Welcome! My first blog post is about a small but significant part of Asian rail transport. An often forgotten destination, which has more than its fair share of interesting trains. From the fast KTX trains, to the cross country Mugunghwa DMU services, it’s an interesting little corner of the world for rail tourists.
I didn’t have any trouble taking photos of trains in South Korea. As long as you have a valid ticket (for paid areas) and stay to places where passengers are normally allowed, no-one seems to give a foreigner with a camera a second look. I even came across several Drivers who seemed very happy that I was taking photos of their trains!
KoRail offers rail passes for international visitors, allowing unlimited economy class travel during the period of validity on all KoRail trains (excluding subways/metros). The passes are available for 1, 3, 5, 7 or 10 days consecutive travel and are fantastic value if you plan to make an average of at least 1 journey per day.
To order a pass, you must go to the KoRail website and purchase an exchange voucher (before you arrive in South Korea). You then print the exchange voucher, and take it with your passport to any KoRail station. At the station, they will swap the exchange voucher for a thin, credit card sized pass.
To book seats, go to the ticket counter at any KoRail station (it doesn’t work in ticket machines) and tell them where you want to go. The ticket agent will take your pass, scan it, and hand it back with your ticket.
Planning Your Journey
There are no official KoRail timetables available online, however the KoRail website has a very good journey planner. Go to the booking section and select “Book Online”. Then enter the origin and destination, as well as the approximate time you want to travel. It will give a list of trains available, detailing the train number, time of departure, time of arrival and colour coded indication of train type. Click on the train number for a full timetable of that service.
If the journey planner returns no or very few results try the search again, but select “transfer”. This will give results where there is 1 transfer involved in the journey. You must also be aware that there are two main stations in Seoul; Seoul and Yongsan. Generally, trains on the Busan, Masan and Sinchang lines depart from Seoul, and all other long distance trains (eg Mokpo, Iksan, Yeosu etc…) depart from Yongsan – you must be specific when using the journey planner.
The customer service staff at most KoRail stations speak passable English, so booking a ticket usually isn’t a problem. Having said that, it’s best to be sure of the pronunciation of where you are going, or you may find yourself in Daecheon instead of Daejeon! it’s also useful to write down the train number of the service you want to catch (which you can find from the journey planner on the KoRail website). If you’re travelling at a busy time (or any time on the Busan KTX services), have several options ready.
At busy stations, ticket queues can get quite long (I’ve waited over 30 minutes at Busan), so don’t leave your purchase to the last minute. Smaller stations very rarely have a queue.
At major stations, there are large LED passenger displays, which alternate between Korean and English. These display the vital information of the next dozen or so trains through the station. It shows the train number and type (listings are colour coded by type of train), the origin and destination, the platform number the scheduled departure time and the current variance from timetable (i.e. how late or early it is running). The boards also indicate if the train is at the platform yet with a flashing red dot next to the listing.
When your train is announced (English and Korean), you simply make your way to the platform (no need to show your ticket). At most stations, you are unofficially able to go to the platform at any time, however at some stations the doors are kept locked until they are ready for you. There are signs on the platforms indicating where each car will stop; find the car that corresponds with the one on your ticket and wait there.
When your train arrives, it is best to check the destination on the name plate in the middle of the carriage (older trains) or the LED display next to the door (newer trains) before boarding, just to make sure it’s your train. I had an experience in Dongdaegu late one night, where a late running train was put on the wrong platform. there were no English platform announcements, and had I not checked and discovered that the destination was wrong, I would have ended up in Masan instead of Busan.
On The Train
Staff on Korean trains are impeccably polite. They also bow twice when passing through a car; once on entry, once on exit. It’s an interesting ritual, watch as the staff pass though, and it seems almost seems to be a reflex action
All seats on KoRail trains are reserved, however unreserved standing room is available on some trains. If you have a reserved seat and sit in that seat, you will probably not have your ticket checked during the journey. This is because the conductors have up to date passenger manifests, and know which seats should be occupied. If a ticket has been purchased for that seat, they are not concerned as to who sits there. The only times I saw tickets checked were: when there were people standing, when there was a dispute over whose seat it was (usually due to someone being in the wrong car) or if someone was sitting in a seat they had not been allocated.
Types of KoRail trains:
KoRail ticket prices vary with train type (this is not an issue if you are travelling with a KR Pass). Basically, the faster the train, the more expensive the ticket. There are 5 types of KoRail train:
Nooriro trains are made by Hitachi in Japan and provide a commuter service between Seoul and Sinchang (a journey of about 90 minutes). They comprise of 4 car EMUs, which have reserved economy seating and standing tickets issued. These are the only non-metro KoRail trains that I saw, which do not have food and drinks for sale.
An interesting feature of the Nooriro trains is their folding steps; when the trains use the high level subway platforms in the Seoul area, the steps remain retracted and the platform is at floor level. When they use the low level long distance platforms, the floor in the doorways lowers and creates steps down from floor level to platform level.
You could be forgiven for thinking this sounds like something out of a Harry Potter book; Mugunghwa trains are named after the hibiscus syriacus which is the national flower of South Korea. Mugunghwa trains are the slowest long distance trains and can be sub-categorised as locomotive hauled and DMU. Reserved economy seating and standing room tickets are sold and most trains have some sort of catering car available, selling light snacks and drinks.
Locomotive hauled Mugunghwa trains are led by a variety of locomotives; the most common being the 7300/7400 class diesel-electric locomotives, made in South Korea under licence from EMD (a copy of the EMD GT26CW-2). There are also the 8200 class electric locomotive, based on the Siemens Eurosprinter (model ES64F) and assembled by Hyundai-Rotem and the streamlined 7000 class diesel. These trains are slow and basic, but comfortable, and most have a cafe car, complete with video games and karaoke booths!
Mugunghwa DMUs are manufactured by Hyundai Rotem and run on cross country lines with few passengers. They have a “mini cafe” which comprises of several vending machines located in one of the carriages.
Mugunghwa trains have a red white and blue colour scheme. Locomotive hauled trains vary in number and age of carriages, while DMUs are all 4 cars long.
Saemaul trains are one of my favorite trains ever; they are full of character and look like they belong in an episode of Thunderbirds. They are stainless steel and wear a distinctive blue, yellow and white colour scheme. The normal configuration is in push-pull mode, with a streamlined diesel-hydraulic locomotive at each end of the train. The locomotives are interesting, as they contain a passenger section which forms the first class section of the train. Standing room tickets are not sold for Saemaul trains.
Saemaul trains were once the premier train used throughout South Korea, launched for the 1988 Seoul Olympic games. With the introduction of KTX, they’ve been relegated to a supporting role and as a result, the cafe car is closed on many runs. Saemaul trains have very comfortable wide, velour covered seating. They have a large recline, generous leg room and a large footrest (with thigh support). A long journey on a Saemaul can be very comfortable!
One of the most amusing things I found with Saemaul trains, was the end of the journey. As the train approached its final stop, a muzak version of The Beatles’ “Let It Be” is played over the PA system as a farewell.
ITX (Intercity Train Express) trains are the newest long distance trains in South Korea. They run between Seoul (Yongsan) and Chuncheon at speeds of up to 180 km/h. They are a mix of single and double deck cars, and a trolley service is available selling snacks and drinks.
I haven’t had a chance to photograph or travel on one of these trains as yet.
KTX (Korea Train Express) trains are South Korea’s high speed trains, operating at up to 305 km/h. They have a streamlined high speed KTX electric locomotive at each end in push/pull mode. Based on the French TGV, all intermediate cars share a common bogie. Series I KTX trains are 18 cars long (plus 2 locomotives) and series II (KTX Sancheon) are 8 cars long (plus 2 locomotives). Light refreshments are sold from a trolley and first class passengers on series I KTX trains have access to a cinema car.
KTX trains have TV monitors hung from the ceilings, showing local news and human interest stories (all in Korean). They also show the speed and just before each stop, they display the name of the next station. There is also free Wi-Fi available, however with only 1 router shared between 3 cars, the data speed ranges from slow to unusable.
KTX trains run frequent services between Seoul Busan, Masan and Mokpo. During peak times, there is a service every 10 minutes between Seoul and Busan.
Best places to Travel?
South Korea is a very small country (in terms of area); less than half the size of the state of Victoria. Anywhere in the country is accessible within a day, and the KTX network means that all major cities are within 3 hours and 20 minutes of Seoul. Despite this, I have found quite a few interesting trips.
The quickest is to take a Nooriro train from Seoul to Asan (just under 90 minutes), then a KTX from CheonanAsan (upstairs from Asan) back to Seoul (just over 30 minutes). This gives a good introduction to KoRail trains, without venturing too far.
A must do journey, is the trip to Busan. A KTX train will do the journey in less than 3 hours, but I recommend breaking the trip up (in one direction, at least). As well as the fast, frequent KTX trains, there are also many local services run by Mugunghwa or Saemaul trains along the route. KTX to Dongdaegu then slow train to Busan will not only give you variety in your trip, but Dongdaegu is a very busy station, with plenty of photo opportunities.
When in Busan, take a local trip to some of the suburban stations (Bujeon, Sasang, Gupo, Hwamyeong or Haeundae). This is a good way to get a trip on a Mugunghwa DMU. Gupo and Haeundae are also quite photogenic little stations.
Mokpo is about as far from Seoul as you can get in mainland South Korea. It’s a beautiful little city, with interesting lane way markets and a sea port. My favorite part of the city is Yudal Mountain. The peak of Mt Yudal is only 228m above sea level, however as the rest of Mokpo is at about 5m, and quite flat, Mt Yudal really stands out. The base of the mountain is about a 20 minute walk from the train station (you can see the mountain from the station entrance – if in doubt, just keep going up), at the base of the mountain is an unexpected find – an orchid exhibition hall.
The climb from the base of the mountain to the peak is not for the faint hearted or the unfit. From the base, you climb 200m vertical in about 400m horizontal distance, much of it is up steps carved into the stone of the mountain. the last few vertical metres see the climber clambering over exposed rocks, with sheer cliffs on either side, but the view from the top is spectacular. In one direction, you can see over the city, with the colourful tiled rooftops of the old town giving way to the new apartment blocks of the suburbs. In the other direction, you can see over the port, harbor and off to the nearby islands.
As with Busan, you can do the trip in about 3 hours 20 minutes by KTX train, however I prefer to mix it up a little. There are slow trains roughly hourly From Seoul (Yongsan) to Iksan via Daecheon. This is a single tracked branch line, that does not host KTX trains which it winds its way through some beautiful scenery and picturesque little towns. At Iksan, you can meet up with a KTX train to take you the rest of the way to Mokpo.
Next Blog Post
My next blog post will be about the subways and Metros of South Korea. Hope to see you then!