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I see on travelchinaguide.com (mirror):

enter image description here

According to this image, one needs 1h for boarding the bullet train. Is that accurate, and if so, why does it take so long?

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There is an airport-style luggage, security, and ID check. Boarding itself doesn't exactly take one hour, just as boarding an airplane doesn't really require being there 2 hours in advance, but you need to plan for potential waiting queues, finding your way and walking to the platform, hence the advice to go there early.

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    +1. Also, train stations in major Chinese cities are huge (airport size), don't underestimate the time needed just to find and get to your platform. – lambshaanxy Jan 19 at 12:29
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please continue the discussion there. For now I leave the comments here unlocked but all not about this answer will be deleted. – Willeke Jan 22 at 17:02
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As the other answer and comment explained, it is due to the size of the train station, as well as the security and ID checks.

However, on the particular example, I would like to just add that many highly lucrative (and competitve) routes, e.g. Beijing-Shanghai (example cited), have much smoother experience for business travellers (with a business class ticket or a VIP card/credit card benefits). If you know where to go (and follow security rules/have no special baggage), the boarding times in the graphic are much overestimated; you can probably do with 25 min for trains and 30 min for the airport. Even for economic class, the check-in process for these routes is highly automated as well for holders of Chinese machine-readable ID. For the highly automated and optimized Beijing-Tianjin intercity HSR route, I would even be comfortable with arriving 15 minutes before departure.

Beijing-South in particular has undergone some efficiency improvements (but the demand is increasing as well) with a lot of entry points and security check lanes now, which also means it might be more confusing to find your way if you entered in an inconvenient point.

Additionally, the trains and flights are run on an extremely high frequency (e.g. for Beijing-Shanghai, a flight every half an hour, a train every 10-20 minutes). Outside busy travel periods (e.g. Spring Festival), usually it is straightforward to change the train/flight to the next one (subject to ticket conditions, availability and fees) without losing much time if you miss it due to e.g. security checks.

Unfortunately, Chinese systems are usually not particularly friendly to foreigners travelling with a passport, although the automation also usually means the queue is shorter if you need manual assistance.

For people without a Chinese ID, first-time travellers who can't speak Chinese language, or even for Chinese people navigating a train station for the first time, as well during known peak travel times (e.g. Spring Festival, Golden Weeks, long weekends), the estimated time is probably appropriate.

In the end, the time needed varies depending on the routes , your familiarity with the stations, the documents you have, the time of travel and the overall traffic.

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    @JonathanReez Besides surveillance (one of the main reasons imho) there is the classic terrorism issue (with Ouïghours mainly)... – Moumou Jan 20 at 7:09
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    @JonathanReez Unlike European countries, China has internal travel controls, and so needs know who is travelling where within the country. There are similar controls on European train routes where such controls apply, such as between the UK and EU. – Mike Scott Jan 20 at 7:47
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    @MikeScott PLEASE please don't believe that anymore in 2021. China's Hukou control is about migration and affects mostly rights to farmland, social services and security and remains a serious problem. But China hasn't had a border-style internal travel controls at least in my life time (since mid-90s), no one ever checks private vehicles, taxis or even some buses. Though the surveillance and rights restrictions for specific class of people (dissidents, criminal suspects, etc., but not generally) definitely plays an important part on the introduction of more stringent ID controls nowadays. – xngtng Jan 20 at 10:46
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    @zhantongz So you’re saying that foreigners who have legally entered China can now go wherever they want unaccompanied, even to places like Tibet? – Mike Scott Jan 20 at 11:59
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    @MikeScott No, Chinese citizens can, however, without formality or prior permission, travel to any province. Only Tibet has travel control for foreigners only. Even Xinjiang now is still free access (relatively speaking, public security measures and sensitive areas have much more severe restrictions compared to other regions for Chinese and foreigners alike) for foreigners. But these restrictions anyway are not really related to the security and ID checks for every passenger train in China. – xngtng Jan 20 at 12:16
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it doesn't take anywhere close to an hour. security check is perfunctory. first they check your ticket and your ID to make sure you're using your own ticket and that your ticket is valid. yes, you go through a metal detector and you get patted down, and your bag gets x-rayed if you have one. (it is not possible to check bags.) but they don't actually care if the metal detector goes off. from start to finish it doesn't take much longer than boarding a bus. maybe one minute more than that.

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    For smaller stations, definitely. The checks are straightforward and the platforms are not hard to find. – xngtng Jan 21 at 1:14

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