Public safety doesn’t have a price

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Public safety doesn’t have a price


Park Heung-su

The Sewol ferry disaster was not an accidental calamity. It was the cumulative fallout from all the misplaced values our society indulged on its speedy quest for modernization and industrialization. Over the past half-century, the country has been whipping itself in a headlong march toward wealth. It even condoned the loss of so many young lives for the cause. In fact, our society may have all contributed, in part, to the Sewol ferry accident that left more than 300 dead or missing.

The subway collision in the middle of Seoul struck a nerve at a time when the entire population has been jittery about public safety in the wake of the ferry’s sinking. Line No. 2 has been the most popular route in the capital since service began in 1980. The capital’s subway system has long been saddled with deficits and, to save on costs, it resorted to the simplest solution - layoffs. Since the mid-2000s, Seoul Metro has cut down its employees by 20 percent.

Outsourcing was another way the subway authority improvised to save money. Maintenance on the automatic train-operation system that caused the latest accident was handed over to an outside company. Seoul Metro merely received the invoice and report on the repair and construction work. The train’s signal system is the most crucial part of its operation, and such a crucial role was placed under the responsibility of outsiders.

First-generation Lines No. 1 to 4 all have older infrastructure, equipment and cars. They require more thorough attention in maintenance and systems upgrades. But a train with 10 cars costs 10 billion won. It is too expensive to replace a dozen trains on a line. So the lives of the trains were extended after numerous repairs which allowed them to continue running.

No matter how well-made, a train that has been running for 25 years nonstop cannot be expected to function normally. Repair jobs cannot fully resurrect cars that have already outlived their days.

The reliability of the maintenance is also questionable. The Sewol ferry had breezed through safety tests before it made its last ill-fated sail.

A train comprised of 10 cars carries thousands of commuters a day. When the collision took place, passengers had to open the doors themselves and make their way through dark tunnels without any escort or guidance from subway employees. The contractor who was injured and three other crew members could not handle the emergency exits for thousands of passengers.

Employees at stations are also kept to a minimum to save costs. The stations instead have to rely on services by senior or teenage volunteers. In other words, each passenger must watch out for his or her own safety when traveling.

Do public enterprises exist for civilians? That doesn’t appear to be the case in our country. To help public companies save on expenses, civilians are asked to commute on unsafe old trains and ask for assistance from volunteer workers.

Restructuring focused on profitability is dangerous because it comes at the expense of public safety. Genuine efficiency is only possible when public safety is put first. The Hyundai Research Institute said economic losses from the Daegu subway fire in 2003 reached 700 billion won. But the damage cannot be numerically estimated when the loss of hundreds of lives are taken into account.

Moreover, cost-saving benefits in public companies go mostly to others rather than civilians. They fatten the wallets of bureaucrats, professors, and businesses who run networks that intentionally overlook safety tests and license faulty parts and construction. The Sewol tragedy has given us a stern lesson that nothing should come before the safety of others.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 14, Page 26

*The author is a researcher at the Public Policy Institute for People.

By Park Heung-su

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