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China Mouse-Click ‘War’ Begins as New Year Travel Overwhelms Rail Website

Kevin Zhang has enlisted four friends in Beijing to help with possibly hours of mouse-clicking tonight. Their task -- booking his Lunar New Year train tickets.

Zhang needed more than 50 attempts to book seats online earlier this month, he said, as the rail ministry’s website struggled to cope with 1 billion hits a day in the run-up to next week’s Lunar New Year holiday. Round two begins today as tickets for travel at the end of the weeklong break, China’s busiest travel period, start going on sale.

“I am prepared for a tough war,” said Zhang, 30, a marketing-company manager, who wants seats from the eastern city of Hefei to Beijing. He plans to try logging on to the website at home, while his friends make similar attempts elsewhere.

The ministry has made improvements after its website was overwhelmed by a 10-fold jump in visitor numbers that left millions of travelers clicking in frustration. The rail network will handle 5.88 million trips a day through Feb. 16 as migrant workers travel home to visit their families, according to the ministry.

Rail tickets for the period are being sold online for the first time this year as the government tries to curb queues at stations and counter black-market sales. The ministry also reduced the number of seats on sale at stations, boosted the amount available via a sales phone line, and began printing passenger names on tickets.

‘It Was Terrible’

Ginny Chen got help from two co-workers and her parents to make an online reservation for a journey to her hometown, Xuzhou, from Shanghai. It still took about an hour before any of them were able to complete a transaction.

“I experienced all kinds of failures and apology messages, it was terrible,” said Chen, 24. “When I bought the ticket, I couldn’t believe it. I screamed in the office and felt like I had hit the jackpot.”

Chen, who works at a textile company, is already planning to get more help from her family when she tries to book her return journey.

Bad weather also threatens to disrupt Lunar New Year travel, with a cold front bringing snow and rain across much of the country, China News Services said today, citing the Central Meteorological Observatory. Rain and fog delayed operations on the high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai on Jan. 14, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

12-Day Rule

The surge in website traffic has been exacerbated by a rule allowing bookings only within 12 days of the travel date. That will be extended to two weeks for purchases made on some days around Lunar New Year Eve, Jan. 22, Xinhua said today, citing an unidentified railway ministry official.

Transactions on the website reached as many as 1.66 million a day at the beginning of the month, compared with a designed capability of 1 million, an unidentified railway official told Xinhua in a Jan. 13 report.

The ministry added more bandwidth and sought advice from a local e-commerce company, which helped improve performance, the official told Xinhua. Systems for handling bookings and payments will also be separated, People’s Daily said today, without citing anyone.

The ministry didn’t reply to a fax asking for more details on the changes to the site, which is called www.12306.cn after the phone number used to make reservations. Taobao.com, China’s biggest online shopping website, had 774 million daily hits on average last month, according to data from Google Inc.

About 2 million rail tickets a day were sold online or by phone from Jan. 1 to Jan. 8, Vice Railway Minister Hu Yadong, said at a Jan. 8 press conference in Beijing.

‘Not Perfect’

“Not everything worked perfectly and we apologize for the inconvenience,” he said. “The new services were introduced in response to the general public’s call for more open and fairer ticket purchases.”

The start of online ticket sales has also allowed some passengers to avoid the traditional need to wait for hours at stations during the often snowy Chinese winter.

The website “is a pain, but it is still better than lining up outside a train station overnight,” Zhang said.

Not all agree. Huang Qinghong, a driver in Wenzhou, eastern Zhejiang province, wrote an open letter to the rail ministry complaining that online sales gave the poor less chance of purchasing tickets as they don’t have access to computers. Web buyers also generally have a two-day head start as tickets only go on sale at stations 10 days before travel dates.

Huang was given airline tickets for his Lunar New Year trip to Chongqing city by the local newspaper that published his letter. The Shanghai Rail Bureau, which oversees trains in Wenzhou, also said it would improve services for low-skilled migrant workers after the letter, Xinhua reported on Jan. 5, citing an unidentified official.

Futile Wait

Lining up at 2 a.m. didn’t work last year for Huang Shiqing, a designer of online games in Beijing, who was still unable to get the tickets he wanted because of scalpers, he said. His annual journey back to Ganzhou, Jiangxi province takes two days of train and bus rides.

This year, he turned to the Internet, trying out different Web browsers and payment methods before buying a ticket. Tomorrow, he plans to be in the office as early as 6 a.m. to take advantage of his employer’s faster Internet connection. A friend will also try the website beginning at around the same time and another will call the telephone hotline.

“I’m not taking any chances,” Huang said. “Getting back home is the most important thing for me.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jasmine Wang in Hong Kong at jwang513@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Neil Denslow at ndenslow@bloomberg.net.

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