[OUTLOOK]A new rail era - perhaps

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[OUTLOOK]A new rail era - perhaps

The era of the high-speed train has dawned in Korea ― or has it? It is indeed extraordinary to have the entire nation within a half-day’s travel. The range of daily activities will expand and changes are certain to occur in many other areas.
It was the same for Japan. They introduced their first bullet train in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, 40 years ahead of Korea. Japan is so far advanced that the fledgling KTX cannot even dare to be compared. If I were asked to name the one thing that I am really envious of Japan about, it would be their rail system. The Japanese train system is awe-inspiring. High-speed trains not only cover the entire nation, but the subway networks crisscross city undergrounds like a checkerboard and old JR cars reach into remote corners of rural areas. In a word, the whole country is connected by railroads like a giant spider web. Only two train transfers take you to the most isolated area. Express and local trains, and one-car locomotives all operate like well-oiled gears to suit each environment and need. Trains can take you to wherever you want to go, whether it be mountain climbing, fishing, a golf course or a hot spring spa. Why would anyone want to drive and brave heavy traffic when you can hop on the train and travel conveniently at a much cheaper cost?
But come to think of it, it’s unfair to compare Korea’s rail system with Japan on equal terms. A century ago, Japan ruled over Korea and Manchuria through railroads. Before automobiles became commonplace, Japan already had its railway transportation system in place, and even today, with all those cars, the Japanese railway system still serves as its blood vessels and nervous system, moving the country along. In Japan commuting, as well as all life activities, revolve around train stations.
Compared to Japan’s, the status of Korea’s rail system leaves much to be desired. Not much improvement has been made on the Seoul-Busan line and the Daejeon-Mokpo line, both built by the Japanese before liberation. Instead, Korea was busy paving expressways. The investments in railroads stalled at 20 to 30 percent of investments in roads. Expressway length was increased by 150 percent in the last 20 years, while rail systems expanded only by 17 percent. Railroad investments in Japan and in small European countries outpaced that of Korea. The United Kingdom makes four times as much investment in railways as they do in roads, Belgium and the Netherlands five times and Austria eight times.
Advanced nations still pour money into rails. Nine out of ten transportation policies have to do with the rail sector, because making new roads can only go so far in accommodating all the cars. The higher the population density, the more appropriate the train as a transportation means.
The conclusion has already been made. Whether it be people or freight, rail is the most efficient, cheapest and safest means of transportation. So starting now, greater investments in railroads must be made, no questions asked. Rails take up less space, transport more people at a time, have no traffic congestion to worry about, emit less pollution and are thus more environment-friendly and are safer to boot. That’s why I cannot understand why only Korea looks down on railroads. The fact that the government still owns the rail system is nonsense. Out of 120 nations that operate rail systems, only Russia, India, Sri Lanka, North Korea and South Korea have government-controlled rail systems. Korea even makes a fuss over turning the state-owned Korean National Railroad into a public corporation.
What good is traveling between Seoul and Busan on a high-speed train? One KTX between Seoul and Busan does not make an era of high-speed trains. Traffic gets more unruly the farther we move away from Seoul, and a systematic distribution system built around train stations is still a long way off. It is the government’s job to upgrade the railroad infrastructure up to the level of other advanced countries. The economy should be revived with such projects. Moreover, the government should hand over the railroad business to the private sector. That’s the only way for the competitiveness of Korean rail to rival that of other advanced nations. Without revamping the flagging railway system, the ambition to become the Northeast Asian hub will remain a dream, and speeding along at 300 kilometers per hour will take Korea nowhere.

* The writer is the chief economic correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chang-kyu
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