“Subsidized empty freight trains” or “How not to pursue economic development”

After a 56 year hiatus, regular freight rail service between the two Koreas resumed on December 11, 2007.  According to reports at the time:

The new service is expected to slash the cost of transporting products to and from the [Kaesong Industrial Zone], just north of the border, considered a major achievement of Seoul’s “sunshine” policy of engaging the North over the past decade.

South Korean officials hope the cargo train service will lay the groundwork for a regular train service for passengers and the railway will be linked through North Korea to the Trans-China and Trans-Siberian railroads.

A 12-car train carrying curbstones and other construction materials left left South Korea’s Dorasan Station at 8:20 a.m. and arrived at North Korea’s Panmun Station 20 minutes later. A joint ceremony was held at the North Korean station around 11 a.m. with the attendance of some 180 officials from both Koreas.

The train returned to the South later in the day with goods including shoes, clothes and watches made at the industrial complex.

Trains will run daily on weekdays from Dorasan Station in Munsan to Panmun, carrying up to 10,000 tons of cargo on each run. The train service begins at 9 a.m. and returns from the North Korean station at 2 p.m. Trains are restricted to a maximum speed of 60 kilometers per hour when traversing the closely guarded frontier. (Korea Times)

However, the following January 29, a mere six weeks after launch, South Korea sought to scale back the rail service:

On the first day of working-level talks in North Korea on Tuesday, the two Koreas discussed scaling back their first regular inter-Korean railway service to run in more than a half century, as the trains are often empty, South Korean officials said. (Yonhap)

Since that time, though, things have not gotten much better:

A daily train service between South and North Korea that was opened as a symbol of reconciliation is nearly always completely empty, according to rail operators.

But in the first ten months, it carried only 340 tons of goods, the operators said in a report to the Seoul parliament. On 150 out of 163 return trips so far, it was a ghost train, carrying nothing at all.

“It may not make sense for cargo trains to run empty but this is too symbolic a project to stop now,” a Korail spokesman said. “It should be viewed in terms of the nation’s future economy.”

Officials said the firms working at the Kaesong park, the only customers for the service, found it easier and cheaper to use the road link previously opened to service it. (Telegraph of London)

Given the nature of political institutions and decision-making, it should not surprise anyone that this service is still in operation.  White elephants of this sort have been justified by any number of quasi-economic excuses: 1. The construction and operation of these projects creates jobs 2. Projects of this sort boost aggregate demand (Keynesian justification) 3. These projects provide some sort of political benefit to which a price cannot be easily attached 4. Capital markets are too short term to see value in these “long-term” projects (market failure argument). 

The dedicated public servant from Korail (qouted above) creatively combines cases 3 and 4 to justify the continued operation of an empty train.  Most of these claims, however, have been long debunked in the economics and political science literatures.  Sunk costs are sunk, so there is no need to fret about them now, but it is a waste to continue subsidizing an empty train.  Surely the South Koreans have a long list of investment projects they could attempt in the DPRK with these funds.  I am sure many in the DPRK would also prefer aid that actually helps as well.

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  • Gag Halfrunt

    Korail’s managers – and the South Korean government – are probably worried that, given the delicate nature of inter-Korean relations, if they suspend the service now they will not be able to resume it in future if output from Kaesong increases enough to make it commercially viable. Indeed, they might well fear that the North Korean authorities would regard closing the service as a political statement on the part of the South rather than a purely commercial decision. It may be economically unsound, but it looks as if the only way to maintain the possibility of running cross-border trains is to run them, empty if necessary. Use it or lose it, as the Americans say.

    (Earlier this year, IIRC, it emerged that British Airways was running ghost planes simply to hold on to spare ‘slots’ at Heathrow. BA didn’t need the slots for its current timetable, but they were so valuable that it was prepared to run empty planes to keep the slots in case demand picked up again.)

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