Desperate travelers mob trains as service resumes in China

Friday, February 1, 2008
Passengers rushed to get inside Guangzhou Railway Station where train services remained delayed Thursday following harsh weather conditions, in Guangzhou, in south China's Guangdong province. Train service improved slightly Thursday, thinning the massive crowds waiting to go home after the worst winter storms in half a century crippled China's transport system during its busiest holiday travel season. (Vincent Yu ~ Associated Press)

GUANGZHOU, China -- One woman frantically clutched the coat of a police officer as he hoisted her toddler above the stranded travelers, the child's tearful face scrunched up in terror as the crowd surged forward.

A woman in a pink jacket fainted and was lifted over the sea of humanity as she was passed over the crowd to receive medical help. Several others sobbed with emotion.

They were among thousands of people squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder into a makeshift holding pen Thursday, awaiting a chance to board trains as service resumed after the worst winter storms in decades paralyzed China.

Piles of suitcases, dirty blankets, duffel bags, clothing and shoes, abandoned in the chaotic stampede, littered the rain-soaked station in Guangzhou, the starting point for the busy rail line north to Beijing.

Railway officials said the restored service could carry 400,000 passengers a day, but hundreds of thousands, most of them migrant workers, were still waiting to leave the city.

More streamed in every hour to try to catch a train home for next week's Chinese New Year in one of the world's biggest annual mass movements of people. A record 178.6 million people -- more than the population of Russia -- were expected to ride the rails. Most would be riding in "hard-seat class," in train cars with only hard wooden seats.

To control the crowds, police built a massive corral the size of two or three football fields around the train station plaza. Thousands of travelers were herded into the outdoor waiting area, pressed tightly against one another. Some hefted their luggage over their heads, while others carried children on their shoulders so they could breathe more easily.

"I've been stuck here for two days, and I stood here in the plaza all last night and couldn't sleep," one scruffy migrant worker in a green work suit yelled before he was swallowed up by the crowd.

As soon as one wave of passengers was allowed to board trains, police let another leave the plaza and enter the train station to wait some more.

China's rail system was thrown into chaos last weekend, when heavy snow in regions just north of Guangdong province brought down electrical lines that power the trains. Guangzhou -- formerly called Canton and the capital of Guangdong -- quickly swelled with migrant workers on holiday leave from the thousands of factories in the province. The nation has nearly 200 million migrant workers.

The freakish blizzards, which are forecast to continue, caused dozens of deaths, blackouts and airport closures in southern, central and eastern China -- regions that aren't accustomed to such severe weather and lack the equipment to deal with it.

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