Of all of the blog posts I have made, the South Korean post about KoRail has been the most popular. I think that this is due to the general lack of other information about South Korea’s comprehensive, comfortable and efficient railway network. I have recently travelled on South Korea’s trains again, so I thought I would give a short update.
Again, I arrived by ferry into Incheon (from Weihai in China). The walk from the ferry terminal to the Dongincheon subway station is virtually unchanged; even the road works which I first saw 6 years ago are still there outside the ferry terminal! The 15 minute or so walk from the international ferry terminal is pleasant and slightly uphill, mostly through a medium density shopping area. The “Yongsan Rapid” service of Seoul Metro Line 1 is still a fast way to get from Dongincheon into Yongsan in central Seoul. Although it runs less frequently than the stopping trains, it’s worth the wait, as it overtakes several slower trains on the journey. The line from Dongincheon to Yongsan is quad track, with dedicated express and stopping lines.
Although Seoul has a comprehensive and efficient metro system (worldwide it is 4th largest by route km and 2nd busiest by number of passengers), it is poorly designed for the mobility challenged. The convoluted interchanges and indirect station entry points have many stairs and few elevators. For commuters (which they are primarily designed for) this is not a problem, but if you’re travelling with lots of luggage, young children, seniors or disabled people, it can be a hassle. If you’re planning a journey with luggage, it is often better to take a slightly longer journey involving less interchanges.
I spent most of my time in South Korea travelling on the KoRail long distance trains. I found that my favourite trains, the Saemaul, were nowhere to be found. I suspect that due to their age, they may have been removed. A new type of train, which I had not seen before was running on similar routes; the ITX Saemaul. They were faster and more modern, but lack the retro styling and comfort of their predecessors.
The KoRail website has been updated and reworked since I last visited. Finding the right information can be a little difficult, so I have put some useful links below for their English site:
- Information about the KoRail Pass
- Ticket booking (also useful for searching timetables)
- KTX Maps
- National Map
Again, I purchased a KoRail pass, by far the easiest and most cost efficient way of travelling on the long distance trains. To buy a pass, go to this website and buy an exchange voucher before you travel: http://www.letskorail.com/ebizbf/EbizBfIndex_eng.do. Annoyingly, they don’t accept foreign issued Master Cards, but they take Visa. You’ll be emailed an exchange voucher, which you take to any staffed station and exchange for your pass. You will need to take your passport and the credit card you used to book the pass. I had an issue with the original credit card I used, and it took a long time and a lot of hassle to sort out.
I found longer queues than I remembered previously at ticket counters of the big stations (such as Yongsan, Seoul and Busan). If you want to buy tickets at a large station, you’ll need to put aside 15 minutes for the queue alone. Smaller regional stations didn’t seem to have this problem.
If you’re looking for good places to take photos of trains, Seoul station is very photogenic. In Busan, the main staion is mostly roofed over, so photography is difficult. Gupo station in the city’s north is a good spot, accessible by KTX, conventional train and subway (Line 3). I’m not sure what the official policy is for taking photos on KoRail property, but I was never told not to, most employees gave me an encouraging smile. If you are taking photos, just be sensible about it; stay behind the safety line, make sure you have a ticket for paid areas and keep out of the way of other passengers. The best metro line for photographs is the Busan – Gimhae Light Rail (BGL). It runs from Sasang on Busan’s Line 2 Subway past Gimhae International Airport into the neighbouring city of Gimhae. it also connects with Busan’s Line 3 Subway at Daejeo. The BGL is driverless, with a large window at the front of the small train. Between Gimpo International Airport and Sasang, it crosses a long bridge over the Nakdong River.
If you have a spare few hours in Busan, I recommend the following mini-tour:
- Korail train from Busan to Gupo (about 15 minutes)
- Busan Line 2 subway from Gupo to Daejeo
- BGL from Daejeo to Sasang
- Busan Line 2 subway from Sasang to Seomyeong
- Busan Line 1 subway from Seomyeong to Busan station
In general, I found that Korail had not changed much, apart from the expansion of the KTX high speed network. The KTX trains are starting to show their age, with faded seat covers and worn fittings – probably time for their first major refurb. They are a bit nosier and slightly less smooth riding than their Chinese and Japanese counterparts, but still a fast, comfortable and efficient way to get from A to B.
On a sad note, I found that my favourite KoRail station; Haeundae had been relocated. It a picturesque little station, with a bright blue tiled roof and a pine tree in front of the station building. crossings between platforms were “at grade” with no ugly footbridges. It was conveniently located right on top of the Haeundae subway station, but the line has been realigned as part of a duplication and electrification project. The casualty is that Haeundae and Songjeong stations have been relocated from the previously convenient locations to remote parts of the suburbs. I had planned to catch a train from Haeundae to Dongdaegu. When I emerged from the subway station, I found the ticket office for the KoRail station locked. A side gate was open, so I went through. On the other side, I found rusty tracks with a wooden footpath laid on top. There was no signs indicating where the station had been relocated to, so I caught the subway back to Bujeon and caught a train from there. Later, I found that the new station is located on the other side of the mountain. A local’s view on its relocation is available at http://kojects.com/2013/12/14/another-sad-loss-haeundae-station/.
I very much enjoy my time travelling in the beautiful country of South Korea. Their train network is clean, efficient, punctual and a pleasure to travel on. The courteous and helpful staff make it easy for foreign tourists to use the network, even those who don’t understand a word of Korean.