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[Herald Interview] Chief of Korea National Railway maps out innovative future for railways in Korea

Kim Han-young, chairman and CEO of Korea National Railway
Kim Han-young, chairman and CEO of Korea National Railway
With the international community keen to achieve carbon neutrality, every business sector confronts a set of restrictions involving carbon emissions. For South Korea, dependent heavily on exports, such an issue should be approached with more care. Aware of the gravity of the issue, the current government is sparing no effort in supporting eco-friendly businesses as well as drawing up policies to reduce carbon emissions.

With railways widely perceived as one of the best transportation networks for helping reduce carbon emissions, the Korea National Railway has been taking related steps and approaches in constructing railways in Korea.

Kim Han-young, chairman and CEO of Korea National Railway, explained details about his policies and priorities as well as his take on the future of Korean railways. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Q: It has been 100 days since you took office. How do you feel about your job?

A: I have worked in the transportation and logistics industry for most of my career. I started my career as a public servant in the transportation field in 1987 and made my way to railways when I worked as deputy director for railways in the early 1990s.

After that, I worked in the railway industry for over 10 years as the chief of railway policies, head of transportation policies and the president of Airport Express. With these experiences, I developed a special fondness for railways.

I have been striving to change and innovate in the industry through many projects such as reforming railway structures, introducing a competitive system for Super Rapid Train, establishing the first railway network and establishing a basic plan for the development of the railway industry.

Since taking over the office last February, I have been busy communicating with other members, envisioning future strategies and inspecting railway construction sites. From now on, I plan to put my best effort into working together with all employees to achieve a second renaissance of Korean railways.

Q: What are some of the achievements you have made so far?

A: A new management policy was put into place and an organization reconstruction followed. Moreover, for a fair competition practice in the railway industry, Contract System Innovation T/F was established to improve contract systems.

In addition, following a safety-first principle, I have been visiting railway construction sites to better communicate with our partners to establish a safe workplace environment culture.

The international community is focused on developing an eco-friendly transportation system, and railways are the most suitable mode of transportation for this. The Korean National Railway set four major management directions, focusing on people, work, procedures and culture.

The first factor in the new management policy is that safety is the utmost important thing. In order for every citizen to safely use the railways, we plan to build high-quality railways and establish a smart safety system that will prevent accidents.

There are also plans to innovate the railway industry. We plan to upgrade the core capacities of railway infrastructure through new policies and, following the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, we plan to improve the railway modal share through new and improving technologies.

Another important factor is creating a corruption-free organization. In my opinion, integrity is the basis of any public institution. We will make sure to create a fair and harassment-free organization that is loved and trusted by the public.

We will ensure communication with our partners. The railway industry consists of various stakeholders. Communicating and cooperating with all the stakeholders is the key driving force in railway development.

For a sustainable transportation system and to create a basis for future development of railways, we established a special institute for future strategies on April 19.

We will continue to fix unfair regulations and practices while continuing to improve the bidding system so that a culture where eligible businesses can win orders will be set in place.

While visiting railway construction sites, I came to learn that although there were improvements in technology, tools and safety measures, there is still room for more improvement. Through well-planned safety-centered management, I will do my best to provide the best quality railway to everyone.

Q: With events like the 4th National Railway Network Hearing, the importance of railways is being emphasized recently. What should be done to boost the modal share of railways?

A: Korea’s transportation system is based mostly on roads. In 2018, compared to the 88.3 percent in the road sector, railway modal share stood at 11.5 percent in terms of traffic volume. Still, railway modal share is projected to increase up to 14 percent when all projects planned under the 3rd National Railway Network are completed by 2025.

To increase modal share, Korea National Railway is putting efforts to increase speed competitiveness by building high-speed railways and speeding up regular railways. We are also building new railways in metropolitan cities.

Following the construction plans under the 3rd National Railway Network, we aim to add around 900 kilometers to the existing 4,154 km of railways by 2025. For this, we will put in all our efforts to increase capabilities and plan to start seven new construction projects.

The double-track railway between Wonju (in Gangwon Province) and Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, was already opened in January and by the end of this year, double-track railways connecting Busan, Ulsan and Pohang (in North Gyeongsang Province) will open to ease the traffic around the Busan and Donghae areas.

Double-track railways connecting Dongdaegu, Yeongcheon and Singyeongju, which is in the Yeongnam area in the Jungang Line, will open to contribute to balanced development in the Yeongnam area.

Meanwhile, the Icheon-Mungyeong railway construction plan is linked to the section connecting Icheon with Chungju, (North Chungcheong province,) which will be opened in December this year to increase railway benefits in underdeveloped central inland areas.

Besides this, we will continue to support the development of industrial complexes in the Seodaegu by establishing high-speed railways of the Gyeongbu Line in the Seodaegu area.

The Korea National Railway will work closely with the government in the upcoming 4th National Railway Network Construction Plan to meet railway demands in each region as well as to increase modal shares of railway transportation.

Q. What is the current status of GTX and metropolitan railway construction projects?

A. Korean National Railway has three GTX and four metropolitan railway projects under way to relieve traffic in the Seoul metropolitan area.

The GTX projects, as a high-speed railway running up to 200 kilometers per hour, will be built underground of the Seoul area and currently there are three running projects including GTX-A (connecting Woonjung to Samseong), GTX-B (connecting Songdo to Maseok) and GTX-C (connecting Deokjeong to Suwon).

While GTX-A is scheduled to launch at the end of 2023, the GTX-B and C lines are still in their planning stages. We will cooperate with the government for the fast and sound completion of these projects.

Once all the GTX lines are completed, traffic congestion around Seoul will be greatly reduced as it will only take 30 minutes to reach the center of Seoul from outskirt areas.

As for the metropolitan railways, the four projects will extend Line 4 to connect Danggogae to Jinjeop, extend the Shinbundang Line to connect Yongsan to Gangnam, connect the southern Gyeonggi Province area to connect Samseong to Dongtan and establish Sin Ansan Line to connect Ansan to Yeouido.

The first two projects are set to be completed by 2022 and we will do our best to open the Sin Ansan Line by the end of 2024.

Q. How competitive is the Korean railway industry in the international market?

A. Our competitiveness can be explained regarding three aspects: technical skills, price and brand value.

First, in terms of technical skills, Korea was the fifth to open a high-speed railway in April 2004, and in 2015 we opened Honam KTX with our independent technology. As such, Korea has skills that are comparable to developers in Europe.

Second, as for price, we are building competitiveness through reducing cost but still increasing quality with independent technology and innovative ideas.

Taking overseas projects as an example, we organized an optimal consortium to pitch reasonable pricing based on participants’ strengths. Instead of price dumping for quick wins, we focus more on quality to secure competitiveness. 

Lastly, for brand value, Korea National Railway has operated 74 different projects in 20 countries since our entry into the Chinese market in 2005. Through safe and complete business operations, we have built credibility and trust overseas.

For example, in Jakarta, Indonesia by building a first-stage light rail system, Korea was recognized as being best in light rail and successfully won the second stage of the project management consulting.

The global railway market is expected to reach 240 trillion won ($216 billion) this year and the market is predicted to grow with an average annual rate of 2.6 percent. As a public institution, Korea National Railway will continue to focus on forming Team Korea with other railway industries rather than increasing the imports of our own institution.

Q. What steps are being taken to decrease carbon emissions for eco-friendly business practices?

A: As eco-friendly modes of transportation, railways only take up one-sixth of energy consumption and one-ninth of carbon emissions compared to passenger vehicles. The importance of railways as a means to decrease traffic congestion, climate change and air pollution is shedding a new light amid the increased interest in the environment.

With the carbon neutrality movement spreading across the world, the Korean government also declared to reach carbon neutrality by 2020. To meet this goal in the transportation sector, Korea National Railway is seeking to reduce the use of cars and increase the operation of electric trains.

Railway electrification is especially important as it reduces air pollution by about 50 times. As of the end of 2020, the rate has reached 74.4 percent, but we are pushing to increase the rate to 86.3 percent. We are also expanding the operation of electric trains through constructing electric lines in existing and new lines.

Ongoing constructions include electrification of the Donghae Line (172.8 km), Janghang Line (118.6 km), Gyeongjeon Line (51.5 km) and Gyeongui Line (9.7 km). The area that connects Munsan to Dorasan on the Gyeongui Line was mostly completed last year and the rest of the line will be finished this year.

For better energy efficiency, projects are underway to reduce curves in the Jungang Line, which has numerous sharp curves.

We also aim to reduce carbon emissions for any equipment and materials used in construction to boost energy efficiency. We will further our research through studying other nations’ policies to develop feasible policies of our own and actively engage with the government to increase the use of eco-friendly railways.

Q. What other projects are included on your priority list?

A. Since the opening of the Gyeongbu high-speed railway in 2004 as well as the operation of KTX-Eum last January, our service has become a popular and loved mode of transportation.

Although the demand for railways continues to increase to solve inequality in development and traffic congestion, intermodal transportation is lagging behind. This is because railway projects are being planned for only short sections, leading to some issues in overall efficiency and fairness.

To improve this, we will connect metropolitan cities with high-speed railways and strengthen railway connections so that smaller cities can be reached within an hour.

Something I truly want to achieve in my time in office is to set a new blueprint for the future of railways with the changed conditions in mind.

Korea is a densely populated country with a high rate of passenger vehicle use and various energy-related issues. I look forward to the next 30 years and want to map out a big picture for the future of railways.

By Gha Hee-sun (  & Lee Kwon-hyung (