Transport policy efficiency wrestles with social equality

0 CommentsPrint E-mail Global Times, January 18, 2011
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Every year, China's Chunyun (Spring Festival travel season) poses a severe test for both the transport management authorities and upon the patience of travelers.

As the railway system is set to carry 230 million people home this year, controversy is mounting as to whether China's Ministry of Railways (MOR) has truly done its best to prepare. At the center of the controversy, is whether MOR will honor the promise made years ago to solve the difficulties involved in simply buying a train ticket home?

In actuality, each passing year has seen the "promise" being delayed. In 2007, MOR swore to solve the ticket problem by 2010. In 2009, the golden date was to be 2012, now it stands at 2015.

The matter is not due to procrastination by the Ministry. The past five years have witnessed the most dramatic developments for railways, in particular after the global recession in 2008 when the Chinese government identified railways as one of the priorities for the stimulus plan. The transportation capacity measured during Chunyun has grown substantially from the 2006 level of 144 million people. The process of getting a ticket has also marginally improved.

The growth in railway transport capacity did impart a sense of optimism to MOR's public relations, which failed to take into account the equally growing demand on the system as a result of exuberant economic activity. The lack of progress made on solving the problem shows the true difficulty of maximizing efficiency in the long run. In the context of rapid Chinese economic growth, what appears to be extravagance today might look like frugality tomorrow.

Apart from this, there is another underlying reason to travelers' woes, which is the wrestling match between the efficiency of public transport and social equality. Chunyun poses a unique transportation problem since, regardless of their background, every Chinese citizen expects to spend Spring Festival with their family. This egalitarian approach requires MOR to make tickets affordable to even the very poorest, creating a real problem between supply and demand. The sheer number of ticket touts shows how much money can be made from this situation.

MOR may think it is stuck in quicksand here. Any efforts to quench the public's rage at ticket scarcity, by resorting to a price hike to reduce demand for example, has seen a backlash. The reversed scenario is the same: Over the years, ticket prices have lagged behind the price of inflation. This continuous discounting also resulted in a scarcity of tickets.

The public should realize the true reason for MOR's inconsistency: It is subject to political constraints that invalidate any attempts to keep its polices consistent. To unlock the dilemma, solutions might be both counter-intuitive and unpopular, which the public has to accept.

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