Sunday, August 4, 2013

Korea # 19: The Seoul Subway System

For those who enjoy things that work well for their own sake, the Seoul  Subway System is for you.  It is brilliantly efficient and, while challenging at the beginning, fun to use.

A few more of those startling facts I’ve come to associate with Korea are in order: this is the world’s longest subway system.  It has the second most stations after New York and the second most traffic after Tokyo.   Begun in l974, it has added segments almost every year since and now has 19 lines, and is committed to 12 additions or one kind or another by 2017.  Eight  million use it every day.

Korea's six largest cities all have subway systems and all are connected by the Korean railroad system, Korail, with service every 15 to 60 minutes. 

Collectively, it certainly must be the world’s largest underground shopping complex.  You can buy anything underground or go to an aquarium or a theatre.  Most metro stations cover so many blocks and are so extensive that you will be lost if you don’t use the right exit.  My hostel host never directed me just to a particular station but to the right exit at each station.  Choose the wrong one and you’re in a completely different neighborhood.

Here are two buildings at one of the exits at the COEX underground shopping in the Gangnam district, said to be Asia's largest, although currently undergoing remodeling.
Take another exit and these buildings would not even be within sight. 

You have to think it was also designed as the world’s largest bomb shelter.  Without much warning, millions could retreat to these stations.

Like so much in Korea, it exhibits the latest technology.  You purchase one credit card size pass, called a UPass which uses RFID technology.  Place it on a pad at enter and exit turnstiles and the fare is automatically deducted. 

UPass works interchangeably with the equally impressive bus system.  It can be purchased at thousands of convenience stores and topped off quickly at entry and exit stations.   It also works with smart phones and through wallets and handbags and is so fast Koreans go through it in full stride. 

I used the system almost exclusively for three days and spent about $13.  Each segment costs about $1 but can be used for up to 10 kilometers plus 10 cents for each additional kilometer.

In the winter, seats on the subway are automatically warmed. 

Another cool feature is a digital board in the subway space with touch screen provided by Daum where you touch where you and where you want to go and your route instantly lights up.  You can also get Google-like street level views. Real time arrivals and departures are available by smart phone and passengers are quick to use their phones to get you from here to there if you ask. 

Signs are in Korean and English and other languages in some places and upcoming stations are announced in both languages, preceded by a little jingle.  The jingle has been turned into the “Seoul Subway Song,” a pleasant rap-like hit by one Michael Aronson.

There is very little waiting except on some lines on weekend and while I did not travel in the heat of rush hour, not a lot of crowding.  At least on the weekend you can take your bike. 

You might find men hawking aprons, towels or brooms but try to take their picture and you know they’re operating under the radar.  No doubt there are some around but I saw no enforcement folks of any time and, of course, no ticket takers.

Needless to say (so why do you say it?), the system is very clean and generally bright.  My only caveat is that it is so complex you can get lost for a time figuring out where and how to transfer lines and you can still long three miles of walking each day using the system.  Getting the hang of it can be part of the fun.

The subway is a railroad, of sorts, most of it underground.  The subway is connected to the larger Korean railroad system is extensive, connecting all major cities.  Coming back from Japan I chose to go back to Busan, on the southern coast, rather than fly from Osaka to Seoul in order to ride the Korean "bullet train" because I love trains and to see more of the countryside. It runs about every half hour.  Called KTX, it uses the same technology as France's famed TJV system.  It was opened in 2004 and improved in 2010 to gain speed.

The KTX did indeed rock along at 180 miles an hour and get there is less than three hours but made six or eight stops which somewhat took away the thrill of the ride.  No doubt some trains go faster.   As with the French system, the ride is so smooth and quiet it's hard to believe you're going as fast as you are. 



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