Mon Nov 1st, 2010 at 06:42:41 AM EST
Korea Train eXpress (KTX) was mainland Asia's first high-speed railway (HSR), and also the first extra-European export success for European high-speed rail technology. The KTX story matches that of Taiwan's THSR in many ways: similar passenger numbers, project costs; both started with passenger numbers well below forecasts and with deficits that made them a national scandal; and in both cases, the reasons included a half-finished state, delays, and difficulties inherent in the financial construction. However, having started on 1 April 2004 already, KTX is further down the curve: it turned a profit in 2007, and it began to be seen as a success by enough people for calls for extensions to be heard.
Today, on 1 November 2010, the second phase of KTX entered service, completing the HSR tracks on the more than 400 km route between the capital Seoul and second largest city Busan. A second line and several conventional line upgrades are in construction, and there is ambition in local rolling stock development.
A KTX-II, a TGV clone built by domestic maker Rotem, leaves Daejeon on 5 May 2010 while a series 8200 (a Siemens Eurosprinter) approaches with an express in the background. Photo by user vvvf from Picasa
Time for a closer look at this system, and, on the occasion, on the issues of national ambition as driving force and the significance of delays in mega-projects.
At its original inception in the eighties, KTX was meant to free up capacity for freight on the country's busiest traffic corridor, in a time of ever worsening traffic jams brought by rapid economic growth. This growth was created by an especially close collusion of the state and domestic Big Business: depending on how you look at it, you could call it proactive development policy, or guided capitalism, or corporatocracy, or institutionalised corruption.
One specific of the South Korean model was that Big Business did not consist of big specialised companies, but the chaebol: clan-like family-owned conglomerates that rapidly built up production capacity in unrelated industries. Another speciality was that South Korea's transformation from agrarian society to industrial giant happened in a time of military dictatorship. As a result, the chaebol didn't just dominate but were almost all of the economy, public procurement was a matter of dividing up the turf between them, and the arrival of democracy didn't do much to loosen ties with politicians.
While the South Korean model unquestionably brought economic prosperity and modernity, it also fostered corruption, sabotage of public oversight, and bubbles – in particular, loose loans to the chaebol to socialise the risks, which resulted in the 1997 collapse (and subsequent IMF "cure").
Under these auspices, it shouldn't be surprising that South Korea pursued high-speed rail as a state-run project, for which domestic companies were to develop and supply the technology. But this approach had its problems.
First, in June 1992, construction went ahead even before the technology was fixed (more later). With suppliers lacking prior experience and getting contracts as special favour, quality problems were persistent. (Actually, they still were for the now opened section.) Second, the 1997/8 crisis hit the government budget and some of the contracted chaebol hard, forcing a re-scheduling into two phases: the tunnel-rich last third of the line was pushed back a few years.
Third, it became clear that the domestic industry won't churn out a high-speed train or track any time soon, so the technology had to be imported. In 1994, GEC-Alsthom (today Alstom), the main maker of France's TGVs, won the contract to supply initial trains and equipment, and transfer the technology to local companies.
A TGV in Asia: a KTX-I races towards Seoul on the longest viaduct of the line, the 6,844 m Pungse Viaduct, south of Cheonan. Photo from The World Railway Gallery
Train construction itself, and with that the TGV know-how, was transferred to Hyundai's subsidiary Rotem. In parallel, a programme that was mostly state-funded and mostly run by state research institutions was started to develop an improved, wholly domestic type for Rotem.
Experimental train HSR-350x in Gwangmyeong station. The commercial version took another round of development: check nose shape and bogie shrouding. Photo from Luthien's 망상공방 blog
When the KTX-II was finally presented two years ago, press releases boasted about South Korea becoming the fourth country to develop a train for 300 km/h (forgetting about Made in Italy and Made in Spain, not to mention China). However, unlike its electronics and seating, the KTX-II's 305 km/h top speed and conventional trailers-between-traction-heads configuration wasn't cutting-edge any more. Thus there is already another government-pushed programme, which should result in a 350 km/h distributed-power Rotem train, in service as KTX-III by 2015.
The mock-up of the HEMU-400X at an event in 2009. Photo from WHhh4nwOyo's KTX Watch pages
In the end, the KTX price tag, including the first trains and the completed Seoul–Busan line, grew from 5.8 to 20.7 trillion won, and the date of completion was delayed 12 years. The two aren't independent.
When a mega-project is over budget, most people think of construction problems, waste and corruption. However, delays drive costs in more ways than one would think at first:
- Inflation and unit costs: the simplest cost estimates are given in fixed prices (the prices at the time the estimate was made), thus even projects finished on time and without extra expenses could appear bloated. More advanced estimates (for example, Crossrail's £15.9 billion price tag) also include a future inflation forecast, however, delays mean further inflation beyond that. Note that it's not just general inflation that's relevant here: some products or services used in construction can see unit costs increase much more strongly.
- Interest: if a project is financed with loans, there will be periods of maturity and interest rates to meet. Thus delays might mean paying more or before there is income, which in turn might make a refinancing with even more loans necessary.
- Wages and rent: the re-scheduling of construction over a longer period of time might reduce the load on the annual budget, however, overall costs increase because wages for part of the workforce and rent for the sites and some equipment will have to be paid for longer.
- Standards: over the long time a mega-project is realised, both the applied technologies and the requirements by law might change, and such changes might bring higher costs. This is especially true for HSR projects over the past few decades: tunnels dimensioned and equipped for fire safety, ballast-less track, noise protection, urban sections are all significant cost boosters.
Three of the above played a significant role for KTX:
- In the five years between the basic plan and the start of serious construction work, wages in the construction sector tripled;
- construction of the line was separated into two phases following the 1997–1998 Asian Crisis, to please the IMF with budget cuts;
- fire safety standards for tunnels were introduced only when the first phase was already built, the second phase got ballast-less track, and two city-crossing sections (and three extra stations) were (re)added to the project in 2006.
A KTX-I train on a test run on the ballast-less track of the new section at Deokcheon-ri in September. Photo from Digital Kookje
Disputes un/like in Europe
The delay of the sections across Daejeon and Daegu was owed to long disputes with the cities over the routing: shall it be on ground, in tunnel, above ground; crossing or bypassing the city, or both? Such disputes are common in Europe. What is less common is changing plans back and forth several times while the rest of the line is already in construction.
Another thing common in Europe is conflict with environmentalists and conservationists. But things get exotic with South Korea's most publicised environmental conflict: the salamanders vs. KTX case.
On Mount Cheonseong, south-west of Ulsan, there are some protected mountaintop wetland areas, and in one of these, a rare kind of salamander was discovered. In the plans for the second phase of the Seoul–Busan KTX line, Wonhyo tunnel (second-longest on the line as well as in Korea at 13.27 km) was to pass right underneath, thus there was a non-zero risk of hitting and draining aquifers.
The government refused to change plans. However, the protests grew and gained a nationwide, even international prominence when Buddhist nun the Venerable Ji Yul Sunim joined in, and started four hunger strikes in succession. Ji Yul & co also went to the courts, sought to make the salamanders co-plaintiffs, and hundreds turned up to testify in their stead.
Salamander tapestry and live feed from Ji Yul in Seoul on the 84th day of the hunger strike that eventually achieved the halt in construction in 2005. Photos from the communist(!) Korean Action against Dispatch of Troops
Ultimately, the battle ended in complete defeat for the environmentalists: the High Court did not recognise the salamanders as legal person, and construction proceeded according to original plans. Be it due to fortune or because builders paid extra attention to avoid negative publicity, no aquifer was drained.
One might wonder why people were mobilised by this issue, while highways, road construction or sprawl have a much stronger effect on pristine areas than a tunnel deep below. However, at least to Ji Yul's credit, I note that currently she is documenting and protesting a massive river development project, a rather stronger intervention into nature.
In Europe, a high-speed service with more than ten thousand passengers a day can be considered well-frequented, and not a single one got to more tan three times of that in its first year. In comparison, KTX's initial ridership in 2004 was astronomic – still, it was half of the final forecast, and a third of what was in the original plans.
One reason is the end of 'limitless' economic growth. Another is speed: the very first plans (and ridership forecasts) foresaw 350 km/h trains covering the Seoul–Busan distance in 90 minutes, but the first phase realised only 300 km/h and 160 minutes. (The now opening second phase cuts the time to 138 minutes, KTX-III trains shall bring it down to 110 minutes.)
A third reason is that the parallel improvement of urban mass transit connections to intermediate stations was put on a back-burner. A fourth reason was the policy to set ticket prices halfway between conventional express and airline tickets. The last two problems were alleviated with discounts and a selective price cut, bringing the fare on some intermediate relations almost down to conventional train level.
In the end, KTX showed solid growth (until the Global Financial Crisis hit).
KTX was a definite success in terms of market share.
Even the new budget airlines failed to dent KTX's market share – until they got help from a railway: the new subway link to Seoul's Gimpo airport (opened a year ago) made them competitive on travel time to South Seoul. But now KTX is changing that calculation again.
Responding to customer demand
The loads of KTX passengers drawn from airlines and cars weren't used to seats facing backwards. Thus all seats of the KTX-II are swivelling seats which can be turned around at terminuses – something appearing in Europe only now.
A funnier issue is top speed. KTX trains have video screens showing movies, and also the train's actual speed. Train speed is not constant: it reduces slightly when the train is climbing grades, entering tunnels or negotiating curves. But Korail was flooded by complaints from passengers who could only snap pictures of 29x on the screen, not the advertised 300 mark. The solution: top speed was simply raised to 305 km/h!
Back in January 2005, when KTX's failure to meet forecasts was a national scandal, the government wanted to shelve the project of a second high-speed line. However, as KTX turned into a success and a part of the "Korean way of life", the second KTX line became a matter of not being left on the sidelines for locals. Thus politicians competed with promises to bring the project back on track, and it is in the works since last year.
Perhaps more significant is the KTX's effect on conventional lines. When the IMF forced the staging of the original project, and made the second line a distant dream, parts of the parallel conventional lines were upgraded so that the trains can reach their originally intended destinations. Then the experience gained led to bolder upgrades and even new lines elsewhere in the country – by early this year, practically the entire mainline network is foreseen for (or already subject to) total reconstruction.
Map adapted from JoongAng Daily
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