Travelers on China’s busiest intercity railway are now able to hop on a bullet train anytime without purchasing tickets beforehand. All they need to do is tap on their WeChat app to launch a QR code for a quick scan at designated station turnstiles and they are good to go, with their identity verified, fares charged and seats allocated almost instantaneously.

China State Railway Guangzhou Group Ltd, the operator of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen express trains and the nation’s first intercity rail link, announced the new service on Sunday to expedite the flow of passengers on the 147-kilometer trunk route, which has the highest ridership in the country as measured by passenger-kilometers traveled.

The 100,000-plus travelers that shuttle between the two economic dynamos on any given day can now use the ubiquitous WeChat app to spare themselves the hassle of queuing for tickets and producing ID documents for manual inspection.

Passengers scan their faces and QR codes to enter a waiting hall inside Guangzhou East Railway Station. Photos: Handout, Weibo

The group has promised to further cut red tape and speed up the ticketing and inspection procedures to keep pace with the more frequent departures from both ends to accommodate the buoyant demand.

To register for the streamlined service using the pervasive QR code and facial recognition technologies, a traveler merely needs to use the WeChat app to download and launch a ticketing page, tick a few boxes on a consent form and set up facial recognition.

A QR code train pass on WeChat.

Whenever the passenger travels, their unique QR code gives them access to waiting halls and trains without a ticket, and as they pass through a gate, facial verification is done simultaneously to compare the image captured against a database. The process also means added security against the unauthorized use of a passenger’s QR code.

Fares will be deducted from the passenger’s WeChat e-wallet when they exit the destination station, and their travel history and reward miles accumulated are updated instantly, according to the Guangzhou Daily and Southern Metropolis Daily.

The intercity trains serving Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the two largest urban centers in southern China, are popular with business travelers and thus a cash cow for China State Railway Corp, which raked in more than 20 billion yuan (US$3 billion) in revenue from the 38 million passengers that traveled between the twin cities in 2018. The new service has been introduced to woo more business passengers as the rail operator teams up with firms to trial more new technologies.

Tencent, the owner of WeChat, notes that its social messaging and networking app has morphed into an all-in-one ecosystem pooling a plethora of services ranging from trading to ticketing, and that high-speed trains run by China State Railway will be the new frontier for WeChat to facilitate trips. Already, the app is rendering ticketing machines at subway stations in many Chinese cities redundant when commuters opt for an easy ride and a quick scan with QR codes on their smartphones.

Scan your face for identity verification.

The critical infrastructure making the new service possible includes an interconnected data center crunching high-definition facial biometric images taken when residents renew their ID cards or open a WeChat account, the extensive adoption of QR code technology and big data algorithms, and legions of cameras fitted on station gates and throughout station halls and concourses.

Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse also reported that, on top of the new rules requiring “real-name registration,” Beijing has made facial scans for phone users mandatory when they apply for new numbers.

Chinese telecom operators have started to use artificial intelligence and other technical means to verify the identity of new subscribers. Specifically, carriers subject customers to a “facial and portrait matching” process when they register a new phone number.

Read more:

IPO for China’s most profitable high-speed train

Third high-speed Guangzhou-Shenzhen link

Facial recognition easing congestion in China