Facial and voice recognition, robots, augmented reality navigation and other novel technologies are tapped to come into operation for safety and crowd control, when some three billion trips are made in China prior to and during this year’s Lunar New Year break, which begins on February 5.

Stations and airports throughout the nation typically struggle with the sudden spike in passenger numbers during the annual Spring Festival travel rush, also known as “chunyun”.

Xinhua news agency has reported that China Railway Corp has launched a trial scheme to deploy robots as well as a turn-by-turn augmented reality (AR) app at major national transport nodes. These include Guangzhou’s South Railway Station, Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station and Shenzhen’s North Railway Station, where the new technology is there to help passengers navigate inside the massive railway hubs to their desired platforms for boarding.

Facial recognition and ID card readers have replaced manual ticket inspection at more stations this year: passengers only need to swipe their tickets and ID cards on a scanner for access to platforms, and it takes just two to ten seconds to go through the turnstiles.

Throngs of passengers are seen inside the main concourse of Shenzhen’s North Railway Station during “chunyun”. Photo: Baycrest/WikiMedia
A passenger goes through a gate installed with a facial recognition system at Wuhan Railway Station in central China. Photo: Xinhua

Scenes from 40 years of China’s annual “chunyun”

Long queues inside ticketing halls are but a memory, now that buying tickets means a few taps on your smartphone, with payments made via WeChat pay and Alipay using your fingerprint or even face to establish your identity. Even the hated, formerly ever-present ticket scalpers are no more.

Some stations now support QR code-based e-tickets to save time and trees.

At Beijing’s airport, facial recognition software provided by Baidu has been in place since 2018 to help passengers reach their flights more quickly.

Everyone is safe but under scrutiny as they travel on China’s bullet trains on the nation’s sprawling 29,000 kilometers of high-speed rail routes. The same goes for the nation’s growing passenger jet fleet, all equipped with high-definition CCTV cameras.

One of China Railway Corp’s train operation central centers. Photos: Handout, WeChat

Citing a cadre with China Railway Corp, People’s Daily even brags that the rail operator’s NASA-like control and coordination center in Beijing can monitor almost each and every train in motion throughout the country with realtime data including speed and route. A train conductor at the marshaling center can even call a driver via the network’s tailor-made communications system.

Uber-like Chinese carpooling and car renting apps will take care of the last past of your journey, from major stations to your home. Nowadays even such localized transportation depends upon powerful big data and data crunching algorithms to dispatch drivers and cars according to train schedules and realtime passenger flows, thanks to data sharing deals inked with railway operators.