Just Another Night for No. 705

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Just Another Night for No. 705

Ears pop as the night train passes through a series of tunnels and the air pressure fluctuates violently in the cramped locomotive. It is 3:05 a.m., about a half an hour since Mugunghwa Express train No. 705 departed Taejon Station in south Chungchong province. But there is already a sense of nervousness and fatigue in the faces of the train's chief engineer Shin Bum-chul and his assistant, Song Seung-woo, who sit across from each other.

The two men have three hours to go until the train arrives in Pusan, its final destination. By the time Mr. Shin and his assistant drop off their train there, sign their work orders and head up to the engineers' dormitory, it will be around 7 a.m.

Mr. Shin extracts a schedule from the pocket of his blue uniform shirt and inspects it under a light coming from the instrument panel. The glow deepen the wrinkles in his face. "My next train leaves at 4 in the afternoon," he says relieved. He can look forward to seven hours of sleep before his next shift, eight if he can manage to get by without breakfast. Mr. Shin says the most difficult thing in operating a midnight train is to fight off the steady waves of drowsiness.

The night train chugs along slowly. During normal daytime runs, the traveling time from Daejon to Pusan is less than three hours. If you take a Saemaul Express, which has straighter rails and fewer stops (and costs more money), you can arrive in Pusan in two hours. The big trick in operating overnight trains, is to make sure that the passengers can sleep free of disturbances, such as frequent braking, until the train arrives at its destination. Mr. Shin may not speak for all of the passengers. The midnight train is known among many Koreans as a ride for working-class types who bring along a bottle of soju, sing all night and then get sick.

At 54, Mr. Shin has two children and a wife of 27 years. But he has never been able to celebrate a full day of Chuseok, or Korea's Thanksgiving, with his family, due to the nature of his job. Every year, he busily transports other Koreans to their hometowns. And this year will be no exception. He is on call for the next two weeks, as are two-thirds of the staff of the Korean National Railroad. "If I am lucky, I might have a few hours in between to have breakfast with my kids," he says, sighing. Fortunately, Mr. Shin is not the eldest son of his family, which would require him to perform traditional ancestral worship rituals during Chuseok. His mother pledged with their sons before she passed away last year to have the ceremony at the eldest son's house in Iksan. Because Mr. Shin and his wife are devoted Christians, that gives them an excuse to be absent from the ceremonies and instead attend a weekday service hosted by a small Presbyterian church near their house in Taejon. He is a presbyter of the church.

For a moment, Mr. Song frowns as he rolls down his side window in the locomotive. As he does this, tiny bits of iron from the train's wheels fly into the engine. "It happens quite often," Mr. Song says of the little pieces. He adjusts his glasses and says his poor vision comes from that iron dust. Mr. Shin chimes in, grousing about his bad hearing, another hazard of driving the train regularly. "My wife complains all the time because I turn up the television too loud."

While Mr. Shin is talking, the train reaches Dongrae, the halfway point between Taejon and Pusan, and Mr. Shin changes seats with his assistant.

"Bal cha!" He pronounces the words for depature loudly, but with dignity, while stretching his arm out the window to signal the train's exit. Then he takes a deep breath.

"If you are sitting here at this time of day, and you see something on the rails some 300 meters away, you can't make out whether it's a dog, a cow or a human being," Mr. Shin says. "And by the time you can tell for sure, it's always too late." Mr. Shin faced such a situation shortly after he became a senior engineer 28 years ago. An intoxicated man was lying on the rails, facing an oncoming train piloted by Mr. Shin. He braked, but there was not enough time to avoid hitting the man. Later, police found a suicide note in the dead man's pocket. A typical story, perhaps: The man was distraught after his girlfriend ran off with another man. Authorities found more of the his scribbles about betrayals of love in the man's notebook.

Mr. Shin picked up the dismembered parts of the man's body, and placed them beside the tracks. Then he got back in the train and drove off into the night.

"It's the law," he says solemnly.

Though the death could not have been prevented, the incident haunted Mr. Shin for years. "As time passes though," he says, "even the most horrific incidents become part of your nostalgia."

Adjusting his hat, which features the Korean National Railroad's logo in gold embroidery and a Rose of Sharon, Korea's national flower, Mr. Shin poses for a photograph with his right-hand man. Mr. Song politely suggests that his senior sit in the captain's seat, which Mr. Song currently occupies. But Mr. Shin insists on standing, and pats his assistant on the shoulder.

"You sit there," he says in the voice of a man who knows well his colleague's worth.

It's almost 6 a.m., and No. 705 has arrived in Pusan a little early. "Darn, we missed by seven minutes," Mr. Shin says quietly. Hotels and bathhouses surround the station to accommodate those who might have missed the last train of the day and need to wait for the first train out.

Sometimes on the trip back north, Mr. Shin will ride in a passenger seat. But, he says he finds it difficult to rest in that spot. "You can't see what is ahead," he explains. And ahead of him is more than three more years of Chuseok in this locomotive. He is retiring in 2005. Until then, he'll continue to bring people to their homes and then back again on this special day of thanksgiving.

by Park Soo-mee

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