The world's largest flow of population started Monday in China as the country's most joyous season -- Spring Festival -- draws near.
During the coming 40 days, a total of 1.74 billion passengers, about 100 million more than the figure reported last year, are expected to take various forms of public transport to be reunited with their families.
However, Beijing West Railway Station, one of the main traffic hubs in China and the largest of its kind in Asia, seems to be quite normal, with no sign of crowds and passengers just lining up to buy tickets as quietly as usual.
Zhang Chengjie, a migrant worker from Anhui Province, told Xinhua that it took him only ten minutes Sunday to buy Monday's train ticket. Zhang said it is the first time he has had to travel during Spring Festival traffic peak.
"According to people from my home town, passengers once had to wait the whole night in order to buy tickets home when Spring Festival came," Zhang said.
"Sometimes you can't get on the train even if you've a ticket, as it is unbelievably crowded due to insufficient railway capacity," he added.
Official estimates indicate there are about 70 million migrant workers to travel back home like Zhang across the whole country during the traffic peak this year.
As China's economy grows more market-oriented and as the society becomes more open, an increasingly large number of Chinese have left their home to seek employment or to study in distant cities or provinces, which has made the Spring Festival traffic a great challenge to the country's transport systems.
Many of those who chose trains for long-distance journeys before had to suffer the "nightmare" of Spring Festival traffic: the trains on major railway lines were often overcrowded, with many of them having to carry four times the standard number of passengers.
"You could find people under the seats and in the aisle," said Zhang Yajin, also a migrant worker from Anhui. "It was so crowded that you couldn't even get through to the toilet."
Fortunately, the completion of many new railroads has greatly eased the traffic in the recent several years.
"If one railway line is too crowded, we may choose another as an alternative," said Zhang.
More notably, new luxury trains, featuring special advanced facilities, quality service and high prices, have also begun to shuttle between several Chinese metropolises.
During the past four years, China has increased the speed of trains four times.
Railway officials have promised that 95 percent of the trains will run on time this year, in sharp contrast to the past when delays were common practice.
Fei Xiaofeng, a farmer from Jiangsu province who has worked for hydropower projects in Beijing for four years, said he was robbed of 3,000 yuan (US$360) when he first took a bus home on the eve of Spring Festival years ago.
"But I haven't met any robbers or thieves on the trains home for the past two years," Fei said. He added that the train ticket is now even cheaper than a bus ticket.
During the period from 1996 to 2000, China built a total of 240,000 kilometers of roads, many of which are high-quality expressways. This has provided another way for many passengers to return home.
This year, about 1.58 billion passengers will travel by bus within the peak traffic period, up four percent over the same period last year.
It may often take far less time to travel by bus on an expressway than to travel by train.
"We have started running some large luxury buses, in which the sleeping berths for men and women are separate," a communications department official said, adding that high-speed bus transport will be developed even further in future.
The air services in China have also lowered their prices gradually, and will attract an unusually higher number of passengers than normal by offering considerable discounts during this peak traffic period.
Some air services have launched special "visiting families" flights, and many migrant workers have even reserved chartered planes to go home.
China Southern Airlines, a major air company in China, will add more than 2,500 flights during the peak traffic period.
To ensure that passengers could get home safely and conveniently, local governments in Beijing, Guangdong and other places have mobilized migrant workers to return home at an earlier time so as to avoid unduly heavy traffic.
Yu Zuyao, a delegate to the National People's Congress (NPC), regarded the Spring Festival peak traffic as a humanitarian issue, saying governments have attached increasing importance to improving traffic conditions.
Mo Jihong, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Spring Festival peak traffic is not only closely connected with citizens' freedom in migration, but also with their personal freedom, property and abode rights.
"Spring Festival peak traffic is not only a transport project, but also highly conducive to the protection of human rights," Mo added.
In order to safeguard the passengers' interests, China recently held its first national public hearing over railway ticket pricing, which was attended by consumer representatives who played an active role in the pricing decision process.
With the hearing playing a major role in the decision-making process, the rise in railway prices for seats during this Spring Festival has been set at a maximum of 15 percent over the same period last year, not at 30 percent as formerly proposed by the Ministry of Railway.
"I never felt I was being treated warmly as a consumer when taking trains or planes in the past, but now I feel much more respected and relaxed." said Miao Lidong, a computer engineer.
(Xinhua News Agency January 28, 2002)