China Built the Worst Online Ticket System in the World—for $52 Million

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What began as an easy way to pay for train travel has become a customer-service nightmare.

RTR2WB32-615.jpgTravelers wait to board a train in Wuhan, China.(Darley Shen/Reuters)

It's a digital disaster. With a Chinese travel crunch looming, China's online ticketing system is quickly turning into a massive boondoggle.

It all started with a holiday. Lunar New Year in China marks a time of jubilance, but also stress and chaos, as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel home to see their families. Around Lunar New Year in 2012, travelers made roughly three billion journeys over a 40-day period, putting immense strain on the country's rail system.

In order to reduce wait times for would-be riders, in early 2012 China's powerful and opaque Ministry of Railways launched an immensely expensive online system, the unfortunately named 12306.cn, to handle the surge in ticket purchases. It was a disaster. The site and its clunky interface repeatedly crashed, only making life more frustrating for the many migrant workers who already lacked Internet savvy.

Possibly chastened by the online vitriol that followed, the ministry prepared a site upgrade, launching it on September 15. In order to reduce strain on the system, it gives users the ability to wait in a virtual line to get their tickets.

If this sounds silly, that's because it is. Users have since spent hours fighting site crashes, waiting for tickets that run out, and getting inexplicably booted to the back of the line. As China's Sina finance reported, "It's as if the experience of waiting in line for a train ticket has [simply] been moved online." [1] Some think it's even worse than that. In an article in the People's Daily, a "Ms. Meng" commented, "I'd never have thought that buying a train ticket online would be 100 times as much trouble as standing in line." [2]

The Ministry of Railway's explanations provide cold comfort: "The Ministry of Railways established a task force 10 years ago to research an electronic ticket-sale system. The Railway is confident it will be able to solve the problems that have emerged." [3] While building an online ticket interface for over one billion Chinese users is doubtless a highly complex undertaking, after ten years and a reported 329 million RMB (about US$52 million) spent on the project, netizens are fed up. Declaring the 12306 website "harder to land on than the Diaoyu islands," opinion writer Zhou Xiaoyun (@落魄书生周筱赟) has taken to Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, to tweet details of an open information request he has just express-mailed to the Ministry of Railways. His is not the only such recent request sent to the MOR, but it's surely the most colorful. (The original, in Chinese, is available at the end of this post.)

The request, complete with a scanned address slip, is a satisfying if likely futile screed against what Zhou clearly suspects is government graft. It reads:

Given the 329 million RMB investment in the 12306 ticket-purchase website and the unfortunate experience of its users, I request disclosure of the following detailed information:

1. The number of companies that put in a bid and the company names;

2. The details of the proposals submitted by each company making a bid;

3. The reported price of each company making a bid;

4. The reasons why Taiji [company, the firm that constructed the online system] and others won the bid;

5. The plan of the Taiji company and other [bid winners], and the budget situation of the 199 million RMB investment in hardware and the 130 million RMB investment in software;

6. A list of the names of the members of the expert committee that evaluated [the bids];

7. It has been announced that 12306 was upgraded between its Lunar New Year crash and September 15; what improvements were made?

8. It is said that when making plans related to online ticketing, the Ministry of Railways rejected the developed plans of IBM, Cisco and others, instead turning the plan over to a research center affiliated with the Ministry, is this correct? Please publicize the prices bid by IBM and Cisco at that time.

It gets better. In the field titled "Manner in which the requested information will be used," Zhou writes:

[Applicant] does not request the aforementioned information be disclosed because he needs it in life, or for production, or for research, or because he's conducting an investigation; I want to know because I'm bored and have nothing to do, is that not okay? This is the people's right to know! Making information public is the duty of an administrative organ, the Freedom of Administrative Information Law has absolutely no requirement that the applicant state the way in which the information will be used.

Zhou finishes:

At the same time this package was sent to the Ministry of Railways via express mail, it was also published online. The Ministry of Railways is required by the Freedom of Administrative Information Law of the People's Republic of China to provide a written answer via express mail within 15 working days.

Given all the pain the 12306 site has caused -- and the fact that China's Railway seems remarkably competent when it comes to tracking down would-be dissidents trying to purchase a train ticket to air complaints in Beijing -- citizens can only hope that Zhou gets the information he seeks. After all, China's travel-heavy National Day and Mid-Autumn Festivals are only days away. The smart money, however, is that Zhou will simply be told to take a number and stand in line with every other incensed netizen clamoring for answers-and tickets.

12306-2-615.jpg

This post was produced in collaboration with Tea Leaf Nation.

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David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine that focuses on China and Chinese sentiment. He is an Atlantic correspondent, Associate Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society.

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