Rather than being a source of inspiration, the smartphone apps are yet another example of the vast gulf between the rich and the poor in China and what this separation can mean to their access to transportation.
Chinese travelers are using apps to cut in line as the nation’s train-ticket website strains under 120 million views a day in the run-up to the Lunar New Year.
Li Juan joined at least 6 million people using “ticket- grabber” apps after spending five hours fruitlessly clicking on the rail ministry’s site. Using the program, she made her reservations for next month’s holiday season within two minutes.
“It was so easy,” said Li, 38, who runs a clothing shop in Hangzhou, eastern China. “I had been cursing all the time while trying to get into the railway ministry website.”
The free apps from Internet companies including Qihoo 360 Technology Co. and Kingsoft Corp. have split government departments and highlighted a digital divide within China. While the tech-savvy can more easily make bookings, low-wage workers living thousands of miles from their families are finding it harder to buy tickets at stations for their once-a-year trips.
“This is definitely unfair,” said Zhao Jian, a professor of economics at Beijing Jiaotong University, which focuses on transportation. “In the past, migrant workers with stamina could get tickets. Now, people with technology get them.”
The programs ease use of the ministry’s website by automatically resubmitting a booking request every few seconds until it is accepted. Without one, users have to click and sporadically re-enter travel details themselves.
The rail ministry, which has a monopoly on ticket sales, introduced the website last year to tackle black-market transactions and to ease lines at stations that often leave passengers waiting for hours. It is offering 36 percent of tickets via its website. Online buyers are also able to make reservations two days earlier than customers buying at stations.
About 6.75 million tickets are being sold in total each day, 13 percent more than a year earlier, Cheng Xiandong, a rail ministry official, told the state-run People’s Daily newspaper this week. The network will probably carry 224.5 million passengers during the 40 days starting Jan. 26, according to the ministry. The weeklong holiday, which this year begins Feb. 9, is the world’s biggest annual mass migration.
The rail ministry suggested the ticket-grabber apps should close because they are generating extra website traffic and making it even harder for non-users to make a booking, according to the People’s Daily report. The technology ministry has taken a more supportive position.
“We encourage Internet companies to improve and innovate in the ways they serve people,” Zhang Feng, a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology spokesman, said at a Jan. 23 briefing. The ministry has asked the companies to work with rail authorities on making it easier to purchase tickets, he said.
The ticket website had 120 million views on Jan. 19, more than Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, said Joseph Qiu, a manager at Internet data provider Experian Hitwise. The rail ministry didn’t reply to faxed questions from Bloomberg News.
Li Yunying, 33, and her husband are among travelers who will probably miss out on a trip home this year because they can’t make train bookings. The Guangdong province textile- factory workers, who rarely use the Internet, have so far failed to buy tickets even after calling the sales hotline more than 60 times and making three trips to the jammed station.
“I am disappointed and unhappy, but have no way out,” said Li, whose two children live at least five hours away by train in Hunan province. “We work for 11 hours a day — how can we learn to use new things like this software?”
Qihoo’s ticket grabber has been used by more than 5 million people this year. The Beijing-based company has no plans to close the app because of the support from the technology ministry, said Ai Yongchun, a spokeswoman. Qihoo, China’s largest Internet-security software provider, also offers an app for calling the ministry’s phone line that has been used by more than 3 million people, she said.
Kingsoft is helping low-wage workers who don’t have access to computers by renting buses so some of them can get home for the holidays, said Jin Lei, marketing director at the Hong Kong- listed company’s Internet-security unit. Its ticket-grabbing app has been used by more than 1 million people.
Rao Yuan, 28, a bank worker in Wuxi city, Jiangsu province, successfully used an app to book two tickets for a trip to his home in Hubei province, he said. That means he can get home in about four hours, half the time taken by bus.
“The software did me a big favor,” he said. “Going by bus would have been a lot of hassle.’
Editors: Neil Denslow, Michael Tighe. To contact the reporters on this story: Jasmine Wang in Hong Kong at [email protected]; Lulu Yilun Chen in Hong Kong at [email protected] To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Tighe at [email protected]; Anand Krishnamoorthy at [email protected]