Train Ticket Scalpers

Chinese New Year is upon us, and so is the season of inflated ticket prices. What is the real reason tickets are hard to find?

As the most important festival is approaching, many Chinese reluctantly and inevitably embrace the annual Chunyun or Mass Migration.

First created by People’s Daily in 1980, Chunyun usually begins 15 days before Lunar New Year Day and lasts a total of 40 days. According to the data from the National Railway Administration (NRA), about 100 million trips were made during the Chunyun period in the 1980s. The figure has surged to 3 billion trips today.

Although bragging over 20,000 km of the high-speed rail network and expanding with the rate of more than 10 percent every year since 2010, China’s railway system is still facing challenges.

China’s rapid urbanization over the past 40 years saw a large number of rural migrants working and living in the cities. According to news outlet yicai.com, the urban population shot up from 170 million in 1978 to 810 million in 2017. The majority were absorbed by factories, the old and disadvantaged ones wandered around cities looking for part-time jobs earning as little as 1,500 RMB, which is considered way better than growing crops back home.

Before online tickets were introduced, scalpers hired personnel to call and queue in line to obtain the tickets. Nowadays, they utilize powerful high-tech ticket-snatching software to update available tickets every millisecond and automatically purchase in bulk. According to the China Academy of Railway Sciences, in peak hours, 700 tickets can be sold in one second, which takes up all the seats in one train.

Due to the harm of the scalpers, in 2010, the NRA implemented real ID purchase rules. However, it did not connect the ticketing system to local residential systems, so scalpers were able to make fake ID card numbers to obtain tickets.

In 2014, the NRA finally finished the connection to stop fake IDs from being registered. However, it had little effect as it is not hard for scalpers to find real ID information to buy tickets. When they have customers, they refund their purchased tickets before buying them again with the correct passenger’s information, which is done in seconds with the aid of specific software.

The NRA has conjured a series of measures to combat scalpers. None are really making a difference. For example, the practice of image verification requires buyers to choose ridiculously difficult answers such as selecting the images of famous basketball player Yao Ming from a bunch of wiggled and similar-looking figures of him. It takes more than a minute to finish, which on the other hand, stops real passengers from getting the tickets because the scalpers can easily solve it through an algorithm.

The biggest victims are the poor rural migrants, who are not equipped with the latest digital devices. They are used to standing in a queue for days to compete with scalpers, but now they have completely lost the battle. That is why every year news about their difficult stories of going home circulate the internet.