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Nation building through rail; HSR and South Korea.

Posted by Luke Upton on Jul 8, 2014

KTX"South Korea has really seen benefits on a number of levels from the development of high-speed rail and increasingly other nations are too.”

The post-war economic development of South Korea (known popularly as Miracle on the Han River) saw rapid and significant export-fuelled economic growth leading to democratization, industrialization, technological innovation, an education boom, a large rise in living standards, successful hosting of Olympics and FIFA World Cup and emergence of multinational conglomerates such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai-Kia. And one of key factors in this development, as both a cause and effect, has been the growth of a national rail infrastructure followed by a High-Speed rail (HSR) network.

Since 2004, when the first HS passenger train departed, South Korea has become one of the leading global nations in the development of dedicated HSR routes. Operated by KORAIL (Korea Railroad Corporation, formerly Korean National Railroad) the first public high-speed trains ran on April 1, 2004. Today SmartRail World takes a look at the development of HSR in South Korea and speaks exclusively to Professor Ilkwon Chae, Chief Researcher, Graduate School of Environment Studies, Transportation Studies Group at Seoul National University and adviser to the Korean government.

Development of South Korean modern rail infrastructure began with the first Five-Year Development Plan (1962–66), which included the construction of 275km of new railway lines. And by 1987 the combined length of the country's railroad network was approximately 3,340km.

But by the 1980s, as the rapidly growing and industrialized South Korea boomed, already crowded transportation facilities such as roads and railroads began to strain under the pressure. A new transport route between Seoul and Busan was required and high-speed rail became the obvious choice. A formal feasibility study was carried out and plans for high-speed train travel began between 1984 and 1991,followed by a contract signed with a GEC-Alsthom-led consortium in 1994. Testing began in 2000 with the first Korea Train eXpress (KTX) running between Seoul and Busan on April 1, 2004. In doing so South Korea became the fifth country in the world country to run a 300km/ high-speed rail operation country following Japan, France, Germany and Spain.

I asked Professor Chae, who has over 18 years experience with railway strategic planning and infrastructure projects about the importance of this launch of high-speed rail to the South Korean nation: “The development of high-speed rail in South Korea has been very important. Firstly as an economic driver, is has added a great deal to the wealth of the nation. This Mega-project has been proved very lucrative for KORAIL. After the first year of the operation of the high-speed line between Seoul and Busan it turned a profit, successfully diverting passengers from automobile and airline travel. Automobile use had grown massively in South Korea and although congestion is still a challenge, the development of high-speed rail has helped offset this. It has also increased employment. And finally, has given Korean companies the railway facilities and rolling-stock platform to develop their own technologies, which they can not only use domestically but also as an export. An obvious example of this being Hyundai-Rotem who following work on the Korean high-speed network now work across such varied train networks as Ireland, Brazil, Turkey and India so on.”

Since the launch of the first lines in 2004, a number of other high-speed lines have developed. One interesting aspect of the development of the KTX services is that high-speed rail can now connect most major cities within two hours of travel until 2020. This is part of a government policy to create in effect a ‘mega-city’ around Seoul Metropolitan region which is 60% of the country’s population lives with a commutable distance from the nation’s capital.

What does the future hold for South Korean rail? Professor Chae again; “Continued growth! A new terminal in Seoul's Gangnam District is under construction and will open in 2016. Construction of a second high-speed line to Gwangju began in December 2009, and is to open in the first half of 2015. And a new line from Wonju to Gangneung is under construction to serve the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. Exciting Korean national infrastructure development impacts are also underway with the KTX working with nations around the world in developing technology and solutions, examples including Singapore, Malaysia and other railway developing countries. South Korea has really seen benefits on a number of levels from the development of high-speed rail and increasingly other nations are too.”

The development of KTX in South Korea has not been without its challenges but is now widely viewed as one of the world’s most successful government run projects. And has not just delivered improved transport links and a GDP growth within the nation but enhanced Korea’s railway technology capability, grown its ability to deliver large-scale projects and boosted the national image. All railway skills that are likely to help grow its reach further within the expanding global rail market. 

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Topics: Signalling

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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