Beijing South loses its luster for travelers

Source:China Daily
Updated:2018-08-02 09:36:48

About 400 bullet trains operate from Beijing South Railway Station every day. From July 1 to Aug 31, the station is expected to see 9.53 million travelers. [Photo/Xinhua]

  At railway station, long lines for taxis, overcrowding cited

  When it opened in 2008, Beijing South Railway Station was hailed by observers as a shining example of a modern rail transportation hub.

  The 32-hectare, oval-shaped station, which handled China's first high-speed trains, has been compared with New York's Grand Central and London King's Cross stations.

  But its star, which was expected to continue rising, has been falling in the eyes of many.

  As the number of passengers has expanded rapidly over the past decade, leaving and arriving at Beijing South has become an ordeal.

  Long lines form for taxis at the station, with unauthorized, "black" cabs that overcharge also operating in the area. Overcrowding is common on the concourse.

  As one of three major rail hubs in the capital, Beijing South mainly handles passengers traveling to or from Tianjin and Shanghai and Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Fujian provinces.

  About 400 bullet trains operate from the station every day, and during the summer travel rush it handles an average of about 154,000 passengers a day. From July 1 to Aug 31, the station is expected to see 9.53 million travelers.

  But based on growing complaints, many passengers appear unhappy with the services provided. Shen Peilan, a frequent commuter between Beijing and Shanghai, said, "Randomly ask around about the experience at Beijing South, and even the most reticent passenger will have a complaint."

  The situation worsens at night. Most of the 15 bus routes operating at the station do not run after 11 pm. By that time, the two subway lines at the station also have closed.

  About 10 trains arrive between 11pm and midnight, leaving as many as 10,000 passengers searching for taxis.

  They form a zigzag line waiting for cabs in a stuffy area of the station, and sometimes the line can stretch hundreds of meters. Those at the front cannot see the end.

  In summer, although the air conditioners are on, poor air circulation can make the humid, hot and suffocating taxi waiting area highly oppressive.

  One passenger, who gave his name only as Kuai, was one of those waiting on Monday after 11 pm. As a frequent bullet train traveler to Beijing, he often arrives at the station at night and said the long lines are a frequent occurrence.

  "Sometimes the line will take several turns, which leaves me waiting for more than an hour," he said.

  He has tried booking hailed cars and taxis online in advance, but without a definite pickup point drivers usually have difficulty finding him.

  "When cabs enter the station's underground garage, the navigation signal is poor and drivers may easily get lost," he said.

  Cab driver Zhang Ku backed up Kuai's story, saying the maze-like garage often bewilders drivers and passengers.

  Given the limited choice, Kuai uses illegal cabs outside the station. "Some taxis and illegal cabs pick up customers along the street, usually displaying 'leaving instantly' signs to attract passengers," he said, adding that they also overcharge.

  A passenger surnamed Liu said he was approached by illegal cab drivers while waiting in line.

  "The most insane price was 500 yuan ($73) to Xizhimen, (about 10 times higher than the metered fare)," Liu said.

  He usually takes the subway from the station, but at night when the network closes his choice is limited.

  The station's name, Beijing South, has been used derisively as "Beijing difficulty" by netizens and the media, as the word "south" in Chinese is pronounced the same as the word "difficulty".

  Taxi driver Zhang said he seldom goes to the station even though he has been driving for more than 20 years.

  "From 11 pm to midnight, taxis are in high demand on the streets. I do not need to go to the railway station," he said.

  A cabbie surnamed Du said the streets near Beijing South are always congested because illegal taxis park in the area.

Hailing a taxi is one of the difficulties at Beijing South, particularly late at night. WANG JING/CHINA DAILY

  Design criticized

  Chen Yanyan, dean of Beijing University of Technology's metropolitan transportation college, said Beijing South has failed to run a successful transportation hub for the traveling and nontraveling public. "To prioritize passengers' needs, the subway could close later and buses could be added at night," she said.

  She suggested that public transportation services should be increased at the station to ease the shortage of taxis during peak hours, and that operating hours be extended to help late arrivals.

  "The authorities can also take advantage of information technology to dispatch taxis more efficiently," she added.

  The station's design has also failed to prioritize passengers' needs, Chen said.

  The layout of a well-operated station should first consider passengers instead of business. The station's failure to distinguish its commercial area from the passenger areas has worsened the problem, she said.

  At Beijing South, the waiting area is surrounded by stores on the same floor.

  "Separating the two areas has been the norm for well-run stations across the globe, including Hongqiao station in Shanghai, King's Cross in London and Grand Central in New York," she said.

  Chen also said that in these stations, public transportation, including the subway and buses, instead of taxis or private cars, is the principal choice for travelers.

Passengers wait in line for cabs at Beijing South. WANG JING/CHINA DAILY

  Consultants needed

  Yang Tao, a member of the China Urban Traffic Planning Institute Academic Committee, said the reasons for the difficulties being experienced at Beijing South are complicated.

  "The Beijing South problem is not only a simple problem of transport, but a problem of social governance, which is a comprehensive reflection of beliefs, technology and the services of participating stakeholders at all levels, including the government and operating companies. To solve this problem, we need to examine the situation and propose comprehensive solutions, rather than simply encouraging more taxis to go there," Yang said.

  He added that problems arose because the station was built in an area with a poor surrounding road network, insufficient land and with uncompleted links for passengers to transfer to buses, the subway or cabs.

  Yang added that early-stage planning for the station had not been ideal, failing to foresee the increased passenger flow and had failed to provide sufficient public transportation connections.

  He suggested the authorities invite professional consultants specializing in transportation design to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the station and nearby areas. This should include traffic load, the road network, public transportation system, transfers and connections, as well as management at all levels. A proposal for improvements should be submitted after seeking opinions from experts and the public.

  "We should pay more attention to whether the number of subway trains and buses, as well as the service, is adequate. If the (right number of) subway trains and buses are in place, then we can solve the problem of supply and demand at source. At the same time, reform of online car-hailing should continue. The most important thing is to identify the crux of the problem, not just solve a single problem," he said.

  Yang said public transportation systems in developed European countries and Japan have been successful, but it is unrealistic to merely duplicate foreign examples.

  "Integrated transportation hubs in Japan and Europe can operate round-the-clock and offer convenient public transport facilities to fully guarantee demand is met. Smooth connections, easy transfers and clear signs at stations can minimize the need for taxis," he said.

  Yang said small cars, including taxis and private vehicles, should generally be avoided for travelers, given China's large population, limited land and road resources.

  "On the other hand, we should take full advantage of developing public transport and encourage people to use it more," he said.

  Teamwork required

  Liu Daizong, China transport program director at the World Resources Institute, said cooperation between different departments, including the railway company, Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport and public security departments, can easily tackle the problems at Beijing South.

  Liu said the lack of interdepartmental coordination has resulted in an increase in illegal cabs operating outside the station and long lines for taxis inside.

  "Trains are managed by China Railway Co, buses and subways are managed by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport, whereas the crackdown on illegal taxis is carried out by local police and the government," he said.

  Liu added that when coordination is improved, transportation authorities can extend the operating hours of the subway network or buses to cope with delays, or add special lines outside operating hours to meet the demand from late arrivals.

  "When there's an adequate supply of public transportation, the illegal taxis will die," he said, adding that the growing number of passengers had not caused the problem.

  "For administrators, information such as a train's arrival and departure times and the number of passengers expected, are readily available," he said, adding that plans requiring joint efforts can be made accordingly.

  More than 250,000 people use New York's Grand Central Terminal every day, but it operates without problems, Liu said, adding that if properly managed, train stations should handle both arriving and departing passengers efficiently.

  "In developed countries, train stations also generate huge amounts of revenue. Customer spending at King's Cross in London is even higher than that in many high streets," he said, adding that there is no problem in commercializing stations.