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[Editorial] Speed over safety?

KTX Honam service fraught with problems at launch

Koreans were led to believe that public safety would receive the utmost attention following last year’s Sewol ferry disaster, which has been attributed to, among other things, blatant disregard for safety in pursuit of monetary gains.

Yet, just as the nation is about to mark the first anniversary of that disaster, we are reminded how little progress has been made in raising awareness about safety. How else can one explain the statement issued by KORAIL following three incidents on the newly opened KTX Honam line that serves the southwestern corridor of the country?

In the first three days of operations, three incidents could have potentially led to accidents. On the first day, the exterior cover for washer liquid was discovered damaged as the train bound for Gwangju from Seoul approached Gwangmyeong Station. However, the train was allowed to continue operating without fixing the problem, albeit at a slower speed. KORAIL taped the damaged cover when the train arrived at Iksan Station, but it could not withstand the speed and fell off, only to be taped again at the next station.

On April 4, a KTX train bound for Gwangju came to an abrupt stop on a bridge near Osong Station due to a malfunction of the signal system. On the same day, a KTX train bound for Yongsan traveled in reverse for 1 km after electricity went out on a 5.3 km stretch between Iksan Station and Gongju Station. KORAIL said a bird’s nest on the electric wire caused the power outage that lasted nearly 90 minutes.

All the mishaps could have been prevented if there had been thorough safety inspections. According to KORAIL, the damage to the exterior cover for washer liquid was caused by the train manufacturer’s failure to apply glue to affix the bolt. As for the abrupt stop on the bridge, KORAIL said a technical malfunction caused the train to stop for three minutes. The power outage between Iksan Station and Gongju Station was found to have been caused by a bird’s nest built on an insulator, according to a KORAIL statement. All these problems should have been spotted and fixed before the train service ever went into operation.

However, the railway operator appears to be preoccupied with offering excuses, rather than admitting to its mistakes and failures. In the statement, KORAIL said that the company did not fully prepare for errors that could have led to delays but also insisted that the malfunctions would not have directly influenced safety. Does KORAIL really want the public to believe that those malfunctions and errors would not have led to an accident?

Betraying the company’s lackadaisical attitude toward safety, KORAIL went so far as to point out that errors can be expected in the early days of operation, citing the examples of the KTX Gyeongbu line, which opened in 2004, and the introduction of locally made Sancheon trains in 2010. In the early days of the KTX Gyeongbu line, there were some 80 malfunctions and errors. If that is the case, didn’t KORAIL learn from those incidents so that the latest service was launched smoothly?

KORAIL said it would work with the train manufacturer and the construction firms to resolve the problems at the earliest date. However, as the KTX operator, KORAIL should assume responsibility for allowing the service to be launched with malfunctions and errors that could have been prevented had it been paying close attention to safety issues.

The new KTX Honam line cuts travel time between Seoul and Gwangju by 90 minutes. However, more important than arriving faster is arriving safely.