Hard Seat

Andrei Marks · February 5, 2008

I brought an old newspaper (Jan 18, 2007) to read back to front during my break in the States. I found a very interesting editorial about the Chinese rail system and Chinese behavior in the train stations and on the train. I should spend more time reading these editorials rather than dwelling on the international section. Written by a guy named Chang Ping down in Guangzhou.

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Distrusted Trains Bring Tragedy

My own experience tells me that in chaotically managed train stations, and on the distrusted trains, civilized people can also become uncivilized.

On January 13th, at the Wuhu Train Station (Anhui Province), after a female college student was crowded off the train platform, she was crushed in half by a train that had not yet stopped. Most Chinese are able to imagine that type of frenzied crowding, and they can all believe that this wasn’t an especially unbelievable accident. The next day, at the Changsha Train Station, over a hundred ticket-holding university students were thrown off the train and left ignored in the wintry wind. After the matter the railroad explained that it happened because the train was overcapacity, but there wasn’t even a single sentence of apology. (From yesterday’s “Guangzhou Daily”) That last affair is really the explanation for the first tragedy as well, which is simply that the railroad enterprise’s service is weakening people’s confidence in it.

On the internet many people discuss the quality of our citizens. They think that unfortunate female college student was killed by passengers of low quality (素质,in Chinese this “quality” refers to a person’s all-around character, if they have “quality” they have integrity, act civilized, and are generally worthy people), passengers who don’t understand how to line up in a civilized manner. But this is missing the point. First of all, even if a problem exists with the passengers’ quality, it wasn’t inborn, it was brought about by society and especially by the oversights in railroad service. Secondly, these same people, if they were to travel by plane, are unlikely to act the same way in the departure lounge.

The airline companies’ service also has many problems, but there is still a basic lower limit to it, and most passengers know this. If a ticket is bought it means they can get on the plane. If they are unable to board because the plane is overweight, airline companies at the very least have to explain, apologize, make a transfer, or even provide compensation. Whether it’s a plane ticket or a train ticket, it’s just a paper contract, it’s the carrier’s promise of conveyance and service. But if there isn’t even that basic promise of conveyance, then why have to buy a ticket? What’s absurd is that the affair at the Changsha Train Station shows that passengers didn’t receive this sort of promise from the Department of Railway Transport. They knew that only having a ticket wasn’t enough, they still had to run and push, otherwise they might not be able to board the train, and even then, if they got on the train they might be forced off. In this type of situation, can one hold such high expectations for the quality of our citizens?

Don’t consider this to be only a special accident due to the increased Spring Festival rail traffic (春运 - literally “spring transport” is the special Chinese term for the huge increase in railway passengers that occurs during the Spring Festival, the biggest holiday of the year), a few railroad enterprises’ services are consistently slack. I myself, because of a slight fear of heights, like to choose to ride by train for business trips or for traveling. I’ve never been through the Spring Festival jostle, and almost never traveled during the “golden vacation period”, but in the train station I frequently swear that the next time I will definitely suffer through the plane ride. Last summer I was at the Changsha Train Station, and right upon entering the waiting room that arid heat, the filthiness, the stench and the clamor, it was enough to make me nauseous. The train was delayed, but there wasn’t any notification. In front of the ticket-checking station there was a long and abnormally crowded line. I went to the fee-collecting so-called “VIP Waiting Room” (actually it’s just separate thoroughfare that allows one to board the train ahead of time, and is also unavoidably crowded), but the attendants attitude was poor, and I was so angry I went back to the other waiting room. Upon arriving at the back of the long line, I stood there for a while until discovering that it was already the ticket-checking line for another train, and the one I wanted had already quietly left. At this point you cannot count on having anyone come and help you, you can just go to the ticket hall and return your ticket for half price. If you want to ask anything more, the ticket attendant won’t bother with you. In this type of environment, can you refuse a little crowding?

I’ve ridden European and American trains many times, and I have no choice but to “worship foreign things” (崇洋媚外 - literally ‘worship ocean fawn on outside’, that ocean is also carries connotations of the West, a pretty cool chengyu all in all I think) and pledge to you that it absolutely is a treat. You don’t have to worry about people carrying a megaphone and shouting at you, you don’t have to worry about people forcing you off the train, you don’t have to worry about people selling fake or poor quality goods on the train, you don’t have to worry if the dining car’s food is expensive and unpalatable. You can choose different companies, nitpicking over their service’s quality, the train schedule and travel quality. You can go so far as to refuse a certain company because you don’t like their ads or symbol. In this kind of environment, why bother doing any frenzied crowding? Unless of course you’re doing some sort of behavioral art, to sympathize with and in support of China’s passengers.

My own experience has told me that in a chaotically managed train station, on a distrusted train, civilized people can become uncivilized. In in this sense, poor railroad service to a certain degree actually is a “degenerating machine” of our citizens’ quality.

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I liked this article, it gave me a better perspective of the situation, although I’ve never actually ridden on trains in China where I’ve seen people kicked off. Unbelievably crowded, yes, but never to the point where I’ve not had my ticket honored. I would believe that it happens at some times and places though. Now if someone would just write one about the crowding and line cutting at the post office and cafeteria.

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