Climb aboard the high-speed KTX

A close relative of the TGV

While the railway infrastructure of North Korea is known for being pretty out of date, the South’s railways have evolved fast. Since 2004, South Korea has been on the list of countries with at least one high-speed train line. Named KTX, for Korea Train Express, the trains are a symbol of the country’s cutting-edge technology and a very popular means of transport for locals. Let’s take a short trip.

The first thing to know before climbing abroad KTX, is that from the moment you first see the train on the platform you may well feel like you’re in France. The Korean trains are in fact closely related to those that run across the TGV network. According to the newspaper Les Echos, only experts would really be able to tell the difference between French and Korean carriages. Opened on April 1 2004 and run by Korail, the national railway operator, it linked Seoul and Daegu at a speed of 300 kilometres per hour. Another line was added, connecting Daegu with Busan in 2010.

The similarities between KTX and the French TGV are mostly superficial, though. Inside, it feels very much like other train services in this corner of Asia. After all, the way people travel in South Korea is very different to France. Compared with the eight carriages on its predecessor,the KTX has 18 carriages that can fit up to 935 passengers, far more than the TFVs of the time.

Like the TGV, they were built by the firm Alstom, which went all out to win the contract worth 1.8 billion euros. But this wasn’t without consequences: to beat Siemens and Mitsubishi, the firm had to agree to a very significant transfer of technology. Only 12 carriages on the first KTX were built in France, compared with 36 on South Korean turf, by local industrial workers and with the help of engineers from Alstom.

From 1996, Seoul had started a huge development programme aiming to create its own high-speed trains. Thus, 14 years later, the KTX-II saw the light of day, and contained a proportion of Korean technology estimated to be around 87 percent. The Koreans were so proud that they imagined being able to export the technology. However, they were constrained on this front because they had to develop new technologies to replace those used on their own territory because of patent laws. It was a good opportunity for the Korean rail industry to show that, while it had already proved it could make the most of foreign skills and knowledge, it could also draw real benefits from the venture.

As for the extent of the lines, the high-speed South Korean network has since gained three new parts. The first, opened in 2015, offered quick services to Gwangju. The others, which have run since 2016, allow travellers to go from Suseo to Pyeongtaek and from Seoul to Gangneung. And the line to Gwangju is due to be extended to Mokpo around 2025.

As far as comfort is concerned, most KTX services have two classes and therefore provide two very different experiences. In both, the seats are generally considered to be pretty comfy, with the main difference essentially being how far the seats are apart. Like the rest of the country, the carriages are remarkably clean, the windows huge (allowing travellers to take in majestic views of the surrounding countryside) and the wifi very fast. But the food is less impressive. As the KTX website explains, there’s no restaurant on board, only automatic machines doling out snacks. Why? Because the trains are optimised to carry a maximum number of passengers. It’s worlds away from the food on board the Japanese Shinkansen.

Like most high-speed trains, the KTX are a good reflection of the surrounding country, its history and its culture. As far as South Korea is concerned, the trains are efficient and clean, delays are rare and the main goal is to allow passengers to link up the country’s main cities. It’s a good symbol of South Korea’s ambition to become one of the most technologically savvy economies in the world.

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