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Are Train Ticket-Snatching Apps Fair?
Train ticket-snatching apps are seen as online scalpers, blamed for causing unfairness in grabbing tickets
  ·  2019-01-15  ·   Source: NO. 3 JANUARY 17, 2019

(LI SHIGONG)

With the approach of the Chinese Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, the rush to book train tickets for traveling back home or elsewhere during the weeklong holiday from February 4 to 10 has begun. To avoid queuing for long periods or the online traffic jams, tech-savvy buyers have turned to add-ons, plug-ins and other software applications to improve their chances of grabbing tickets.

The ticket-snatching apps, which automatically refresh the railways' online ticket booking platform for available seats, can be divided into two categories: software that has ticket booking functions, and travel agencies' apps. Some of these services also offer enhanced packages, which mean for an additional fee, they will help increase a buyer's chances of getting the desired tickets. All service providers undertake that the more enhanced packages are purchased, the higher the chances of obtaining tickets is, though there is no guarantee that tickets will be available.

These apps, which are regarded by many as the new online scalpers, have come in for a lot of criticism. Critics say they are unfair to those who have no access to the Internet or can't afford the surcharge. They also say that since train tickets are not ordinary commodities, fairness should come first.

However, others believe the fundamental reason for the chaos is the limited capacity of the railways during the Spring Festival travel rush. As long as this basic problem is not addressed, ticket-snatching apps or other ingenious means will continue to come up, whether they are fair or not.

No to abuse of technologies

Zhou Lei (Hubei Daily): The progress in ticketing technology has undoubtedly squeezed out scalpers but at the same time, some online platforms are floating ticket-grabbing services to make big bucks.

Train tickets are commodities supposed to be sold in a fair and public welfare-oriented way. However, the gap between demand and supply during the Spring Festival peak traffic is unlikely to be addressed within one or two years, which means the vast majority of passengers will have to face the challenge of ticket purchasing for some time.

The National Development and Reform Commission and then Ministry of Railways issued a document as early as in 2006 to regulate the market. It said agencies authorized to sell train tickets on commission can impose a surcharge of only 5 yuan ($0.73) per ticket and no other fees. However although the ticket-snatching services, which charge passengers much more than 5 yuan, are disrupting the ticket market, it's hard to rein them in because the fees are charged in the name of technical or agent services. And there are no laws yet to tackle this problem. As a result, the high charges, though rampant, seldom incur any punishment.

The railway authorities have adopted various new techniques to ease the ticket booking pressure, such as the real-name booking system that needs the buyer's identity for issuing tickets to avoid fraud. In 2019, the official train ticket booking platform also adds a new function that automatically reallocates tickets canceled by original buyers to new ones.

It's understandable that some people or organizations hope to earn more for their extra services to passengers. This is normal in a market economy. However, railway transportation is special. In China, train fares have remained unchanged for years, despite the sharp rise in the prices of other commodities. This is a public service that is expected to offer every member of society equal opportunities.

Railway authorities need to face up to the various flaws in their services. Particularly, some people are still unable to enjoy the convenience brought by the Internet. More tailored services for different groups are required, with a view to maximizing equality in ticket booking.

According to media reports, the process is not smooth even for those who pay for ticket-snatching services. There is a risk of being charged for services you have not sought by default, not to mention the risk of personal information leaks. App-based scalpers must be punished so that more people can get a ticket in a fair way.

Xiong Zhi (Xinhua Daily Telegraph): Ticket-snatching services are free but the platforms offering them will always try to sell "enhanced packages" that allegedly help boost the odds of getting a ticket. The more enhanced packages you buy, the higher your chances would be. Frankly, this is tantamount to jumping the virtual queue online with technological and financial advantages. The enhanced packages are the new scalpers, hurting passengers' right to be able to buy tickets through normal methods.

Whether the ticket-snatching services on various platforms are legal has long been under debate. Train tickets are not supposed to be sold simply in accordance with market rules. It's unfair to jump the virtual queue by paying an extra charge, especially for those who have no access to the Internet and people from the middle- and low-income groups.

Fundamentally, if the en masse migration continues before and during the Spring Festival, people will find train tickets hard to obtain. To totally leave the train ticket service at the mercy of the market or to absolutely ignore market rules are both improper.

Ticket-snatching apps have a number of problems and should be curbed. For example, although service providers promise that the chances of getting a desired ticket will rise if you buy more enhanced packages, many buyers have found that though their chances of getting a ticket was shown to be 90 percent, they still couldn't get one.

These platforms themselves admit that they can't guarantee users will definitely get a ticket. Then how do they calculate the chances of getting a ticket? Are the chances of succeeding exaggerated? The process must be made transparent. If the presented chance is actually lower than the real one, then the platforms are making false promises. Besides, while offering ticket services, these platforms always attach some default services, without asking the users if they would like to pay for the add-on. The buyer, not knowing this, easily falls into the trap and ends up paying more.

As most ticket-snatching software use plug-ins, users' privacy information runs the risk of being leaked to others. Users are asked to submit their name, ID number, bank account number, phone number and other personal details. Recently, the Beijing police arrested a person who was reportedly involved in selling the information of 4.1 million users of the railways' ticket booking platform.

The problem of shortage

Jia Kaiqiang (www.zol.com.cn): Before the real-name booking system was introduced, there were problems getting train tickets before the Spring Festival. Scalpers used to buy tickets by the dozen and hoard them, selling them at a premium as the Spring Festival came closer. Currently, scalpers can't interfere in the ticket market the way they used to and are no longer the major factor preventing people from buying or booking a ticket. So now fundamentally, the shortage results from the gap between the soaring demand and the railways' limited capacity. As a result, people have to try other means to snatch tickets.

Most travelers book tickets on the railways' official platform 12306.cn by phone or directly go to the ticket counters at railway stations. However, their access to desired tickets is not guaranteed through these channels.

As a result, some travel and tech companies have come up with ticket-snatching services. If users agree to pay the high charges and provide their personal information, they will help them book tickets. These platforms, in essence, are scalpers, who should be subject to the penalties specified by the law.

But to look at it realistically, if tickets are abundant, such extra efforts would not be needed at all. But because this is not the case, tickets become almost unavailable if passengers don't pay the extra charges.

Making rules clear

Yang Hangsheng (www.jiemian.com): Ticket-snatching apps by themselves are neither good nor bad. However, if train tickets are sold at a premium, the practice risks violating administrative regulations or even the Criminal Law since scalping is illegal. It is still not clear if the extra money charged is categorized as part of the fare or for the service. The apps therefore operate in a gray zone.

However, if they do not charge too much, I think regulators should tolerate the technical initiatives, which supplement the railways' ticket booking service. But if these apps overreach themselves and deprive others of the chance to book tickets online, they should be punished.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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