Tea Leaf Nation

The Little Engine That Couldn’t

The Little Engine That Couldn’t

Think the Obamacare website is bad? Those griping about the much-derided launch of healthcare.gov, the website of U.S. President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, should try www.12306.cn, the only website authorized to sell train tickets in China.

The platform, which reportedly cost more than $50 million to develop, has been beleaguered by complaints ever since its January 2010 debut. Four years on, its reputation has not improved. Frequent crashes? Check. Untimely freezes? Check. Date errors and potential privacy breaches? Check and check.

And, as millions go online to buy rail tickets home for Chinese New Year, the platform’s fragility is drawing fire to China’s corrupt railway monopoly. 

In the weeks surrounding Chinese New Year, which falls on Jan. 30 this year, Chinese people are expected to make approximately 258 million train trips. (By contrast, U.S. citizens took an estimated 94.7 million car trips in the 2013 holiday season). In years past, those eager for a hot meal with family on Chinese New Year’s eve had to head to a brick-and-mortar ticket office, lining up for hours if not days; now, many simply click on 12306.cn.

But users have been shocked at just how fraught those seemingly convenient clicks can be: In 2012, users waited in "virtual lines" that one described as "a hundred times more trouble" than standing in the real ones. As a result, the customer support team at 12306.cn’s Beijing call center is on the receiving end of so many screaming tirades that employees there set up a punching bag and a "pressure release wall" in their canteen, on which they stick post-it notes with motivational slogans like, "Suffer through it" and "Travelers treat me like dirt a thousand times over, but I treat them like my first love." 

Angry users have attributed the site’s many problems to indifference, incompetence, and corruption at China’s railway authority, a state-owned monopoly. Users on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, called it a "garbage website" that wasted "tens of millions in taxpayer money," and blamed the government officials overseeing the site’s development as "stupid asses." One user quipped, "They spent so much money on it, but it is not as good as some porn sites." 

To test-drive 12306.cn, I tried to register for a new account on Jan. 13, gingerly providing private information like my real name, my U.S. passport number, and my birth date. CAPTCHA codes are designed to be particularly wiggly on 12306.cn in order thwart scalping software, but I managed to find a legible one after 14 tries. In the next hour, I searched for tickets from Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub in Guangdong province, to large cities in inland provinces like Sichuan and Hunan where many migrant workers originate. Nothing was available. 

One can hardly blame frustrated travelers for linking bad user experiences on 12306.cn to corruption; the Chinese railway system is notorious for mind-boggling graft. In June 2013, former railway minister Liu Zhijun was sentenced to death for taking $10 million in bribes. On Jan. 2, Chinese state-owned media reported that one lowly vice director at a regional railway bureau had stashed away more than $18 million in cash and 43 kilos of gold bullion. "My biggest headache was finding a place to hide the money," the man allegedly said.

Many users believe that subcontracting to some of China’s biggest Internet companies would provide an obvious antidote. Sites like Taobao (China’s eBay) already manage millions of orders and a gigantic amount of data while still delivering a top-notch user experience, and China’s big Internet companies have already joined the "Great Ticket Grab" with glee. The search-engine Baidu, security expert Qihoo 360, and e-payment system Alipay have all proudly and publicly advertised their high-tech scalping skills with proprietary plug-in software that claims to score users tickets from 12306.cn ahead of others in line; Qihoo 360 boasted in early January that its plug-in helped grab more than 2 million train tickets for users in just one day.  

A private sector solution might be little more than false hope. A heated discussion among top Chinese programmers recently emerged online, with some concluding that the collective prowess of China’s army of programmers, formidable as it may be, probably would not improve the user experience on 12306.cn very much. That’s because the overwhelming demand from millions of users would be hard for any one website to handle. One former Taobao engineer, who had examined the technical challenges in detail, reportedly called the current 12306.cn website a "miracle." 

Chinese citizens without a ticket home are likely uninterested in 12306.cn’s technical accomplishments. But simple math indicates that many will be left out in the cold. For example, Chinese domestic media estimates that more than 14 million migrant workers will leave the industrial Guangdong province to return to inland areas for the holiday this year, while the railway system only has capacity to carry about 30 percent of them. 

Even if the railway authority were to improve 12306.cn, selling more tickets online to the tech-savvy might mean fewer left for older, computer illiterate migrant workers. One 42-year old laborer in southern Guangdong province went to the local train station at seven o’clock on seven consecutive mornings to "try his luck," reported CCTV, China’s state-owned television station. The man, who said he has no days off except for the lunar new year, asked his boss for time off in order to scrounge for a train ticket to the central megalopolis of Chongqing, where his family lives. A train ticket would cost him around $40, while the same trip by bus is three times as expensive, and by airplane, five times as expensive. "I will camp out at the train station every day until I get a ticket," he said.