A KTX train waits on a rail track at an inspection center in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, in this file photo. Several KTX bullet trains have recently experienced a number of emergency halts in a series of incidents, raising public concern over their safety. / Yonhap
By Lee Hyo-sik
A fatal collision between China’s high-speed trains last Saturday has stoked public concern over the safety of the KTX-Sancheon, Korea’s indigenous bullet train, which has been plagued with a series of malfunctioning and breakdowns over the past year.
The government and Korail, the state-run railroad operator, have unveiled a range of safety-boosting steps, including replacing old train parts, to counter growing negative public sentiment.
However, both public and private experts are not convinced, expressing concerns that high speed trains in Korea, if more fundamental steps are not taken, might face a disaster like what took place in China, which killed at least 35 and injured 210.
Last Saturday, a China Railway High-speed (CRH) train from Beijing to Fuzhou smashed into a stalled CRH train, which lost power due to a lightening strike, in eastern China.
``When I heard of the incident in China, I was really terrified because something like that could happen while I am on the problem-riddled KTX-Sancheon. I am now more worried about taking the high-speed train when I go to Daegu where my mother lives,’’ said Choi Kyoung-sook, a 40-year-old senior
manager at a foreign-investment firm in Seoul.
But there are few alternatives as Choi said she does not want to take a bus between Seoul and Daegu because it takes longer and is less convenient.
``Despite growing safety concerns over the KTX, I have no choice. I pray for my life for the entire two hours while onboard. I have and will take only the initial model of the KTX train imported from France, not the KTX-Sancheon,’’ she said.
The Sancheon, the latest model developed and manufactured by Hyundai Rotem using domestic technology, was put into operation in March last year. Dozens of stoppages and delays have nearly destroyed its reputation.
According to the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, KTX trains recorded a total of 53 operational problems last year, up sharply from 23 in 2009. There have already been over 36 KTX malfunctions reported this year. One of the worst incidents was the derailment of a KTX-Sancheon train near Gwangmyeong Station in Gyeonggi Province in February, while traveling to Seoul from Busan. It was the first derailment since bullet trains were introduced in Korea in February 2004.
A researcher at the Korea Railroad Research Institute said the KTX-Sancheon is undergoing a stabilization phase, adding it will take several more years for the bullet train to be fully integrated with existing rail tracks and signal systems.
This does not mean Korail can sit back and do nothing.
“It should learn lessons from China even though KTX trains are equipped with a range of safety features in case of lightening. The state-run railroad operator should make all-out efforts to improve its safety records and ease the anxiety of KTX passengers,’’ the researcher said, who did not want to be named.
On July 18, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) said it will launch a full-scale inspection of Korail in August to discern the causes of the breakdowns involving the KTX-Sancheon.
The state auditor had initially planned not to audit Korail this year as the railroad operator underwent an inspection last year. The BAI normally audits public enterprises once every two to five years. But growing public concern over the safety of the bullet trains has become reason enough to look into Korail a second time.
On July 22, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs unveiled a set of measures aimed at improving the safety of the KTX train. The ministry said it will conduct a special inspection on all KTX trains currently in operation as the malfunctioning of parts has been blamed for the more recent accidents.
It also announced a plan to set up what it called a ``maintenance steering group’’ to beef up the supervision of Korail’s maintenance service contractors.
중국 고속열차의 탈선과 추락사고의 원인이 벼락으로 인한 경보시스템의 파손이었던 것으로 잠정 결론 난 가운데 우리 KTX는 유사 사고 가능성으로부터 과연 안전한가에 대한 궁금증이 제기되고 있다.
나빠지는 여론을 감안 정부와 코레일은 최근 오래된 부품 교체 등 KTX 고장 방지를 위해서 여러 가지 안전 대책을 내놓고 있다.
그러나 대다수 국민과 철도전문가들은 안심할 수 없다는 눈치다. 만약에 중국처럼 KTX 사고가 나면 어떻게 하나 불안감을 감출 수 없는 모양이다