For some, the journey home from the coastal cities where they work can run to thousands of kilometers.
But whether journeys were short or long, national railway officials conceded system capacity would be over-stretched by as much as 60%.
In Shenzhen, China's migrant capital where everyone living there comes from somewhere else, the city's main stadium was converted into what surely was the world's largest ticket booth, the railway deciding that selling tickets in stations the conventional way might be a safety risk. Some travelers, discouraged by the chaos and long waits leave the ticket buying to scalpers who bundle in a surcharge of 20% or more. (Online ticket sales won't be a serious proposition till online companies and banks can sort out e-payments.)
The New York Times reported that rail officials were getting set for a record 145m "journeys" over a two-week period with the golden week sandwiched in the middle – an average 3.6m a day – when seating accommodated only 2.42m.
Although Beijing had promised to let last month's Spring Festival "golden week" proceed as it has done since the idea was introduced in 1999 (to give the economy a kick and encourage spending after the lull of the 1997-98 regional financial crisis), the government has made it known that it would like to end the spring and fall holidays because they are too disruptive and stretch China's transportation system to breaking point.
Ten years ago, China Daily noted, railway amounted to 5.3% of China's infrastructure investment. By 2003, that shrunk to 2.3%, as money was diverted to road and airport building and power projects. The railway repeatedly calls for more money and has laid out plans to build 100,000km of new track by 2020 at a cost of US$241bn.
The newspaper quoted Wu Mingyu, chairman of the China Institute of Technical Economy, calling for more investment. "Railway infrastructure construction has lagged other sectors in the past decade, which is the root cause of today's transportation bottleneck."