Worry about safety, not exports of bullet train
Passengers who ride the KTX-Sancheon between Seoul and Busan have complained about frequent stops and breakdowns of the domestic bullet train. A recent report by government auditors, however, shows they had better thank the state rail service, Korail, for still being alive.
The entire report is full of surprising and even shocking revelations. The previous KTX trains provided by French makers underwent test drives of 200,000 kilometers over five years, but the KTX-Sancheon trains were tested over 12,000 kilometers in three years. Korail knew the locally built trains had no fewer than 57 problems but bought them anyway, thinking they could deal with ``minor” defects in the course of actual operation.
In short, the first localized bullet train has become a byword for shoddy work, ranging from construction to maintenance and operation. Little wonder the 60 or so carriages Korail bought from Hyundai Rotem have experienced 688 “incidents” in little more than a year. It should think it fortunate that what happened in China last year hasn’t occurred here.
The administrative watchdog’s report indicates the utterly broken self-rectifying system imposed by Korail and its supervisor, the transportation ministry.
We see two main reasons for the poor, hasty manufacturing and operation. The state rail company struggled hard ― too hard ― to become the world’s fourth country to localize high-speed trains.
This was a very dangerous and irresponsible gamble, putting passengers’ safety at risk, and can never be justified even if it was aimed at winning an international competition to supply a high-speed rail services to the Brazilian government. Add to this the ambition of the police chief-turned-Korail head, Huh Joon-young, to make his company the top state enterprise by reducing costs and overstretching operations, then one gets a more unstable and unsafe rail service than ever.
True, the global $250-billion high-speed rail market is enticing enough for the Korean government and businesses, which want to have the entire Eurasian continent as their market. Their anxiety not to be overtaken by Chinese rivals is also understandable. As seen in the horrible derailment that claimed dozens of lives in the neighboring country, the first and foremost problem is safety in this business. That the three frontrunners of France, Germany and Japan apply quite different safety standards from the two latecomers suggests much.
Korail first needs to consolidate its operations at home. One of the ways to enhance management efficiency and break the ``iron bowls” of its unionized workers may be the introduction of competition with private counterparts.
Still the government’s reported plan to allow private firms to share the most lucrative Seoul-Busan route with Korail is feared to further aggravate the already bleeding business of the state rail service. It also raises the problem of favoritism, as private operators will be able to take a slice of the 36 trillion won pie with a mere 400 billion won investment. In ``hothouse capitalism,” in which private firms enjoy benefits while the state takes up losses, taxpayers end up as the final losers despite an initial drop in ticket prices.
So let the firms run trains they built or helped to build. Until then, the answer should rest with tighter monitoring and seeking synergy from experienced state agencies.