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Public transit agencies under financial pressure as pandemic cuts passenger numbers

People wait to board buses at a bus terminal near the Seoul Station on Wednesdasy. Public transit operators are facing serious financial risks as the number of users sharply dropped last year from the impact of COVID-19 pandemic. (Yonhap)
People wait to board buses at a bus terminal near the Seoul Station on Wednesdasy. Public transit operators are facing serious financial risks as the number of users sharply dropped last year from the impact of COVID-19 pandemic. (Yonhap)
Seoul’s public transportation operators are in serious financial trouble as the number of bus and subway users sharply dropped last year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said Wednesday that 1.45 billion passengers used regular city and local “maeul” buses last year, down 23.6 percent from 1.95 billion a year earlier. The number of airport bus users dropped 85.4 percent on-year to 2.12 million passengers.

The sharp decline in passengers caused the city government’s transit income to fall 29.1 percent to 473.8 billion won ($425.7 million).

Maeul buses, which are run by private companies, saw a sharp fall in number of passengers as many of them are based on routes near college campuses, which remained largely empty last year due to the switch to online classes.

Many transit operators for maeul buses are facing a liquidity crisis, as they are already struggling to pay for gas and wages of their workers, the city government said.

Airport buses likewise experienced a huge drop in their number of passengers as demand for domestic and international flights remained weak. The city government said a vast majority of airport bus operators have stopped operating their routes to avoid bankruptcy.

It was reported that regular city bus operators are in need of additional 560.8 billion won to cover the losses they made last year.

“Support for the bus industry under trouble from COVID-19 has been largely the role of local governments, but that is not enough for the bus industry, which is on the brink of insolvency,” a bus industry representative said in a statement.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the public transportation ecosystem could be demolished, and central government support is in dire need.”

The situation is much similar for subway lines in Seoul, as people increasingly avoided using public transit due to virus fears and as social distancing rules diminished the demand for overall travel.

Seoul Metro, which manages eight subway lines in the greater Seoul area, said Wednesday that its number of subway users last year dropped 27.4 percent from a year earlier to 1.98 billion.

The subway operator’s transit income likewise fell 27 percent to 1.22 trillion won last year, recording a net loss of 1.09 trillion won. The city government forecasts that Seoul Metro will incur another 1.6 trillion won of debt by this year’s end.

The city government said Seoul Metro had been in the red for years as fares have stayed the same since 2015.

To overcome the challenge to the public transit system, the Seoul city government has been reviewing a hike in fares for the city’s buses and metro system.

Officials have considered raising the base fare by up to 300 won and hike the add-on fee per 5 kilometers to up to 200 won. At the moment, Seoul imposes 1,250 won and 1,200 won as transit fee for buses and subways, respectively.

But the move has met resistance from those arguing that the hike would increase the burden on the working class, who are already struggling to cope financially during the pandemic.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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