China steps up struggle to move 5.8 million stranded travellers

( dpa ) - China is trying to get most of its estimated 5.8 million stranded rail travellers home by Spring Festival, after they were cut off this week by the worst winter weather for 50 years, officials said.

The snow crippled rail, road and air traffic in most southern and eastern areas, causing direct economic losses of at least 53.9 billion yuan (7.5 billion dollars), Zhou Min, a spokesman for the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told reporters.

The bad weather has killed at least 60 people and forced some 1.8 million people to relocate, destroying 223,000 houses and damaging 862,000, Zhou said.

The death toll given by Zhou is not believed to include dozens more who have died in traffic accidents related to the weather.

About 5.8 million rail travellers were stranded by Thursday after more than 10,000 passenger and freight services were delayed or cancelled, said Zhao Chunlei of the railway ministry.

About 30,000 air passengers were stranded after 9,000 flights were cancelled or delayed this week, other officials said.

Power cuts and collapsed transmission lines also forced the suspension of some rail services, partly because an earlier coal shortage was compounded by difficulties in transporting coal to and from snow-bound areas.

The shortage forced China's national electricity grid to suspend about 7 per cent of its capacity, Liu Zhenya, the general manager of the grid, said earlier this week.

The shortages affected more than 30 million people nationwide, state media said.

President Hu Jintao on Thursday visited coal mines in the northern provinces of Shanxi and Hebei, which were not hit by the heavy snow, to urge workers to step up production to meet the needs of power plants.

Zhao said the railway ministry had organized 40,000 extra freight services over the next 10 days to help supply power stations.

Hundreds of thousands of snow-affected travellers have slept in streets, railway stations, vehicles and public buildings this week.

Officials have tried to persuade many migrant workers to return their tickets and spend the holiday in the areas where they work instead of heading home for the traditional Spring Festival, or lunar new year, which begins on Thursday.

Weather forecasters have said more snow is likely to hit southern, central and eastern areas over the next few days.

Earlier reports said the severe weather had affected at least 105 million people in 17 provinces.

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