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Country Roads, Take Me Home
The largest annual human migration in the world is underway in China
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2019-02-01  ·   Source: NO. 6-7 FEBRUARY 7, 2019

Passengers enter a railway station using the facial recognition system in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, on January 21 (XINHUA)

More than 10 million railway trips take place each day in China these days, equaling the total population of Portugal. About 15,600 flights take off daily with a total of 2.25 million seats, enough to hold all the people in Rome, Italy. This phenomenon, which began on January 21, will last for 40 days until March 1. The rail and flights are just two of the slices that form part of the entire migration rush, which expects to see about 3 billion trips in total, including by road, train, plane and sea.

The migration that takes place around February every year in China is called the Spring Festival travel rush, a term that was first coined in 1954, a year when the total number of trips taking place during the Spring Festival travel rush was just 23 million.

The term was again picked up in 1979, when reform and opening up witnessed a boom in the surging number of people seeking job opportunities away from their hometowns, only to flock back home for family reunions during the Spring Festival, the most important festival in China.

Today, it is a major event in the country. The holiday for the Spring Festival is normally seven days. Winter school vacation, which lasts about a month, also adds to the migration, stretching the rush period to 40 days.

Easier travel

This is the 16th year that Miao Shuwei, 40, will board a train from Beijing to Shenyang, capital of northeast China's Liaoning Province, for the Spring Festival. Miao's Spring Festival travel rush experiences over the past decade have been filled with her 700-km trip.

Working in Beijing as an accountant, Miao has witnessed the great changes during her trips. In 2003, passengers could only arrive at railway stations and wait in long lines for tickets. Some even had to wait overnight. Even so, only the luckiest got tickets as seats were limited. "I had to ask for leave from the office to wait in line," Miao told Beijing Review. "But I still didn't get a bench or regular seat and had to stand overnight for my trip back to Shenyang, which was a normal situation for many passengers in those days."

It took more than 10 hours from Beijing to Shenyang in 2003 and the price was about 100 yuan ($14.9), Miao recalled. Normally, she could only manage the trip twice a year since it took so long. In 2007, China's first batch of bullet trains was launched with the average speed of 160-200 km per hour, and the travel time between Beijing and Shenyang was shortened to five hours.

This meant Miao could make trips home more often, but seats on the bullet trains were still limited and hard to obtain during the Spring Festival. In 2016, more bullet trains were launched with a somewhat higher speed that cut her trip to four hours and greatly increased the number of seats. Since then, Miao goes back home for almost every festival and sometimes even on weekends.

"I saw a news report that an even faster express train connecting Beijing and Shenyang will be launched by 2020, making the whole trip about two and a half hours," Miao said. "I am looking very forward to that."

Liu Chuanmin, a migrant worker from Harbin, capital city of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, has been working in Beijing for seven years since the age of 40. He has never purchased a ticket on the express train because he can't afford it, but now it is much easier for him to get a seat on the regular trains.

"I purchased a ticket with my smartphone and it was quick and convenient," Liu told Beijing Review. "Accompanied by my smartphone, the 16-hour trip is much more fun than before."

Another change that Liu has seen is at Beijing Railway Station, where he usually boards his train. "It used to be very crowded with the approach of the Spring Festival, especially at the ticket office, which was squeezed with people hoping for a ticket," Liu said. "Now there are no long lines at the ticket office as almost everyone buys their tickets online. The waiting room is much cleaner and the security guards are patrolling all the time, which makes me feel very safe."

Beijing Railway Station and Beijing West Railway Station used to be the two major railway stations in the capital. But with more express trains, the construction of Beijing South Railway Station was finished in early 2008 to alleviate passenger crowds at the other two.

It is estimated that during the 40 days of the travel rush, Beijing Railway Station will carry about 4.2 million trips, Beijing South more than 4.8 million and Beijing West another 6 million.

To cope with the crowds, the Beijing metro system will open temporary passenger trains and extend operating hours to meet passenger needs.

Subway Line 2, which leads to Beijing Railway Station, started operations 20 minutes earlier. Beijing West Railway Station, on Line 9, will set up mobile ticket carts to improve the speed of ticket sales. The metro system also plans to roll out electronic subway tickets, enabling unlimited trips within fixed time periods for short-term visitors to Beijing.

Express trains have changed the railway station maps in many cities that have realigned their subway lines to stop at new railway stations. "The new express railway stations are mostly far from downtown areas but they are cleaner and smarter," said a passenger surnamed Chen from Huainan City in east China's Anhui Province. "Passengers now have more choices."

For Chen, the Spring Festival travel rush has become more pleasurable compared to before when many passengers had to carry large suitcases and squeeze into train cabins. "Now we can buy gifts online that get delivered directly to our hometown in advance and can travel lighter," Chen said. "If we don't like the meals on the train, we can order food delivery with a smartphone from restaurants along the railway line and the stewards will pick up the food and deliver it to our seat."

Passengers in the newly unveiled Harbin Railway Station have more to applaud this year. While waiting to get onboard, they can see live musical performances including symphonies and solos of original songs, by professional artists and railway workers.

This is a gift from provincial theaters and railway operators after the railway station underwent a major facelift over the past three years. The station, covering 73,000 square meters, is not only equipped with smart facilities for passenger convenience, but also was restored to its original architecture dating back to the end of the 19th century.

Li Hongkui, a railway worker, told Xinhua News Agency that he is very proud that several high-speed railway lines have been built and put into operation in the province despite the extremely cold weather. Inspired by the feat, he wrote a song and performed it at the station.

Figures from China Railway show that by the end of 2018, the total length of railway in China totaled 131,000 km, including 29,000 km of high-speed railway, which accounted for over two thirds of the total length of high-speed railway worldwide.

A bullet train runs in Beijing on January 25 (XINHUA)

Smart services

When passengers first began purchasing tickets online, the normal steps were to pay online and pick them up from automated ticketing machines at railway stations and get onboard the train. Now passengers don't have to bother picking up tickets since many railway stations are equipped with new self-verification channels based on facial recognition nationwide.

Beijing Railway Station is among the first railway stations in China to launch a facial recognition system for the 2019 Spring Festival travel rush. With this new technology, passengers need about 10 seconds to pass the turnstile by scanning their ticket and ID card and looking at the facial recognition camera.

The same is taking place in Shanghai as well as Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces in east China with 464 ticket checking machines in railway and coach terminals that allow swift passage.

Sheng Jian, an official at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport's security protection division, told Xinhua News Agency that each day, an average of 52,000 people are using facial recognition security checks, enabling the verification process to be twice as efficient.

Meanwhile, a total of 36 self-baggage drop counters are being provided in two of the airport's terminals, allowing travelers to check their luggage themselves. At Terminal 2 in the airport, China's first unmanned convenience store is in operation from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Customers can just scan a QR code at the entrance and simply walk out of the store with their items as billing takes place automatically once they exit.

At some railway stations in south China's Guangdong Province, travelers can register on an app via Alipay, receive a QR code valid for three hours and pass ticket checks by scanning the QR code and paying while boarding the intercity high-speed train between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, another city in the province which borders Hong Kong.

Cutting-edge technologies are also being used for security measures to ensure that nothing can snarl the most important annual event in China.

At the railway station in Wuhan, capital city of central China's Hubei Province, robots that are remotely controlled and can handle and dispose of explosives are available if needed.

Chubby robots that resemble R2-D2 from the film series Star Wars are in service in many railway stations and airports this year, offering information, collecting empty water bottles and even singing songs for tired travelers.

At several railway stations in Nanchang, capital city of east China's Jiangxi Province, a virtual reality panorama navigation system has been put into operation to help passengers find the location of the check-in area and security check area with their smartphones.

As for road transport, which takes up the lion's share of the rush, with an estimated 2.47 billion trips, an electronic toll connection system will be used to improve the efficiency of road travel, while small passenger cars will be allowed to travel toll-free on highways during the Spring Festival holiday.

"Going back home for the Spring Festival is very complex for Chinese people," Liang Yunshan, an author from central China's Henan Province, posted online. "Passengers are lucky as the fast development of the economy and technology has made hometowns go from nostalgic hard-to-get-to spots to places with easier access."

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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