and his wife Wang Xiangmei, 38, snagged tickets for a departure in the early hours of Saturday. They sat Friday afternoon waiting for the six-hour threshold to arrive so they could enter the station. "Maybe it'll be warmer in there," Chen said.

The snowfall was concentrated around Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, about 600 miles south of Beijing. It blocked the main rail line that carries travelers from Beijing and other northern cities to places in the south.

About 60,000 passengers were stranded Thursday in Zhengzhou, police there said, although the number dropped as tracks were cleared and trains sought to resume normal schedules. Up to 30,000 remained in a plaza in front of the station Friday afternoon, according to Wang Heyan, a reporter for Caijing, a Beijing-based financial magazine, who was among those trapped by the weather.

Six trucks of People's Armed Police and dozens of police cars took up positions in the plaza, she said, preventing more travelers from crowding in and broadcasting appeals for people to return later when normal service resumes.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company