Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the biggest of two "Golden Week" holidays, giving migrant workers their only chance of the year of returning to their home provinces with gifts for the family, the biggest movement of humanity in the world.
Last year, that movement was disrupted by the worst winter weather in the south in decades, and this year the holiday, which begins on Jan. 26, has little meaning for millions who have lost their jobs as factories have shut down in the once-booming south and gone home early.
With about 188 million people expected to take to the railways over this year's holiday, 13.7 million people more than in 2008, pressure for tickets will be high.
"This year the contradiction between supply and demand over the Spring Festival is extremely serious," President Hu Jintao was quoted as saying in a statement by the Ministry of Railways on its website (www.china-mor.gov.cn).
"The Ministry of Railways must use their brains, study and take numerous measures to benefit the people and publicise them to lessen contradictions, ensuring the Spring Festival mission is completed smoothly," Hu added.
Crowding on to overbooked trains to stand for cramped rides lasting days in some cases is an annual ritual, but Beijing is especially worried this year about the prospect of unrest from frustrated travellers who may not have jobs to come back to.
"Increase guidance of public opinion and do a good job at putting out positive propaganda," the statement also quoted Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang as saying.
The official Xinhua news agency said that for rail workers, this year's holiday would be "a real test of their capability to promote harmony as the global financial crisis and weakening domestic economy have aggravated the winter blues".
Chai Zeliang, deputy chief of the Beijing Bureau of the Railroad Police, told Xinhua that a guiding principle this year was to exercise restraint and ensure security.
"Safety is extraordinarily significant this year because the financial crisis has left many people jobless and with less cash," he was quoted as saying.
"For a harmonious Spring Festival, it is essential to ensure all passengers, especially rural migrants and those on low incomes, can travel home safely with salaries and bonuses secure in their pockets."