Trains and Intercity Transit in South Korea, Part 1

"Saemaeul DL Janghang Line" by Minseong Kim - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Saemaeul DL Janghang Line” by Minseong KimOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I like train travel. When I was living in Taiwan, trains were my primary means of travel between cities, mainly because I lived near a station where all TRA trains, including express trains, stopped, but I wasn’t near any bus station with good connections to other cities. I also travelled around Japan extensively by train.

Some people are particularly awed by high-speed trains such as Japan’s famous shinkansen, but I prefer slow old trains running through serene rural countryside, and both Taiwan and Japan have these kinds of train lines. By the time I left Taiwan, I knew its train system very well, and though I never got to learn Japan’s (more complicated) train system to the same degree, I got very comfortable with the terms ‘futsu’, ‘kaisoku’ and ‘tokkyu’.

I was looking forward familiarizing myself with the South Korean rail system as well … but trains somehow were never the best way to get from A to B. If you wanted to be at a specific town by a specific time because you had booked accommodation in advance, buses were almost always faster and more flexible. For example, when I was trying to get from Gimhae to Andong for the festival … well, first of all, Gimhae doesn’t have an intercity train station, but it does have a direct bus to Gyeongju, and though Gyeongju does have a train station, there aren’t any direct trains from Gyeongju to Andong … but there are direct buses from Gyeongju to Andong. Thus, the journey was made by bus.

"Gyeongbu Line Mugunghwa-ho" by Minseong Kim - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Gyeongbu Line Mugunghwa-ho” by Minseong KimOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Trains – at least the mugunghwa-ho (무궁화호) trains, are significantly cheaper than intercity buses. However, in most of South Korea, trains run very infrequently – generally only one train ever 3-4 hours. In Taiwan, that would be ridiculous (aside from the perpetually troubled Alishan line), and even in Japan, you have to be pretty far away from the urban cores for trains to only run once every three hours. However, even the trains between Cheongju and Chungju (which are only the TWO BIGGEST CITIES IN THAT PROVINCE) run that infrequently. Furthermore, the trains rarely went where I wanted to go – even for what to me seemed like a short distance, I would often have to make at least one transfer – and since transfers are not timed, I might wait two hours for the connecting train. I like trains, but I don’t like them so much that I am going to wait two hours just to catch one when the next bus heading towards my destination leaves in twenty minutes, even if taking the train would save a few thousand won.

Once again, this gets back to the importance of population density. Places where I had considered taking trains before I gave up making it work such as Chungcheongbuk Province and Gangwon Province simply don’t have the population density to encourage anymore more than a thin skeleton of a passenger train system. Now, if trains had a monopoly on passenger traffic, or even just public transit (as they do in some parts of rural Taiwan and Japan) they might have a reasonable frequency. But most intercity passengers take the bus, so the buses become more frequent, which encourages more passengers to take the bus instead of the train, which further reduces train passengers.

Buses are much cheaper to re-route and re-schedule, and have much lower infrastructure costs given that the roads have already been built/maintained for private automobile and truck traffic.

Of course, the flipside of most of South Korea’s land being sparsely populated is that some parts are hyper-densely populated. The same is true of the train lines. And there is a single inter-regional train route which carries more than two-thirds of South Korea’s train passengers. Yep, you guessed it. It’s the train line that runs from Seoul/Incheon, South Korea’s largest and 3rd largest cities by population, to Busan, the 2nd largest city, passing through Daegu and Daejeon, the 4th and 5th largest cities. In other words, South Korea’s 5 most populated cities connected by a single train line.

That will be the subject of my next post.

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