A train ticket home for the annual Spring Festival, or Lunar New Year, travel rush has been hot property for China’s millions of migrant workers in the past two weeks, but debate has sprung up on fees that online platforms are charging people to lock in a seat.
As advanced bookings entered its peak from December 29, private online ticketing platforms have been criticized as becoming nothing more than “web scalpers,” as they were found to have started charging fast-track booking service fees this year.
“I paid an extra 30 yuan for the ‘ultra high-speed’ package every time I ordered a ticket on the app of Qunar,” said Hu Xiaoqi, a woman in her early 20s who works in Shanghai. Hu has been searching on various booking apps to secure a train ticket back to Shiyan city in Hubei province one day before Lunar New Year’s Eve on January 26.
A statement below the “ultra high-speed” package offered on one app that Hu paid for says “check on seats with an ultra high-speed network and the success rate to lock in a ticket will increase 80%.”
She made 14 bookings for the same ticket and was charged 30 yuan (US$4.34) for each booking, paying a total of 420 yuan.
What’s puzzling is that another “high-speed” package on the same app charged less, 20 yuan per time, and claimed to use a network with a success rate increasing by 50%.
Another platform, Ctrip, goes further to offer a VIP package priced at 66 yuan for each booking, which promises to use an optical network and arrange staff to monitor seats for 24 hours.
Qunar and Ctrip, the two leading travel booking service providers, and at least 56 online platforms in China have developed a similar business model based on the technology of cloud computing. After users provide personal information and make the full payment (the fee and the ticket price), cloud servers will automatically book it once seats are detected.
Though these companies are not authorised train ticket vendors and cannot issue tickets, the technology they introduced freed people from having to sit in front of the computer screen to keep refreshing the webpage of 12306.com, the only official online sales and issuing channel for all railway trips, to check on seat availability.
All the packages promise to instantly return the prepaid fee automatically if they fail to get the ticket before the deadline set by users. After successfully getting a ticket home, Hu was refunded 270 yuan over three days.
Hu didn’t really understand the difference between the various packages or how the system worked. “But I am worried that if I don’t pay extra money, I could never have gotten my ticket,” she said.
While Shen Zhefan, a 23-year-old who ordered a ticket from Shanghai to Maanshan in Anhui province on 12306.com, said he was put on a waiting list for 40 minutes before he could process the payment. “The waiting time kept changing, sometimes it got longer, sometimes shorter,” he said, suspecting that people are jumping the queue.
The technology department of Ctrip refused to disclose any details on how it managed to help its users lock in tickets faster than those who didn’t pay for the high-speed service.
“It is too sensitive to talk about it right now, especially when people all over the nation are paying close attention to train tickets,” said Zhu Lei from the company’s public relations department.
Since 2011, when online sales were launched for all trips on 12306.com, the fight to secure train tickets has shifted away from queues at ticket windows. In 2013, internet companies like Qihoo 360 started to develop and offer free browser plug-ins to help users get updates on seat availability on 12306.com every five seconds.
Although the Ministry of Railways had warned such technology has disrupted the ticket booking process and harmed the interests of people, the current flood of such fast-track services falls under a gray area and appears to be growing every year.
Since online providers have been charging for the service, making a profit from train ticket bookings, critics believe these web platforms are no different compared with illegal scalpers.
Xinhua Net, the mouthpiece of the mainland government, published a commentary piece on Thursday to clarify that only if the ownership of train tickets changed, then this constitutes scalping. The online ticket booking services, which are in reaction to market demand, cannot issue tickets.
The comment piece pointed out that it could be a win-win situation – people’s intense demand for tickets are satisfied while traffic to the official website is eased. But this would only be possible if the official webpage, 12306.com, can be reformed to allow private platforms to issue tickets.
According to the latest data released by China Railway, as of December 29, 165 million train tickets were sold for the Chinese New Year rush, an increase of 28.4% from last year.