August 16, 2017

Seoul set for urban rail expansion

Written by  Andy Tebay
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Despite pushing back the opening date of the Ui Line, the latest addition to its metro from July until September, Seoul is on course to expand its 327km network by 89km by 2025. Andy Tebay reflects on recent developments in the Korean capital, including a shift to light metro and light rail projects from traditional heavy metro lines.

THIS September, Korea’s capital will open its first light metro line in the northern area of Seoul, connecting the Ui-dong area with the more centrally located Sinseol-dong. Named the Ui Line, the new route which uses a steel-wheel AGT system, is 11.4km long and has 13 stations. Residents who live far from current metro stations will soon have a more efficient transport system that will reduce commuting times and crowding on other lines.

 

Originally the line was scheduled to open at the end of July, but during testing it was found that a two-and-a-half-minute service frequency did not offer enough time for elderly passengers and children to board. Seoul’s government said it would increase the frequency to three minutes, but further testing was required to ensure the systems were functioning correctly.

Seoul“We were concerned that some members of the public may not be used to using automated services, and that accidents may occur as a result,” said a spokesperson for Ui Trans Corporation. “We assessed that it was important to give enough time in the early stages of operation for all passengers, including the elderly, disabled and young, to get on and off safely.”

Not only is the line automated, but stations will also eventually be void of visible staff, following a three-year transition period where station workers will monitor customer safety.

The Ui Line is just one example of the ongoing expansion of Seoul’s 327km metro network, with 89.2km of new lines to be built in the city by 2025. Seoul originally announced plans for eight light metro lines, one tram line, and another extension to Line 9 in 2013, which were approved by the Ministry for Land, Infrastructure and Transport (Molit) in 2015.

The new lines will increase station density to match the city’s vision of having a station within 10 minutes walking distance of any location. So far, 62% of areas have metro stations within this distance, and this number is expected to increase to 72% by the end of the project. The cost of the overall plan is estimated at Won 8.7 trillion ($US 76.36bn) with city hall set to contribute Won 3.6 trillion.

Seoul citizens are big fans of urban rail, and its metro system has been the leading mode of transport for many years. Modal share is already 38.8%, with Seoul hoping to boost this to 45% once all projects are complete. While the Seoul metro network already has 21 lines, there are still areas of the city where access to the metro is difficult, particularly in the southwest and northeast. Many of the upcoming routes won’t only benefit local residents, but will also bring better transfer links for commuters by providing connections between many of the parallel lines that run from east to west.

Aside from the Ui Line, another new light metro line currently under construction in Seoul is the Sillim Line, which will connect Seoul University in the south of the city with major commuter lines 1, 2, 7, and 9. Work on the project began in February, and is due to be completed in 2021. The other new lines are all in negotiation, investigative and design stages.

Light metro has also become the preferred mode over standard metro for new lines in many other Korean cities in the past six years. While the Ui Line may be the first light metro line for the city of Seoul itself, several light metro lines have already opened in other cities in the Seoul Capital area which are connected to the Seoul metro. However, Seoul’s new lines will all be underground, including depots - a shift from existing light metro lines, nearly all of which ran on surface alignments.

The city is also preparing to bring back trams, which have been absent from its streets since 1968. The planned Uirye Line will start at Macheon station on Line 8 in the south west, pass through the new city of Uirye, and terminate at Bokjeong in Gyeonggi Province. Many other cities are also planning or proposing to build light rail lines, including Daejeon which has selected a tram system for its second transit line.

While plans to expand the inner-city metro network are in place, the current network’s lack of express services for existing lines means long commutes for many citizens. On July 7, Molit announced plans to not only add and expand express services on existing lines, but also reaffirmed its intention to develop the Great Train eXpress (GTX), a planned regional network.

“The Seoul Capital Area’s average commute time is 1 hour 36 minutes, and traffic congestion across the region is the biggest problem for citizens,” says newly-appointed minister of land, infrastructure and transport, Ms Kim Hyun-mee. “We will provide a high quality of service to the public by continuing to increase regional express services and completing the GTX by 2025.”

Express services that already operate on several existing lines will be extended and increased on Line 1 (Gyeongbu section), Line 3 (Ilsan section), Line 4 (Gwacheon section) and the Bundang Line. Additional tracks are required in certain sections along each line, with services set to open between 2020 and 2022.

In the meantime, Molit and Korail have begun operating improved express services on lines which already have infrastructure in place. From early July, express services on Line 1 (Gyeongin Section), and the Gyeongui, Suin and Ansan lines were extended and increased. Improvements to Line 1’s service from Yongsan to Dongincheon includes a new “special express service” that is seven minutes faster than the existing express service and 20 minutes faster than stopping services.

Molit says that the changes may result in fewer services stopping at certain stations. Marking this as a concern, the ministry says that it will continue to analyse demand and usage patterns, and adjust service levels where necessary.

Looking ahead, three GTX lines are planned in Seoul and these will connect surrounding areas with major interchanges in the city. The standard-gauge lines will be located 40-50m underground and have a maximum operating speed of 180km/h. The first line, GTX A, was approved in April and will connect Unjeong in the north of Seoul with Dongtan in the southwest of Gyeonggi Province, passing through Seoul Station.

There will only be nine stops on the 76.9km GTX A route, and at an average speed of 116km/h, a one-way trip will take just 36 minutes, three to four times faster than the standard metro journey time. Part of the route is already complete as it will share tracks with Supreme Railways’ SRT high-speed trains. An extension at the northern end to the city of Paju is also under investigation. This would add one further station and take the total length of the line to 83km.

Review

Two more GTX lines are planned for Seoul, but are still undergoing review. GTX B will run for 80km from Songdo in Incheon to Maseok in the north east of Seoul, while the 48km GTX C will link the city of Uijeongbu north of Seoul with Geumjeong in the south.

The entire 211km network will cost approximately Won 14 trillion, with half privately funded, and the remainder coming from central and local governments. According to Molit, GTX will reduce travel times by up to 80% across the Seoul Capital Area, where 14.42 million commuters travel each day.

On May 31, metro operators Seoul Metro and Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation (SMRT) merged following a majority vote from the unions of both corporations in November 2016. Seoul lines 1-8 are now under the new public corporation’s jurisdiction with a strong focus on safety following the death of a screen door maintenance contractor at Line 2’s Guui station last year.

“With a series of accidents, malfunctions and mounting debt, we’ve reached a limit where safety and service cannot be improved any further,” said a spokesperson for the city. “The unions of both corporations have agreed that they both recognise the need to merge the organisations.”

The incident also brought the working conditions of contractors employed by external companies responsible for maintenance under the spotlight. In 2016, Seoul Metro announced that it would employ all contracted workers directly to ensure safety and better working conditions. Despite offering more secure employment, Seoul Metro continued to receive criticism as workers on an open contract could not receive the same benefits as official workers. However, the city announced on July 5 that all Seoul Metro employees on open contracts would be made full official employees.

A spokesperson for the city said: “Since last year, we’ve been concerned with how we can improve how we deal with open contract workers, and decided to get rid of this type of contract all together. We felt it was right to make these workers, who carry out the same duties, official employees and part of the same team.”

Seoul Metro also has several projects underway with extensions planned for a number of its lines. The first stage of a 7.7km extension to the Sangil-dong branch of Line 5 is under construction and expected to open in 2018, while work on a 14.7km extension to the northern end of Line 4 began in March. Another extension still being planned will connect the northern terminus of Line 8 with the Gyeongui Line via a tunnel under the Han River.

Seoul’s metro development is showing no signs of slowing down. GTX will bridge the gap between slower metro services and high-speed rail across the Seoul Capital Area, improving commuting for many citizens and taking pressure off existing lines. In addition, more new rail lines will continue to be built in cities surrounding Seoul to connect them with the existing metro, making it even more extensive.

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