Additional special trains to will be able to carry up to 400,000 passengers daily, state media reported.
 
But at the same time China's state forecaster predicted fresh snowfalls in the hard-hit central and eastern provinces, including Guizhou, Hunan and Jiangxi.

The snow and below-freezing temperatures will further impact Agriculture, the electrical grid, telecommunications and transport services, it said.

'Disaster'

Soldiers have been deployed across the worst-
hit areas to help clear the snow [AFP]
Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, has called the situation in the central and southern provinces a "serious disaster".

He was reported to have ordered coal shipments to be given priority on the rail network as the country battles a worsening energy crisis, intensified by the bad weather.

During a visit to the key coal port of Qinghuangdao on Thursday, Hu called on dock workers to speed up loading of the fuel for shipping to power stations in the south, Xinhua said.

"Disaster-hit areas need coal and the power plants need coal," he told miners and managers who will be working overtime to restore fuel supplies.

With energy supplies increasingly stretched, the winter weather is already reported to have cost China's economy billions of dollars.

Several steel producers and other major manufacturers across the country have announced they are cutting back or suspending production due to the energy shortage.

Crops destroyed

At the same time, transport slowdowns caused by the weather have driven up food prices, with many farms seeing winter crops destroyed by the unusually cold weather.

While the snowfall is not particularly heavy by northern standards, the central and eastern provinces rarely see winter storms and are ill-equipped to deal with three-weeks of near continuous snow and freezing rain.

On Friday the central bank announced a $700m fund to help farmers recoup huge losses resulting from the country's worst winter weathers in more than 50 years.

The People's Bank of China said on its website that commercial banks have been ordered to provide more loans amid fears of soaring prices of goods.

Earlier officials warned that a "catastrophic" blow to winter farm crops raised the risk of food shortages driving up already-high inflation.

The unusually cold weather has also prevented tens of millions of travellers from boarding trains and buses to return home for the Lunar New Year holiday.

The holiday is the biggest festival of the year in China, and for many of the country's migrant workers is the only opportunity for them to return home to their families.

On Friday Xinhua said more than half of the 19 million migrant workers in the southern province of Guangdong had heeded official calls to cancel New Year travel plans, choosing instead to go home later this year.