Inter-Korean railroad faces huge obstacles

According to the Joong Ang Daily (2007-5-21):

It must have been the most expensive train ride in history. A ticket to cross the border between the two Koreas, a 90-minute journey over 30 kilometers, cost more than 2.7 billion won ($2.9 million) per person last week.

On Thursday, 200 South Koreans boarded two trains on the reconnected Gyeongui and Donghae lines on the west and east sides of the peninsula to chug across the Demilitarized Zone in a show of potential unity. The cost to South Korea, so far, has been 545.4 billion won to reconnect the sections of the cross-border railway severed by the Korean War.

While there are no concrete plans for further runs, the South Korean government has dreams of an inter-Korean rail network that would help the peninsula, cut freight shipment costs dramatically and link Korea by rail to the vast markets of China and the natural resources of Russia.

But to get there from here, the money spent so far on the test run is a pittance. Assuming that the enormous political obstacles to dealing with the North could be overcome, experts say it could cost as much as $10 billion to overhaul the slow, obsolete and backward rail infrastructure of North Korea.

That has not stopped some officials from insisting it can happen. On May 14, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung announced a three-step plan for an inter-Korean railroad.

The first step would be to use a section of the Gyeongui Line, connecting Seoul and Shinuiju in the North, to serve the Kaesong Industrial Complex project. Transporting goods in and out of Kaesong and allowing North Korean workers to commute to the inter-Korean industrial complex by train is part of the plan.

The next step would be expanding use of the Gyeongui Line up to Kaesong for South Koreans, so that commuters to the complex and South Korean tourists visiting Kaesong could ride the train.

And finally, the South wants to operate trains on a regular basis between Seoul and Pyongyang.

“As of now, providing transportation for goods and commuters to Kaesong and allowing Mount Kumgang tourists to travel by train are current demands,” Lee said at the briefing. The Donghae Line, running between Yangyang and Anbyon in the North, will be used for the Mount Kumgang trip.

“More than 10 billion won worth of goods is produced in Kaesong,” Lee said. “More than 13,000 North Koreans are working there and commuting has become a serious issue.”

Lee has even more ambitious dreams ― the building of a rail line to connect Korea with Europe. “The reconnected inter-Korean railroad will be connected to Russia, one of the largest reserves of natural resources in the world, and China, to provide new economic opportunities,” Lee said. “We need a serious discussion on this with the North.”

Lee, however, admitted that there are enormous obstacles. Gaining the cooperation of the North’s hard-line military, which has been reluctant to open the border to train crossings, and modernization of the outdated North Korean rail infrastructure are among them.

Continuing his drumbeat for the project, after the test run, Lee said South Korea will gladly pay for updating the North’s railroad network ― and cost is no object. “No matter how much it will cost, it is an investment for our economy,” Lee said Friday. “The research is ongoing to estimate the cost, so it is hard to make the number public.”

Estimates vary widely about the cost of modernizing the North’s railroads. Lim Jae-gyeong, a researcher at the Korea Transport Institute, estimated that upgrading the North’s sagging rail networks, for both the Gyeongui and Donghae lines, would cost from 6.5 trillion won to 8 trillion won.

Kim Gyeong-jung, the team leader for inter-Korean railroad networks at the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, cited a Russian report that estimated it would cost up to $3.5 billion “to modernize the railroads in the North and connect them with the Trans-Siberian Railroad.”

Ahn Byung-min of the Korea Transport Institute put the figure at $10 billion for the project, also citing previous Russian reports.

Russia is enthusiastic about the prospects, though, and it conducted three surveys of the North’s railroad infrastructure between 2001 and 2003. The project may accelerate when the two Koreas and Russia begin railroad talks next month.

“We are pushing to hold talks with Kim Yong-sam, the North’s railroad minister, and Vladimir Yakunin, president of the state-run Russian Railways company, at the end of next month in Pyongyang,” said Lee Chul, head of the Korea Railroad Corporation. “The South and Russia have already agreed and the North responded positively.”

The meeting will focus on linking a trans-Korean railway with the trans-Siberia railway. By linking to the Russian lines, Vladivostok could be reached directly by rail from Busan. Researchers say the connection would enable freight to be shipped from Busan to Moscow by rail in just eight days. The transportation cost would be half of the current rate for sea shipments, which is about $600 for a 20-foot container.

The immediate challenge is the infrastructure. Rail is the backbone of North Korea’s transportation system, Ahn said. About 60 percent of passenger traffic and 90 percent of freight is carried by train. With two main rail lines running on the east and west sides of the country, Ahn said, the North Koreans have tried unsuccessfully to connect the systems since the 1970s.

“As of late 2005, the North had about 5,248 kilometers of rail, but 98 percent of them are single-track lines,” Ahn said, meaning that the traffic that can be carried is limited to one train at a time. “Most of the other infrastructure, such as bridges, tunnels, stations and communication systems, is also extremely outdated.”

The trains also run at very slow speeds, between 30 and 60 kilometers an hour. “The speed has not changed much since 1956,” Ahn said. “From Pyongyang to Shinuiju, the distance is 223.6 kilometers. By express, it would take about five hours and five minutes, so the average speed is about 40 kilometers per hour,” Ahn said. “But the regular trains take more than 11 hours.” He noted that there are also no set timetables and service is erratic and sometimes dangerous.

Ahn, who has visited North Korea several times to examine the fraying rail network, provided some extreme examples of how the North tries to cope. “Russia and China often provide food aid to the North via trains,” Ahn said. “When train cars from the two countries arrive, the North, under bilateral treaties, must send back the trains within six months. Rarely are the actual train cars returned, instead China and Russia often receive older train cars ready to retire from service.”

About 2,000 train cars sent from China and Russia have thus been marked as “made in North Korea” and put to use, Ahn said.

“North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung once said the operation of a railroad is like the circulation of blood in the human body,” Ahn said, “Based on that expression, you could say that North Korea’s rail network is a patient suffering from a serious circulatory disease.”

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Inter-Korean railroad faces huge obstacles
Joong Ang Daily
Ser Myo-ja


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