Subways want to raise age for seniors’ free rides

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Subways want to raise age for seniors’ free rides

After subway operators in six major cities such as Seoul and Busan proposed to raise the age for free senior citizen subway passes from 65 years to 70, senior organizations expressed opposition.

The subway corporations of the six cities - including Gwangju, Daegu, Daejeon and Incheon - said they had combined losses last year of some 412.9 billion won ($388 million) due to free passes for seniors 65 and older.

The subway operators proposed that riders between the ages of 65 and 70 pay 50 percent of the subway fare starting from 2017, overturning a 30-year-old senior welfare policy.

The operators of Seoul subways said Friday that they were in the red of some 267.2 billion won because of the senior passes.

Seoul’s subways had 176.6 million senior riders last year, a tenth of total passengers, according to Seoul Metro, a public corporation that runs Seoul subway lines 1 to 4, and Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation, which manages subway lines 5 to 8.

“Are they trying to get rid of the key senior welfare policy of the current generation?” asked Lee Sim, 73, head of the Korean Senior Citizens Association. “The elderly use subways to go to various places across Korea and remain physically and mentally healthy that way, decreasing medical fees. Overturning this policy is not recognizing such factors.”

He told the JoongAng Ilbo that free subway rides were a means for the elderly to stay active and involved in society, lowering chances of depression and suicide. Lee also said the proposal hurt the feelings of the elderly.

The association said that it didn’t make sense for the subways to arbitrarily raise the age limit.

The seniors policy was implemented in 1980, enabling a 50 percent discount on public transportation, and was expanded in 1984 to enable seniors 65 and older to ride public transportation for free. But the policy enabling free bus passes for seniors was stopped in 2005. The subway corporations argue that if their deficits continue, they will not be able to improve the metro system for the benefit of society as a whole.

“Our position is that since the government adopted the free pass policy, the government should take responsibility for it. We have no intention of squabbling about decreased welfare benefits with the elderly,” Kim Seong-ho, head of customer relations at the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation, said. “If the government is not able to provide financial assistance, we simply have to decrease the number of free riders.”

He added that the loss per year for the corporation amounted to about 200 billion won, and of this loss, half was from discounting 1,000 won or higher fares for senior passengers.

“Even if we are a public corporation, it is a burden to have a deficit of 200 billion won each year,” said Kim. “And the number of seniors increases each year, so the losses also increase.”

“This proposal is separate from the Seoul Metropolitan Government,” a Seoul Metropolitan Government senior official said. “Free subway passes for seniors is a senior welfare benefit, so the Seoul city government has not proposed or reviewed with the [national] government decreasing the benefit.”

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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