Well, the subway system, anyway.
I don't use the subway here much any more, because it is so painfully overcrowded most of the time. But on the intermittent occasions when I have had to travel by subway in recent months, I have noticed that more and more of the ticket-vending machines seem to be dysfunctional.
The touch-screen interface on these things always has been maddeningly unreliable. And they frequently run out of change. Or crankily refuse to accept your money, even if they ostensibly do still have change available. Or take so long to dispense your ticket that you're giving up and about to walk away when it finally appears. In short, the ticket-vending machines on the Beijing subway are a bit crap.
But now, more and more of them are simply broken, permanently 'out of service', not even putting up the annoying pretence of being available for your use. And nothing seems to be being done to fix them. At the station that I use most often, four of five vending machines have been out of action for weeks now, and one of the station staff has taken to hovering near them to sell tickets by hand (as in the good old days!).
Yesterday, however, the ticket that the station attendant sold me did not work - at any of the station's entry gates. When I looked at it more closely, I wasn't convinced that it was even a real ticket - it seemed to be much thinner and flimsier, and didn't look as though it had the electronic tag (or whatever it is) inside it that communicates with the ticket barriers. When I returned to the station lady to complain, she tried to assure that everything would be OK because she would get one of her colleagues to open a barrier for me, without my having to use the useless ticket. I was not mollified by this, because I would still have faced a problem passing through the exit barrier at the other end of my journey - a consideration that this lady seemed to be overlooking. And call me fussy, if you will, but I don't like paying money - even 2 RMB - for something that DOESN'T FUCKING WORK. The obtuse station lady would not offer me a new ticket or a refund. Sensing the onset of a Total China Meltdown, I left the station and walked 5 miles to my dinner rendezvous instead.
At another station I used a few days ago, five of the six exit barriers were out of action.
How do things get this bad???
Is it just a case of the Chinese being hopeless at planning and budgeting for routine maintenance? Or are the subway authorities letting the equipment decay to justify an expensive refit? (Re-equipping the entire network with ticket machines and/or entry/exit barriers will require a huge capital outlay, a large percentage of which - such is the Chinese way - can be expected to find its way into the back pockets of the people placing the purchase orders.)
I strongly suspect it's the latter. On the above-ground Line 13, added to the network not quite ten years ago, though much of the track is elevated, some sections of it are at ground level. But all of the stations - even those where the station entrance and the track are on the same level - are built on two storeys... often with the ticket hall being on the upper floor, above the platforms. The only possible rationale for this absurd piece of design is that it provides for the installation of escalators even in stations where they are not really necessary. The guys who sold the escalators, and the guys who authorised the purchase of them, made a modest fortune for themselves out of this little piece of lunacy. This is China.