KOREA’s railway entered a new era on December 9 2016, when Supreme Railways (SR), an affiliate of Korail, finally entered the market in direct competition with the national train operator.
This is the first time in 118 years of railway operations in Korea that Korail has been challenged, and reflecting on the development, Mr Soon-man Hong, Korail’s CEO, says that SR’s entrance has been a catalyst to improve its services.
“I think of it as healthy competition and that Korail will be able to develop as a company and gain more business opportunities because of it,” Hong says. “Through the competition, customers can look forward to enjoying more benefits. And by cutting expenses and finding new ways to create demand, we also look forward to strengthening the global competitiveness of Korea’s rail industry.”
In the midst of some customers switching to its competitor’s services, Korail isn’t resting on its laurels and is embarking on a project to turn Gwangmyeong Station, located to the south west of Seoul, into a southern hub for the capital area. Part of this has included a new shuttle service to improve rail access from the southern areas of Seoul, and win back passengers who have switched to using SR’s Suseo Station.
Projects like Gwangmyeong Station are part of the company’s long-term plan to develop stations into what Hong describes as “life stations which are not just a place to catch trains, but are positioned as a centre for transport, culture and life.”
In addition to this, Korail has reinstated its mileage system, and is promoting itself as a mobile office with improved onboard Wi-Fi, powerpoints and USB ports for every seat. Business zones at major stations also provide internet, print and scan facilities.
The latest improvements are well timed, with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics taking place in February next year, and the impending opening of the 122km Wongang Line which will connect Seoul with Olympic venues. Construction on the Won 3.76 trillion ($US 3.36bn) new line, which will offer a 200km/h connection, is almost complete, and Korail is currently in negotiations with affiliate organisations to open the line in October this year, two months ahead of schedule.
An average of 110,000 spectators and participants per day are expected at the international event, and according to Korail, an estimated 19,000 people will use the train to get there. The new connection will whip athletes and visitors directly from Incheon International Airport to Pyeongchang in 1h 40min compared with nearly three hours by car.
“Korail is putting together comprehensive measures so that visitors from both home and abroad can enjoy Gangwon Province’s beautiful scenery after watching events, through tourist trains and other travel packages,” Hong says. “We are also focused on encouraging travellers to visit Korea again.”
Korail has purchased 15 KTX sets from Hyundai Rotem in a Won 494bn ($US 442m) deal, and will operate 51 one-way services a day. Hong says that a dedicated task force will be checking all equipment to ensure a safe and comfortable journey for passengers.
Hong has been pushing for Korail to be at the forefront of modern technology in all areas since he was appointed CEO in May 2016.
No stranger to railways, Hong has worked in the industry for 24 years as head of the Railway Agency, Transport Policy Agency, and Korean Railway Research Institute (KRRI). He has proposed three visions for Korail since taking office: establishing hub and spoke systems, developing advanced safety systems, and diversifying rail related business sectors - with the goal of increasing competitiveness and becoming one of the top railway operators in the world.
Korea is already well known for its railway safety, especially for high-speed services, which have an accident ratio of 0.062, but Hong wants to improve on this by developing innovative safety measures using the latest technologies.
“Korail’s safety record is one that stands out around the world, and thanks to our preventative safety management systems there has not been a single fatal accident since KTX operations began in 2004,” Hong says. “By 2020, Korail plans to establish mid and long-term strategies, investing a total of Won 5.8 trillion in the safety sector.”
KTX services are well known for running like clockwork, and although punctuality was only 86.7% during its first year, after optimizing its operation systems 99.9% of KTXs were on time in 2015, putting it alongside other leading railway nations both in terms of timeliness and safety.
The company currently has smart maintenance depots located in four regions around Korea where approximately 6000 pieces of automated equipment integrate systems for rolling stock, infrastructure, and electrical sensors into one comprehensive interface. In addition to this, the company has adopted state-of-the-art inspection and measurement devices such as drones to monitor rockslides, GPS navigation for engineers, and self-monitoring CCTV systems.
Beyond safety, Hong has been pursuing many new technologies as Korea enters the fourth industrial revolution - the term given to a new era where emerging technologies are making an impact across all industries.
“I believe that if innovative ideas are combined with rail infrastructure and technology, Korail can become a leader in the global economy for more than just transport,” Hong says. “After taking office, I created a new IT division to strengthen capability in this area, and Korail is focusing on building all marketing strategies and new business models for different departments using IT systems.”
At one end of Hong’s Seoul office stands a giant screen with data about revenue and traffic volumes from Korail’s newly-developed Train Operation Planning System (Tops). The new system is 80% automated and provides management with real-time information, allowing for better response times for coordinating traffic and providing reliable data for staff to make informed decisions. Hong says that rail operators from countries where systems are mostly manual have shown a keen interest in Tops.
A wireless shunting system to remotely manage freight trains was also introduced last year, and there are plans to install train location systems and displays in cabs so that drivers can see driving data at a glance. Other areas of development include light-weight rolling stock, active maintenance and autonomous driving technologies.
Korail’s fleets are set to undergo overhauls over the next five years, while the operator has signed a contract to purchase 19 EMU-250 trains by 2020. The trains will operate on the Seohae and Jungang lines, and are expected to reduce travel time between cities and encourage regional development. Hong says that the new EMUs are not only safer due to shorter braking distance, but they are also more eco-friendly due to low power consumption.
In addition, faster EMU-300s are part of a national R&D project, with two sets scheduled to be produced by 2021, which will be able to transport up to 1000 passengers when run in pairs.
“Along with these efforts, Korail will work hard to maximise transport volumes per train by introducing double-deck freight trains or long container trains to fully utilise the biggest advantage of railway - transport of large volumes of freight - and become the top service provider in a low carbon and high-efficiency transport system of the future,” Hong says.
Korea’s next generation train, the HEMU-430X, which is capable of speeds in excess of 400km/h, is also back in the spotlight, with the Korea Railway Authority announcing that it would be using HEMU to carry out performance tests throughout this year.
Hong was previously president of KRRI, which is responsible for developing HEMU, and recalls being on board when it reached its current speed record of 421.4km/h in 2013. It’s this connection which saw him give priority to the HEMU project when joining Korail, and Hong hopes that the public will be able to see the trains operating in the next three to four years.
Korail is becoming a major player in the industry outside Korea, having already worked on 34 projects in 19 countries. The company’s foray into the international market began in 2007 providing consulting and cooperation on EMU technology in Malaysia.
Since then, Korail has been active around the world, participating in projects ranging from operations and maintenace services, consulting, and projects relating to utilising second-hand vehicles and ODA funding.
Last year, it took part in Manila’s Line 7 project by providing consulting during the design phase and was awarded a contract for the second stage of the project – increasing its chance of securing an additional contract for operations and maintenace. Korail is currently competing to provide operations and maintenace for the Riyadh Metro project, having submitted a business proposal last year, and attended an assessment meeting for technology proposals in February.
“With our leading and competitive technology, Korail will make the upmost effort to ensure sustainable growth in the era of globalisation by actively making an entry into new rail markets such as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East,” Hong says. “We will continue to do our best to become an inspiration to those working in the railway industry around the world by building a safe, smart railway.”
Encouraging start for Supreme Railways
SUPREME Railways (SR) began its high-speed SRT services connecting the south-east of Seoul and Gyeonggi province with the rest of Korea’s high speed network on December 9. As the first competitor to Korail, and as a new service for Seoul, the opening gained a lot of attention, helped by a strong marketing campaign.
The location of the new 61.1km line has opened up a new era of rail travel for many areas previously a long way from high-speed stations. With just three stations, most of the route is underground in the world’s third longest railway tunnel at 52.3km.
The new line offers a faster way for commuters to access Seoul’s main business district of Gangnam, which has put pressure on inter-city bus companies - traditionally the preferred mode of transport to and from this area.
The new services have proved popular over the initial months. Passengers reached 96.3% of forecasted loadings in January, and 99% by February 26.
At around a 10% reduction on Korail’s KTX, cheaper ticket prices have been a major pull. Travel times to Seoul are also approximately 10 minutes shorter than KTX thanks to its location at the southern edge of the city, with the fastest services to and from Busan and Mokpo taking 2h 9min and 2h 6min respectively.
SR has focused on improving customer convenience and comfort, offering more legroom than standard KTX trains, as well free Wi-Fi, powerpoints, USB ports and the ability to call attendants to your seat via its app.
However, one issue that overshadowed the opening of the new line was a noticeably high level of vibration within SRT trains.
SR promptly acknowledged the problem and conducted an investigation, finding that the vibration mainly occurred on certain sections of the Gyeongbu Line. While there were no issues with safety, trains operated at reduced speeds in the identified areas.
The company claimed that there could be several causes of the problem, with the condition of the suspension and wheels possible factors. SR is tackling the issues and is cooperating with Korail, which is responsible for rolling stock maintenance, to recalibrate wheels on all of its vehicles.
SR has only just begun its role as a new competitor in Korea’s railway market and is planning to develop other themed services. Whether SRT services expand to other parts of the country remains to be determined and will depend on government policies.