Another mishap in subway shows a lax culture of safety

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Another mishap in subway shows a lax culture of safety

Just one week after two subway trains in Seoul collided and injured more than 200 people, Seoul Metro experienced another embarrassing mishap. Passengers on an express train heading to Incheon found themselves travelling backward for about 300 meters (984 feet).

Passengers were bewildered and a little alarmed, sensitive to the possibilities of accidents in the wake of last week’s subway collision and the April 16 capsizing of the Sewol ferry, in which 304 of the passengers were killed or are still missing.

Every new mishap raises questions about whether Korea’s culture of safety has come as far as it should with the country’s economic advancements.

According to the Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail) yesterday, an express train departed from Yongsan Station, central Seoul, at around 2:35 p.m. on Thursday, heading to Dongincheon Station, eastern Incheon.

Between Songnae and Bugae stations in Bucheon, Gyeonggi, the train carrying 350 passengers ended up going backward for about 300 meters. There were no injuries.

The cause of the accident was a malfunction in the signal system. A signal at the top of an incline told the train to stop, which it did. But that section of track was not electrified for energy-saving purposes.

When the signal changed to “Go,” the driver couldn’t move forward and called the central control desk for help. After being stuck there for 20 minutes, the driver slid backward to find a portion of electrified track.

Despite the tragic sinking of the Sewol, Korea is reminded of its lax safety culture on nearly a daily basis.

Choe Hyeong-yun, a 35-year-old white-collar worker, heard a siren on March 14 as he walked past the Bank of Korea in central Seoul. The siren was announcing the start of a civil defense drill, which is held three times every year. Policemen stopped cars and traffic signals turned to red.

But even though they knew better, passersby continued walking and motorcycles zipped around the stopped cars on the road. “It seems that no one takes the rules seriously these days,” Choe said.

When the JoongAng Ilbo performed on-site safety checks with officials from a local firefighting office in Guro, western Seoul, they stumbled on a slew of examples showing a lack of public awareness or concern about safety.

At a building in Gaebong-dong, western Seoul, an emergency exit door could not open in the least because boxes and broken window frames were stored outside of it.

There were no fire extinguishers in an underground karaoke joint near Gaebong Station, although there should have been one in each room. Outside a restaurant in Jongno District, central Seoul, a fire hydrant on the street was blocked by illegally-parked cars.

The lack of safety can lead to both human tragedy and economic losses. According to an OECD report, economic losses in both developed and emerging countries due to natural and human-made disasters reached $1.5 trillion in the past decade, double the figure 10 years ago.

In Korea alone, the government pays about 31 trillion won ($30.2 billion) a year to compensate individuals and families for industrial and traffic accidents.

“The 1994 collapse of the Seongsu Bridge made the construction industry shrink and the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store the following year led to a loss of foreign tourists,” Yun In-seop, a professor at Seoul National University, said. “When we invest in safety, we can become a developed nation.”

Public education is necessary for all ages, said Mun Hyeon-cheol, a crisis management studies professor at Chodang University.

“When there was a public training session for earthquake reactions at an apartment building in Tokyo in January, residents gathered in an underground parking lot with their blankets and stayed up for a night,” Mun said. “We should also carry out such campaigns to prepare for disasters with the participation of central government officials, local civil servants and residents of areas of all ages.”

President Park Geun-hye said at a meeting on April 7, “Although we have more than 3,000 manuals telling us how to react to national crises, if the public doesn’t know about them, they may as well not even exist.”

The Korean government has released a lot of manuals and safety guidelines for possible disaster scenarios, but they didn’t do much good when the Sewol capsized. Officials and analysts say that’s because the manuals were too unrealistic and bureaucratic.

According to a report submitted by the Ministry of Security and Public Administration to Yun Jae-ok, a Saenuri Party lawmaker, the government divided national crises into 25 categories and made 25 standardized comprehensive manuals in total. Each government department in the ministry divided the 25 manuals into 200 guidelines for low-level officials. The ministry once again divided the 200 guidelines into 3,269 action plans for officials at local governments nationwide.

“Those manuals just explain how to report to senior officials in the central government,” said Jo Won-cheol, a civil engineering studies professor at Yonsei University. “They don’t explain what people should actually do in case of an emergency.”

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [heejin@joonang.co.kr]



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