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Criticism escalates over delayed private KTX operation

The government’s decision to delay its controversial plan to adopt competition for train operations until the April parliamentary election is intensifying a backlash as critics slam the shift, calling it “a political move.”

The Transport Ministry said Tuesday it will put off bidding to run new bullet-train routes departing Suseo in southern Seoul by two months, saying the “timing was inappropriate.”

“After consulting with lawmakers, we offered to adjust the pace of the project as some questioned its timeliness, though we agreed on the need to embrace competition,” Kim Han-young, the ministry’s chief of transportation policy, told reporters.

Skeptics, however, said the decision is aimed at buying time and helping ruling party lawmakers win electoral battles as they grapple with a cash-for-votes scandal and growing voter disillusion.

“The delay is only meant to shy away from criticism against the pro-business government and the ruling Grand National Party at a time when they desperately need more support,” the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice said in a statement.

The envisioned open bidding got off to a rocky start.

The ministry said the plan will help lower ticket prices by 20 percent and boost the efficiency and competitiveness of the flaw-laden Korea Train Express, or KTX, through corporate participation.

In stark contrast, opposition lawmakers and the labor union of KORAIL, the country’s sole train operator, instantly blasted the new policy. It would undermine the trains’ safety and public interests, and private firms will be tempted to raise fares, they claimed.

The Suseo routes, slated to open in 2015, are anticipated to draw high demand from those living in southern Seoul and nearby satellite cities. KORAIL will continue to manage the other sections.

Major businesses including Doosan, Dongbu and Gumho Asiana have already expressed their interest in bidding, ministry officials said. The license is expected to last up to 15 years.

To iron out the strife, the ministry plans to host a public hearing on Friday in Gwacheon, where the government complex is.

“We’re working on setting proper profit margins for private operators,” Kim said. “The government would collect excess profits and help KORAIL clear off debt, so it can be a win-win program.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (