Subway keeps city’s lifeblood flowing

By Korea Herald

Seoul metro’s development mirrors growth of the city and nation as a whole

  • Published : Nov 15, 2013 - 21:18
  • Updated : Nov 15, 2013 - 21:18
The platform at Gwanghwamun Station in Seoul is crowded with passengers on Thursday.
(Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Woo Se-kwang begins his weekdays by checking the train schedule on his smartphone before leaving home. After a 10-minute walk, the 52-year-old office worker arrives at the subway station and taps a smartcard on the ticketing panel, then looks up at a large screen where moving dots show where the next train is in real-time.

“Exactly on time as usual,” Woo says as he starts his 40-kilometer daily commute from Incheon to Jamsil, Seoul.

The train service not only allows him to avoid traffic jams and save time.

“I like to read books and sometimes I enjoy searching new business items on the Web and organize my ideas on the train. It really helps get myself ready before work,” he says.

A ride offers a glimpse into the diverse faces of urban life.

Teenagers in school uniforms play games on fancy smartphones while some passengers nod off as warm air wafts from the heater. Young ladies look furtively at mirrors to fix their makeup, and Japanese tourists stare curiously at an advertisement featuring two contrasting pictures of a woman before and after plastic surgery. Self-appointed preachers, peddlers of cheap goods and inconsiderate passengers watching TV with the volume up loud sometimes raise the eyebrows of commuters.

“Everyone here has something to do that would be impossible on a bus or in a car,” Woo says.

The intercity train runs on the nation’s first metro line that opened 40 years ago. Ferrying citizens between the bustling capital and the western port city, the train service has served as an artery for greater Seoul.

Seoul’s subway system has since grown into one of the world’s largest metro networks with a 6.9 million-ridership daily. Computers have made train and station operations even more efficient. Ticketing and times can be checked on mobile gadgets. Wireless connections allow riders to work, play, and communicate inside the cars.

“I think the color-coding on the subway makes it much easier to use. I also think the digital screens on the subway that are constantly displayed make the system easier to use. You can’t miss it (the station),” said Richard Disney, who works for the U.S. military stationed in Yongsan, central Seoul.

South Korea had a late start with its subway operations. The country’s underground rail service debuted in 1974, 110 years after London and even a year later than Pyongyang.

The Seoul subway currently has nine lines on 327 kilometers of passenger tracks, including six bridges over rivers and two tunnels under rivers. It covers about 300 stations and carries more than 2.5 billion people per year.

It is the city’s top means of transport, handling more than 35 percent of traffic, followed by buses and owner-driven automobiles with 28 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

The Seoul subway is ranked sixth in the world in terms of efficiency and competitiveness, according to recent data. It is also connected to an extended subway train system operated by Korail, allowing passengers to travel to cities like Cheonan in South Chungcheong Province, an hour and a half drive by car, or Chuncheon in Gangwon Province.

The Seoul subway network has undergone tremendous changes in the last 40 years, in line with the city’s fast growth in economy, population and technological advancement.

Every station now has platform screen doors, automated ventilation and a disaster prevention system. Trains are equipped with high-quality air-conditioning and heating systems, and are made of fireproof materials to enhance passenger security. Each car costs about 2 billion won ($1.88m), a metro official said.

“Passengers should have in mind that they are traveling on a state-of-the-art train worth 20 billion won each,” he said, adding that each train is composed of 10 cars.

Passenger flow and car operation are monitored in real-time through hundreds of surveillance cameras installed throughout the stations. Thanks to such engineering innovations and technological advancement, the number of accidents or passengers committing suicide has dramatically dropped. Only two suicide cases have been reported since 2010. By then, the screen door installation project was nearing completion.

“We suffered greatly both physically and psychologically whenever accidents happened. Things are safer now and I was less stressed when operating cars,” said Lee Kyong-hoon, a veteran driver who has ridden the train since 1985.

Despite the conveniences offered by the advanced, automated system, the number of complaints has surged.

Park Eun-soo, chief of Sookmyung Women’s University Station (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
“People have become even more sensitive to small changes,” said Park Eun-soo, chief of Sookmyung Women’s University Station on Line 4.

“There were times when we all had to endure the scorching heat underground in the summer and freezing air in the winter. I don’t think people feel grateful about the things they have now,” he said, recalling some 30 years ago when he worked at City Hall Station as a junior transit worker.

The growing demand to improve subway services and the system has pushed operators to experiment with new ideas.

The operators ― Seoul Metro, Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit and Metro 9 ― installed seats with cushions and curved backs, replaced the old ventilation systems both in stations and cars, and implemented a distance-based unified fare system. Under the new fare system, passengers don’t need to pay separately when transferring to trains on different lines or to the bus. Most importantly, the fees are charged just once if passengers travel less than 10 kilometers. The Ministry of Land and Transport plans to expand the fare system nationwide so that people can travel across the country without getting separate tickets for buses, trains and subways in different cities.

Subways and stations have also started to embrace diverse cultural needs as well.

Subway cars are often redecorated into a fashion stage, a marketplace or a venue to celebrate special days like Christmas and New Year. Talent shows, music concerts and art exhibitions are held at stations throughout the year, offering various cultural experiences to passengers.

Subway stations also serve as bomb shelters in the event of a war or natural disaster.

“If a war breaks out, citizens can evacuate through the underground railways spanning the city. You should go the closest subway station, which is the safest place to go,” Park said. Seoul Metro, one of the three operators, has been running programs for citizens to walk along the railways underground to demonstrate how well interconnected they are, the station master said.

As the subway caters to a growing number of people, Seoul City is taking various measures to prevent crime and ensure safety.

In the first 10 months of the year, 245 thefts, 885 sexual assaults and 204 other crimes in trains and stations were reported. Secret photographing accounted for more than half of the sex crimes.

Suicides sharply decreased due to the platform screen doors. The number of suicide attempts was 56 from 2008 to 2009, and only two cases have occurred since 2010.

The city recently drafted a guideline for subway security, which includes installing emergency bells, increasing the number of surveillance cameras and controlling the light intensity. 

A subway police officer patrols a car. (The Korea Herald)
The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency has been running a special subway unit since 2005. Currently, some 110 officers are dispatched to 19 major transfer spots to patrol around the stations and conduct ambush duty. A total of 139 sheriffs hired by subway corporations assist them.

With the number of tourists to Seoul increasing rapidly, the subway system has recently gained attention as a tool for promoting tourism in and around the capital city.

According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the number of foreign tourists coming to Korea came in at about 11 million, up nearly 5 million from 2006. Of these, Seoul City data shows that around 10 million came to Seoul.

A number of subway lines including Line 3 and Line 6 operate subway trains fitted with tourism maps.

Unlike the usual subway maps that only show information regarding the transportation system, the tourism maps show places of interest and tourist attractions located near each station on the line.

In tune with such efforts, Seoul Metro recently held a subway stamp tour event, in which participants would collect stamps from various locations from eight courses.

The courses, organized according to various themes ranging from shopping and fashion to history and culture, grouped together up to five subway stations in close proximity to each other.

With Seoul Metropolitan Government planning to roll out measures aimed at dramatically increasing the number of foreign visitors, the Seoul subway system’s role in tourism will expand over the coming years.

According to the plans revealed late last month, Seoul aims to push the number of foreign visitors each year to more than 17 million by 2018.

As part of the plans, the city government will increase the number of facilities equipped to host international events such as conventions and exhibitions and secure more hospitality facilities.

For many foreigners, the Seoul subway is well known as clean, efficient and cheap mass transit that helps them travel around the city.

“The subway is comfortable, clean, and spacey. I’ve been on the London subway, and I think the subway here is much cleaner,” said Rafal, an IT specialist from Poland.

But there is still room for improvement.

Muhammad Hanis, a medical engineering student from Malaysia, said that he has trouble finding the English signs, which are not big enough. The English spellings of station names are also not easy to read, he said.

“I think the subway is spacious, but the English signs are sometimes difficult to understand. There should be more English signs,” he said, adding that transit workers also need to learn English to better communicate with tourists like him.

By Cho Chung-un, Choi He-suk and Lee Hyun-jeong