GUANGZHOU, China – Hundreds of thousands of desperate travelers, some hoisting terrified children or baggage over their heads, pushed their way onto trains Thursday 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 train 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 of stranded people, 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, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, pressed tightly against one another. Some hefted their luggage over their heads, while others carried children on their shoulders so they could breath 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 to a reporter before he was swallowed up by the crowd.
As soon as one wave of passengers was allowed to board trains, police allowed another to leave the plaza and enter the train station to wait some more. This would spark a stampede as people pushed past guards and dashed into the building.
A policeman helped one woman by carrying her toddler, the child’s tearful face scrunched up in terror. The mother ran behind the officer, clutching the nape of his coat so she wouldn’t get separated from her child.
Several women became overwhelmed with emotion as they neared the station and began crying. A woman in a pink jacket fainted and was lifted over the sea of people as she was passed over the crowd to receive medical help.
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 — the capital of Guangdong — quickly swelled with migrant workers who had just taken 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, also 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. More than a foot of snow accumulated in the hard-hit provinces of Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Zhejiang and the city of Shanghai.
In Guangzhou, the crisis showed the toughness of the migrant workers and their high threshold for boredom — traits that make them excellent workers in factories that make everything from Honda sedans to Apple iPods and Nike sneakers, and have lured away millions of jobs from the rest of the world.
Most slept outdoors or on the floors of schools and convention centers as they patiently waited for the trains to run again. So far, there have been no reports of riots.
Zhang Yusheng, a 45-year-old truck driver, was stoically waiting with his wife to go home to central Henan province so they could see their two children — a trip they can only make once a year, and which normally takes 20 hours by train.
“We came here last night because our train was supposed to leave this morning, but there is no way we’re going to get on it,” Zhang said with no signs of agitation. “There were just too many people ahead of us, so we are just going to wait here until there is another train we can get on. We might have to wait two days.”
Most of the workers showed up in Guangzhou dressed for the normal moderate weather in the province, which shares the same latitude as Florida. But the cold snap caused temperatures to dip down to 39 degrees.
Only a few had coats or parkas, and most endured the cold driving rain in cheap polyester blend sweaters covered with light jackets or tattered blazers. They sloshed around in canvas sneakers or flimsy leather dress shoes.
The storms also took an “extremely serious” toll on crops, said Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Communist Party’s leading financial team. “The impact on fresh vegetables and on fruit in some places has been catastrophic,” Chen told reporters in Beijing.
Mixed in with the blue-collar masses Thursday were young professionals, easily spotted in their trendy glasses and new clothes. They didn’t seem to be as hardy as the workers.
Cheng Xia, 28, a graphic designer, said he went to Guangzhou’s station the night before, but gave up his spot and went home. He swapped his large suitcase for a small carry-on bag so he could navigate through the crowd better. He also packed a tote bag full of snacks and a roll of toilet paper for the trip home to the western province of Sichuan, normally a 20-hour journey.
“The weather is still bad,” he said. “Once I get on a train, who knows how long I’ll be on it? We could get stuck for three or four days.”