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Reuters/Jianan Yu
This year you might have a better chance of getting a ticket.

Thanks to Alibaba, the world’s largest human migration may go a little smoother this year

By Lily Kuo

The world’s largest annual human migration, which happens ahead of China’s Lunar New Year celebration, may be a little more bearable this year. China’s notoriously awful state-run train booking website, 12306.cn, is reportedly moving the bulk of its ticket query services to Alibaba’s cloud service.

This would be happy news for the hundreds of millions of Chinese who travel home by train every year and have to buy their tickets from the glitchy site, run by the state-owned China Railway Corp. 12306 broke during its first year in operation in 2011 and has been accused of everything from leaking troves of personal data to cheating customers, many of whom are low-paid migrant workers who only travel back to their hometowns once a year.

Alibaba, which hosts an online shopping day that dwarfs America’s Black Friday, knows a thing or two about how to prep a site to handle huge spikes in traffic. Alibaba declined to comment on the report, saying only, “We are working with 12306.cn in web traffic hosting to improve user experience but we do not have details to offer at this moment.” Its cloud service, Aliyun, has been working with 12306 for about a year. So far, so good. This year, train tickets on the site are selling fast and without any major stumbles: on Dec 19, 9.56 million tickets were sold, with page views reaching an average of more than 300,000 per second, a record for the site.

The chaos of every year’s chunyun, or Spring Festival travel, casts a shadow on China’s ambitions of developing the world’s most high-tech rail network. That may be why Alibaba is working with 12306. When Alibaba’s payment provider Alipay won a bid to handle payments on the ticket site in 2013, it marked the first time that China Railway Corp outsourced a core part of its business.

This year, Chinese transport offices are extending booking hours, cracking down on ticket scalpers, and adding 335 extra trains for the season, but if the population of travelers grows even larger—there were 266 million rail journeys taken in 2014, a 12% increase from the year before—those measures still might not be enough.