KTX… Korea's high speed train
As an American, I come from a country which doesn’t think very highly of railroad travel anymore. Since World War II, the US government has mainly been concerned with building more highways and airports. This is why Americans tend to need cars, and people in other countries need them less. I can’t say this is exactly true for Korea, as dependency on cars increases significantly the further one gets from Seoul, but even in Seoul, so many people have cars. Even so, railway transportation in Korea is very cost effective and relatively convenient.
This wasn’t always the case. It used to take more than 4 hours to go by train from Seoul to Busan, the second largest city of Korea. In comparison with car travel, it takes about 4-5 hours, and upon arrival, the traveler has the convenience of having a car. That’s slower than molasses in February! Business travel between Busan and Seoul was dominated by airlines. While airlines have the benefit of the relatively short flight time (less than 1 hour airport to airport), the time and money spent going to and from airports made it almost the same as the trains.
Enter KTX. The KTX is a high speed rail that combines advanced technology with comfort and sensibility. It opened in 2004. With this new train system, travel between Seoul and Busan was reduced to 2 hours and 40 minutes. This reduced travel time, in addition to the almost luxurious interior of the KTX was enough to steal half of all the airline traffic between Seoul and Busan. At the moment, the high speed rail has been completed between Seoul and East Daegu. Thus, Busan bound KTX trains on the Gyeongbu Line are high speed up until East Daegu, then the train uses normal rail tracks for the rest of the way to Busan. Work is continuing on the system to complete the high speed connection to Busan, which will further reduce the travel time to 2 hours and 10 minutes. Similar plans are in motion to extend the high speed rails in the southern half of the Honam line as well.
Now what do I mean when I say almost luxurious interior? Well, there was one time that I got bumped up from economy class to business class on an international flight. Of course business class was amazing, complete with better food, free drinks, more space, and attractive flight attendants who pretended they wanted to have a conversation with me that consisted of topics other than food or beverage selection. Well, KTX’s economy class cabin is somewhere between an airline’s economy class and business class in that the seats are relatively large, and there is a lot of space. There is also wireless internet access available in all cars. The KTX also has more luxurious seating with a first class section and the brand new KTX cinema class, where customers can enjoy a movie on a large screen at the front of the first car.
The KTX cinema was designed by Cinewood Entertainment, and it is the first train cinema in the world to show current movies. This innovative cinema is totally unlike the standard fare of older B-Movies that one can expect to see on most airplanes, because these are movies that you actually want to watch! The movie watching experience is also almost as good as seeing the movie in the theatre in some ways. Admittedly the screen is smaller, but some of the seats are very close to the screen and all of the seats are way bigger than what you can expect in a movie theatre. Also, unlike airline movies, no headphones are required; the movie car has 14 speakers including the subwoofer speaker to accompany the 57 inch movie screen. I’ve personally never ridden in the KTX cinema car, but when I do in the future, you can be sure I’ll write to tell you all about it. I’ve also read that there are plans to export this technology to other countries, like China, the US, and the European Union, where train travel can be very long and boring.
KTX trains are also being updated, as the new model, KTX II, developed and manufactured almost totally in Korea by Hyundai Rotem, improves upon the previous model. The KTX II has been designed to travel at 330km/hr There are plans to eventually upgrade this second model to a third model with 400km/hr capability. Korea has aims to export domestically produced high speed trains to other countries, such as the United States, South America, Taiwan, and China. So that means the Amtrak’s Acela could possibly be upgraded to something resembling the Korean KTX II in the future. For exact specifications about the KTX II, click this link.
I’ve traveled by KTX on both of its two main routes, the Gyeongbu Line (Between Seoul and Busan) and the Honam Line (Between Seoul and Mokpo). In both cases I wasn’t at all amazed at the speed between departure and arrival, because I had never traveled to either city by train before KTX. Older people, however, seem to be amazed with how fast they can go from one side of the country to another with relative ease, in what used to take about half a day.
Now, now, I know what you are all thinking. Everyone knows that Japan’s Shinkansen (or Bullet Train) is by far the most superior of high speed rails. This is partially true. The section of Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka is the most traversed section of high speed rail in the whole world. I’ve also ridden the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Shimonoseki before. What can I say about it? Well yes, it’s fast, but when you come out of it you’re going to smell like an ashtray. The KTX is smoke free, whereas the Shinkansen is not. There are of course non-smoking cars on the Shinkansen, but if the next car is a smoking car, and someone opens the door, you’ll feel like there’s really no difference. The Shinkansen also sells non-reserved seats, so if you buy one, it’s very possible that you won’t find a seat in the non-smoking section, and thus you’ll be forced to sit in the smoking cars or stand. KTX doesn’t have this problem at all.
Another area where KTX comes out on top is price. If you ride the Shinkansen between its most traversed section (the 516 km between Tokyo and Osaka), the cost for a one way ticket is ¥13240 (US $142.15). In comparison, the cost for the KTX along its most traversed section (The 412km between Seoul and Busan) is only \47900 (US $42.47). Yes, it’s true that the distance between Tokyo and Osaka is longer than from Seoul to Busan, but the price per kilometer is more than twice as much (10.3￠/km for KTX vs. 27.5￠/km for the Shinkansen).
Speaking of Japan, there is a distinct possibility that Korea and Japan could one day be linked by rail, similar to how Great Britain and France are. There have been talks of creating an undersea tunnel that will stretch from Busan to Kyushu via Tsushima. If this idea comes to fruition, then it will be a joint project between Korean and Japanese firms. If this tunnel were made, then theoretically one would be able to take a train ride from Tokyo all the way to London. It would also increase Japanese tourism to Korea, especially to areas other than Seoul. That’s a dream for the future though, for now, we know that the KTX is one of the best options for domestic travel in Korea and as Korea makes strides in advanced technology, so too will the KTX be made better.