Rejuvenate Korea’s trainsOn Feb. 25, a Seoul-bound KTX train from Busan came to a halt for over 40 minutes in Hwaseong City, Gyeonggi Province, due to a heat detector malfunction. Asked by reporters why the latest accident occurred, Huh Joon-young, CEO of Korea Railroad Corp. (Korail), answered by saying, “It’s not an accident because nobody was hurt.”
Such an attitude evokes the impression that he doesn’t care about the suffering of the passengers on board, who had to endure the long delay. When his remarks triggered an uproar, he took a step back, explaining that “my words were misinterpreted by the media.” But the nonchalance attitude of the CEO of the public enterprise is hardly comforting.
Public distrust in the sophisticated train network has been deepening as the latest case was the fourth accident in February alone. The causes of the incidents also vary, ranging from derailment, a battery breakdown and a thermo-sensor malfunction to an engine failure. Trains, symbolic of punctuality, have become a nuisance to passengers here. In the old days, passengers were not surprised when outmoded trains were delayed or stopped on the railroad. But we are in the age of high-speed trains such as the KTX, which runs 300 kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour). On other bullet trains, such as Japan’s Shinkansen, France’s TGV and Germany’s ICE, a 10-minute delay is defined as an accident.
As long as Huh stands aloof from his mission of securing passengers’ safety, we can hardly expect the corporation to come up with due measures to correct the malpractices. While citizens are becoming increasingly anxious about safety, the CEO attempted to lay the blame on his customers. That will eventually lead to ceaseless accidents only to be followed by stopgap measures to fix a fundamental problem. Many citizens say it is terrible that they have to take KTX trains, knowing that employees would also share their boss’ attitude when it comes to the critical issue of safety.
We should remember why we had to suffer horrendous accidents in the past - like the 1994 Seongsu Bridge collapse and the fatal collapse of a glitzy Sampoong Department Store the following year. All the incidents were the result of public apathy and insensitivity. If the problems cannot be addressed by Korail itself, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs must step in to overhaul train operations and management in a massive way.
It’s too late to mend the barn after the horse is stolen.