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January 10, 2011

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Spring Festival railway ticket clamor begins

"NO. 37-1" walked toward a small booth, dreading a short conversation with the railway ticket clerk on the other side of the window.

Within seconds, he turned away, his face crimson with anger. "How can they tell me there's no ticket? I'm the first one at the booth," he said.

He quickly erased from his right hand the number 37-1, which had been written by a police officer the previous night. The officer had told him to go and "get a good night's rest" and come back the next day.

Police also photographed the first few people in the queue to ensure faces and numbers tallied.

But now No.37-1, who declined to give his name, knew the number wouldn't mean anything and that he would have to try his luck again the next day.

Despite being first in line at booth No.37, he was unable to secure a ticket to his hometown in Sichuan Province. Tickets may have been snapped up at other booths.

For a country that aims to have the longest and the fastest rail track network in the world in the coming years, the annual passenger rush for the Spring Festival is still a test of endurance for many.

Many thousands of people planning to return to their hometowns queued at 800 ticket booths yesterday, as the clamor began. The 40-day Spring Festival rush starts on January 19.

In an open area near the Shanghai Railway Station, specially set up to sell tickets for the festival, elation and disappointment seemed present in equal measure.

While No.37-1 was left frustrated, others were more fortunate. "Of course I'm happy," said a passenger surnamed Hou, holding up his newly acquired ticket. Hou bought the ticket to Dangshan in Anhui Province after trying his luck at a second booth.

Tickets to some of the most popular destinations, such as southwestern China's Chongqing Municipality and Chengdu City in Sichuan Province, sold out within minutes.

The 150 temporary booths in the square are open from 3pm to 9pm every day until January 29.

Rail officials said ticket sales will peak between January 16 to 23, with daily sales set to exceed 200,000 tickets. More than 70 temporary train services will be added to cope with the exodus from the city.

More more than 6.5 million people left the city by rail during the 2010 Spring Festival, and the figure is expected to be higher this year.

As bullet trains recently went into operation on some routes, the city rail operator hopes increased capacity will help alleviate pressure this year.

However, many migrant workers - the largest group traveling - are reluctant to use the more expensive bullet trains, tickets for which cost twice as much as those for a standard train.

But workers will always struggle to buy extremely limited cheapest tickets; some rush to different booths or stay in nearby inns hoping to be first in line.

Yesterday afternoon it started to snow, which travelers and rail staff hope is not a portent for worse weather.

"I just hope it won't snow during the rush," murmured one anxious railway worker, looking out of the window at the weary crowds.


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