Travelers line up this month to buy train tickets at Beijing Railway Station.… (Jonathan Kaiman )
Reporting from Beijing — Twenty hours on a train. Standing-room only. No access to a bathroom.
The Chinese have no shortage of indignities to complain about when it comes to traveling home on the nation's overburdened rail network come spring festival season.
But it's the country's new online train ticketing system that has sparked the indignation of the traveling masses in the current run-up to the Year of the Dragon.
Introduced several months ago in an effort to reduce long ticket queues, the website has instead buckled under the annual Lunar New Year crush as an estimated 250 million Chinese scramble to get home before the national holiday kicks off Monday.
Chief among complaints was that the site's booking service suffered from long bouts of unresponsiveness. Web users described trying to log on hundreds of times to no avail. Others reported successfully logging on only to find the tickets they wanted sold out minutes after they were made available.
"I had to refresh the screen many times to get tickets. The website was really bad," said Annie Lu, a 21-year-old college student standing outside Beijing Railway Station recently where thousands of travelers had gathered under the din of a public address system blaring the revolutionary song "The East Is Red."
Lu, who was traveling with a friend to the coastal city of Qinhuangdao in neighboring Hebei province, had scored a ticket online for a "hard seat" — the cheapest possible perch at around $30, notorious for its unforgiving uprightness and inexplicably dense padding.
"A lot of my classmates said they tried the website but failed to get tickets," she said.
It's been a bruising Year of the Rabbit for the Ministry of Railways, one of China's least popular bureaucracies. The agency saw its chief fired in February amid allegations of corruption. In July, 40 people were killed after a collision on the nation's showcase high-speed rail line.
Though the ministry is investing heavily to expand its rail network, it apparently didn't do enough to bolster its Internet service.
Its website, 12306.cn (a reference to the ministry's phone hotline in the pre-Internet age), reportedly received a billion visits a day the first week of January, crippling its server.
The number of visits to the site Jan. 9 alone was equal to 0.04% of Internet page views globally that day, according to Alexa, an online statistics site. That was when train tickets were made available for Saturday, the last day before Lunar New Year's Eve, when Chinese families share a banquet and set off fireworks.
Critics say the new system has made it even tougher for China's poorest and least educated workers to snag coveted train tickets. Buying a seat online requires an e-banking account and access to a computer or smartphone, still rarities among the migrants who toil as construction laborers, custodians and maids in China's urban areas.
One migrant worker garnered national media attention for writing an open letter to railway officials venting anger at how difficult it was for him and his co-workers to get home. In the missive, Huang Qinghong, a 37-year-old driver at a hardware factory in the eastern city of Wenzhou, likened buying a train ticket to winning the lottery.
"Even if there are tickets left, we still have to have something called online banking to make a payment," he wrote. "We are factory workers, not white collar workers. How the heck do we know how to open that?"
He continued, "Lining up for tickets was already torture for migrant workers last spring festival, but this year, even if we want this kind of torture, there's no chance" of getting a ticket.
The Wenzhou Metropolis News, the first newspaper to publish his letter, eventually bought Huang an airline ticket back home to Chongqing in western China.
At the Beijing Railway Station, Yang Shengshu wasn't as lucky. The 51-year-old carpenter faced at least a 13-hour journey to the western Chinese city of Yinchuan on a $25 "standing room" ticket, the only seat available by the time he bought his ticket at the counter.
"I'm just not familiar with how to book tickets online," Yang said.
Rail officials defended the system amid the complaints, saying it reduced the number of people who had to wait in line by a third.
Nearly 90 million train tickets were sold between Dec. 28 and Jan. 13, a period considered the busiest for bookings. Ten million were sold online, 11 million were sold over the telephone, and the remainder were sold in person at ticket booths.
An estimated 235 million train tickets are expected to be sold during the spring festival period, up 6.1% from last year.
"We have to acknowledge that despite all of our efforts, it remains an acute problem in buying a train ticket and there remains a gap between public expectations and our existing measures," said Hu Yadong, vice minister of railways, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
A new rule that requires ticket buyers to register with their national identification card is credited with squeezing out scalpers.
In another move, the Ministry of Railways added automated voices on its telephone ticketing system. Users reported not getting through after repeated calls. Others found the process confusing, requiring up to 15 steps to complete a booking.
A reporter's calls to the Ministry of Railways for comment did not go through.
Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.