A woman in a railway staff uniform stands on a stairway at the Beijing West Railway Station. Photo: Wu Gang/GT
The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has incurred the wrath of the public yet again, after its vaunted online ticket-purchasing system crashed under the weight of customers seeking to purchase tickets for the National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival holidays, which will begin on September 30 and last eight days.
Just days after the website 12306.cn crashed, the Taiji Computer Corporation, which constructed the website, officially announced that its bid had been accepted for a 199 million yuan ($31.56 million) upgrade of the system, according to reports in the China Business News.
The expensive project has provoked strong reactions from both IT insiders and the public, with a deluge of letters being sent to the MOR Monday, calling for the disclosure of information relating to the project, including details of the bidding procedure.
"I request the MOR reveal specific information regarding the bidding process. I would like to know how many companies participated in the bid, their bidding plans and why the Taiji company won the bidding," Dong Zhengwei, a Beijing lawyer who wrote a letter to the MOR, told the Beijing News.
Beijing citizen Zhou Xiaoyun and a student from Northwest Normal University named Huang Huanting also posted letters to the MOR Monday, asking the ministry to reveal information on the public tender process. Their letters had not received responses as of press time.
A faulty system
Launched by the Ministry of Railways in December last year, the online railway booking service was designed to ease difficulties when buying train tickets during the peak purchasing periods caused by holidays such as Spring Festival and the National Day holidays.
The website, which cost over 16 million yuan to establish, has failed to satisfy users.
"It took me half an hour to log on to 12306.cn last week, when I tried to buy a ticket for the National Day holidays. After countless tries, I finally entered the page where I could purchase tickets. I chose my train number and ticket. Then it was another half an hour before I could successfully pay for the ticket," Fan Jianming, an IT engineer in Beijing who bought a ticket from Beijing to Nanchang, told the Global Times.
To alleviate the pressure caused by heavy visitor traffic, the railway ministry has introduced a "queuing system" that requires visitors to wait for a certain period before entering the booking system and paying for the ticket after clicking on the "book now" button.
This just added fuel to public complaints, as some said the queuing process took a long time.
The website received an average of 1.49 billion hits a day during the peak period ahead of the holidays, statistics from the MOR showed.
It was not the first time the MOR website has crashed. During the ticket purchasing period before Spring Festival in January this year, the website crashed several times due to the soaring requests for visits. Some users claimed money was deducted from their bank accounts even though they had failed to book a ticket.
Even though the MOR claimed on September 15 that they had upgraded the system, the results were less than impressive.
A Web user named Tieji Yinping joked on Weibo that "It is not the Diaoyu Islands that are the most difficult to land on, but the ticket-purchasing website 12306.cn."
An IT analyst said that from a technological perspective, it is not unusual for an online ticket booking system to crash due to overloaded Web traffic.
"The online ticket booking system is very complicated and involves a lot of database queries including the date, seat and train number involved, which requires time to wait for a server response," Xiang Ligang, an IT expert in Beijing, told the Global Times.
More investment into the server and bandwidth may help solve the problem, Xiang said.
An opaque process
"The key technological aspects needed to hold the ticket booking website together are strong data processing and pressure-bearing capabilities on the server. However, it seems the Taiji company has no advantage at either of these aspects," an IT engineer who asked to remain anonymous told the Global Times.
According to the China Business News, the primary business of Taiji involves IT consultation services, value-added services for IT products and industry solution plans.
Insiders said the company's close connection with the government departments has helped in the bidding process.
Records show the actual controlling interest in Taiji is the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.
While Taiji will handle hardware integration and the cable installation required, another IT company, Tsinghua Tongfang, will be in charge of upgrading the software, after their $130 million bid was accepted.
An anonymous official from the MOR told the media on Friday that the project was open to all qualified companies for public bidding, and it was in accordance with the statutory procedures.
The project has already begun, and the website is expected to provide better services after its completion, the official said.
According to the China Business News, the overall cost of constructing a website shouldn't be more than an estimated 30 million yuan if based on the same technology used when building sites like 12306.cn.
A history of error
This is not the first time the MOR has come under public fire. Corruption scandals have dogged the ministry as have large-scale accidents.
Liu Zhijun, formerly China's railway minister, was sacked and held by authorities pending trial after being found guilty of corruption last year.
A couple who worked in the railway ministry were placed under investigation in July after an unusually expensive 18.5 million yuan promotional film for China's high-speed railway network, which was tied to famed director Zhang Yimou, failed to achieve its desired effects, Caixin magazine reported.
The MOR was also criticized for the 200 million yuan price tag associated with the three-day meeting of the seventh World Congress on High Speed Rail, which took place in Beijing in 2010, Caixin reported.
"The monopoly of the railway ministry easily leads to corruption. It leaves a vast space for officials to engage in rent-seeking behavior," Lin Zhe, an anti-corruption expert at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, told the Global Times. "To solve the problem, we should seek to break the monopoly of the railway sector and introduce an open, transparent supervision system over the railway ministry."