A computerised ticketing system in China that was created to help millions of migrant workers buy train tickets home for the Chinese New Year holiday crashed within minutes of its launch, angering thousands of Chinese on Thursday.

The tickets went on sale through the Internet last week, but the system handling the online bookings crashed due to overwhelming demand, according to the railways ministry.

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is the biggest of two Golden Week holidays, giving migrant workers their only chance of the year to return to their home provinces with gifts for their families.

More than 200 million people are expected to take to the railways over this year's holiday, the biggest movement of humanity in the world.

Many Chinese complained on Thursday that, with Chinese New Year just two weeks away, the government was still unprepared to ease the annual crush.

The limitations of the online booking system are apparent, how are some leaders doing their job?! said an Internet user on China's popular Twitter-like microblogging service, Weibo.

The chaos marked the latest setback for the beleaguered railways ministry, which bore the brunt of public fury over the poor handling of a deadly high-speed train crash last July that killed 40 people.

The number of people visiting the website has increased more than 10 times and the peak period will last a long time, state news agency Xinhua quoted an unidentified representative from the railways ministry as saying last Saturday.

The ministry pledged to increase the network bandwidth and refund passengers for tickets that have not been issued.

Calls to the ministry were not answered on Thursday.

Repeated attempts by Reuters to log on to the ticket booking website (www.12306.cn) were met with the message: The webpage might be temporarily down or it may have moved permanently to a new web address.

Pressure to secure a ticket is understandably high among migrant workers. Have you bought your ticket home was the most talked-about topic on Weibo on Thursday.

Wang Xinguo, a 27-year-old hoping to go home to Shanxi during the Chinese New Year, told Reuters he would rather queue at the railway station as early as 3-4 a.m. then use this unstable online system.

Those who managed to get a ticket said they were more successful through a telephone booking system.

Hou Wen, 29, a secretary from China's southern province of Hunan, said she snagged her ticket after hours constantly trying the hotline.

To keep on pressing the redial button is much easier than queuing at the train station in such cold weather and is less risky than having your money deducted through the online booking system website, she said.

(Editing by Paul Tait)