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South Korea to shut down Incheon Airport high-speed rail

Four years into operation, KTX loses to buses in convenience and price

A KTX bullet train connecting Seoul to Gangneung undergoes a test run in November 2017, shortly before beginning service ahead of the Winter Olympics. (Photo by Kenichi Yamada)

SEOUL -- A high-speed rail line connecting Seoul to Incheon International Airport will cease operation next month after just four years of service, as the expensive, politically motivated project loses the ridership race to buses.

Korea Railroad, the public body also known as Korail that operates the rail system, submitted a proposal in June for shutting down the connection. South Korea's transport ministry approved the plan in July.

The airport line opened in June 2014 as an addition to the larger KTX express train system linking South Korea's capital to five outlying cities. It was meant to provide convenient access to the nation's largest airport from far-flung locations like Pyeongchang, the host city of February's Winter Olympics.

Each day, 22 passenger trains arrived at Incheon airport through the network. But service on the line has been suspended since shortly after the Olympics, nominally due to maintenance.

The link suffered from disappointing demand. Average daily ridership last year totaled only 3,433 passengers, which left 77% of seats unoccupied. Carriages were especially empty during weekday hours.

Yet 42.23 million passengers boarded international flights during the first half of 2018, up 14% on the year, transport ministry data shows. The bulk of that traffic took off from Incheon. These numbers indicate that air passengers simply did not choose KTX to reach the Seoul-area airport.

Their reasons are twofold: time and money. It takes 3 hours and 34 minutes to reach Incheon airport from the southern city of Busan when using the KTX network for the entire trip. But a passenger can shave 14 minutes by taking the bullet train to the Seoul suburb of Gwangmyeong and switching to a high-speed bus for the rest of the way.

The train-bus combination costs 69,700 won altogether, or about $62 -- 2,400 won cheaper than a direct trip via KTX.

Though a KTX bullet train can reach a top speed of 300 kph, the 14-year-old KTX system runs on both high-speed and conventional rail lines. Operating speeds slow to less than 170 kph on the conventional sections. Buses, on the other hand, enjoy dedicated lanes allowing them to bypass traffic -- and beat the bullet trains.

"When it comes to medium- to long-distance transport, buses get more passengers than the KTX," said Cho Gyu-seok of the Korea Research Institute of Transportation Industries. People used to taking buses would have no problem making the transfer from the train.

The state spent over 300 billion won ($266 million) on the rail project, the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reports. With riders having shown their preference for buses over the bullet train, the same newspaper pointedly remarked that the government pushed through the project despite warnings of inadequate demand.

South Korea touted plans for the Incheon airport link in its campaign to host the Winter Olympics, only to decide to shut the same connection just months after the games. The corridor passing through Pyeongchang and terminating at Gangneung -- a line that opened shortly before the Olympics -- is also virtually unused during weekdays. Some prescient citizens had wondered who would ride these extensions after the games.

KTX's overall ridership decreased in 2017 for the first time in eight years. The decline reportedly factored into Korail's consolidated operating loss of 469.9 billion won for the full year ended in December, a reversal from the 121.5 billion won profit in 2016.

Yet when politicians lobby for rail extensions to revitalize local economies, a state-run entity like Korail cannot ignore those voices.

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