"The People's Liberation Army has ordered its troops to go all out to help those battling the heavy snow," the China Daily said.

 

"I am deeply apologetic that you are stranded at the railway station and not able to go home earlier"

Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier, speaking to stranded rail passengers

The government has also dispatched one million police officers to congested highways where traffic has ground to a halt due to icy roads, the reports said.

 

Fresh snowfall on Wednesday continued to highlight the vulnerabilities of the country's booming economy, with many regions facing severe shortfalls in energy and food.

 

The transport slowdown has prevented coal supplies from reaching power stations, while snow and ice has also brought down power lines in several areas of the country.

 

In recent days snow storms and freezing temperatures have left more than 50 dead and affected millions of people trying to get home for the Lunar New Year festival on February 7, the nation's most important holiday.

 

Political damage

 

Official estimate economic losses so
far of more than $3bn [Reuters]
China's leaders were also trying to limit the political fallout the country's worst winter in more than half a century.

 

On Tuesday Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, visited Hunan, one of the hardest-hit provinces, to discuss relief efforts with local leaders amid increasing concerns about public unrest.

 

Visiting stranded travellers at a rail station in the province Wen took the unusual step of offering a direct apology for the crisis.

 

"I am deeply apologetic that you are stranded at the railway station and not able to go home earlier," he was quoted in APTN.

 

"We are now doing our best to fix things up and you will all be home for the New Year."

 

Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan, reporting from Beijing, said the rare public apology reflected that China's communist leaders had shifted into disaster control mode.

 

She says that with China's rail networks all state-owned, travellers will blame the government rather than the companies when things go wrong.

 

As a result the greatest fear among Chinese officials is that a situation triggered by the elements translates into widespread unrest.

 

Already the emergency has begun to dig into the economy with the harsh weather thought to have caused economic losses of about $3bn since it first hit the country early this month.

 

The China Daily however warned in an editorial that relief efforts could be hampered by further snow, sleet and freezing temperatures forecast for the next few days.

 

"With much of the transport web disrupted, it will be difficult to have relief materials delivered where they are most needed," it said.

 

"We will have to prepare for a worse-case scenario."