8AM in Seoul. Rush hour commuters get battle ready to survive the stampedes, pack into the cars, and elbow their way out at the right moment with their belongings and limbs intact.
There are some infamously packed subway stops (Gangnam, Sindorim), but only Line 9 has earned the special nickname “Subway from Hell”. This privately operated track is plagued with poor planning and inefficient management. After multiple delays, the phase 3 line extension, which adds 9.2 km (eight stations) to the east, finally opened on December 1. The extension is likely to add to the congestion if more cars and trains are not added soon.
Brought to you in partnership with Meconomynews. The original Korean version was published on October 6, 2018.
The subway from hell. That’s what people call Seoul Subway Line 9. During rush hour, there aren’t enough cars to accommodate the mountains of people wanting to use the line, making it a difficult and taxing experience. Just getting in and out of the cars is a physical struggle. When cars are packed full, passengers get pushed farther and farther from the doors, more nervous and anxious that they won’t be able to get off, more likely to try to stay near the doors, and thus ever more uncomfortable on the “subway from hell”. Subway Line 9 began to operate six-car trains at the end of 2017. However, this was still far from enough to reduce the discomfort that people have to face every day. In order to resolve the issue of congested subway cars, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced a plan to increase the number of six-car trains to 17 by June 2018 and to change all trains to six-car trains by the end of 2018. Unfortunately, the government only succeeded in acquiring only 10 trains by June. Moreover, due to the shortage of six-car trains, the opening of the third-section of the line was postponed to December.
On an ordinary weekday, a Line 2 train pulls into Dangsan Station. As soon as the doors open, passengers start running to switch to Line 9. They have to go down several levels to get to the platform, and unless they run to the escalators, they get stuck behind other passengers and it takes much longer to get to the platform. If they are delayed, they miss the Line 9 train and have to wait a long time for the next one. The entrance to the escalator becomes packed within seconds, and people compete to get to the escalator even just a hair faster than others.
Once people get down on the escalator, pass through the transfer gate, and arrive at the Line 9 platform, they prepare for war to get into “hell”. The platform is teeming with people who are waiting to get on the subway and people who have gotten off. While the platforms for Line 9, like all the other lines, have been built to accommodate eight-car trains, the line only runs four- and six-car trains. This means that masses of people tend to crowd the same sections of the platforms. Long lines form at the platform screen doors, and when the doors open those disembarking have to squeeze through the queues. Only those who get through this crowd and manage to quickly line up again at the door are able to get on. Otherwise, they miss the train that is right in front of their eyes.
All hell breaks lose when the train pulls into the platform. As soon as the PA system announces the arrival of the train, people begin to push forward little by little. In the process, the separate lines of people waiting for the regular and express trains merge. Once the last person gets off the train, people who had been waiting on the platform begin to push forward. Those standing right at the front of the lines, who are sure to get on the train, are nevertheless shoved on board.“Ugh!” “Ouch!” and other screams, groans, and moans issue forth from here and there, and people are crumpled and packed into the trains without any room for movement. Sometimes doors don’t close because there are too many people, but people still push forward because they will have to wait a while for the next train if they miss this one. Dangerous situations that are sure to result in accidents arise repeatedly every day. Safety agents have been assigned on the platforms to prevent accidents, but there’s not much they can do.
The situation on the platform is nothing compared to what it’s like on the train. Express trains pass through two to four stations stopping only at major stations so people can get to where they’re going faster. On the other hand, regular trains stop at every station and sometimes have to wait until express trains pass, and therefore take much longer than express trains. Some people talk about having ridden Line 9 with “their feet off the ground”. This is what ‘subway from hell’ looks like.
The Golden Line that connects Gangseo, Gangnam, and Gangdong
Line 9 is the first privately run subway in Seoul. On July 24, 2009, Phase 1 was opened from Gaehwa to Sinnonhyeon. Seven years later, on March 28, 2015, Phase 2 was opened from Sinnonhyeon to Sports Complex. On August 23, 2010, construction began for Phase 3—Sports Complex to Veterans Hospital—and is expected to open in December 2018. Currently, Line 9 is operated by two different companies. Phase 1 is operated by Seoul Metro Line 9 Corporation (SML9), a joint venture created by Veolia Transport Korea and Hyundai Rotem, which has contracted out the operation and management to Seoul Line9 Operation Co., Ltd. Phase 2 is operated by Seoul Metro Line9 Corporation, which is a subsidiary of Seoul Metro. Phase 3, which is to open in December this year, will also be operated by Seoul Metro.
As any Seoul subway map shows, Line 9 is the only line that connects the Gangseo, Gangnam, and Gangdong areas in Seoul. By connecting the relatively marginalized Gangseo region to Yeouido, Gangnam, and other central districts in Seoul, Line 9 significantly improved the access to business districts concentrated in Yeouido and Gangnam. Moreover, getting to Gimpo Airport from Sinnonhyeon takes only half an hour on an express train, and less than an hour on the regular train, expanding business travel demand. Connectivity has been improved as well, since Gimpo Airport is connected to Incheon Airport via the Airport Railroad.
Due to this connectivity and accessibility, Subway Line 9 had a huge number of passengers from the beginning. Line 9 had over 10 million rides within 50 days of opening; over 80 million by July 2010, a year after the opening; and over 100 million by that September 8. This means that a daily average of over 242,000 people took Line 9 over the first 14 months.
Miscalculated demand predictions, private project, and four-car trains — The subway from hell had been forecasted
In 2005, a preliminary feasibility study conducted by the Ministry of Strategy and Finance estimated that Line 9 would have an average of 240,588 riders a day in 2014. The estimated number was far short of the eventual actual number. A close examination of this feasibility study shows that a previous study, conducted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in July 2000, had estimated 373,867 daily passengers in 2009, during Phase 1. However, a study conducted by the Seoul Research Institute four years later, in February 2004, put the 2009 estimate at 312,438 daily passengers, which was 61,429 less than the estimate from July 2000.
When Macquarie Group was selected as an investor in May 2005, Seoul Metro Line 9 Corporation began a fiscal compensation negotiation with the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. Since Line 9 was being constructed with private capital, the corporation was to receive financial compensation for any operating losses. For the negotiation, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance requested the Korea Transport Institute conduct a feasibility study. It was this research that estimated the travel demand for phase 1 would be 240,588 in 2014. Although the year in question was much later than that of the July 2000 study (2014 vs 2009), the number of expected passengers had decreased—by about 140,000.
Another reason for the problems is that it began as a private business. Private operators are willing to minimize costs and maximize revenues. This is the reason that Line 9 is operated through a multi-stage subcontracting structure. Low investment in manpower and facilities is inevitable. Even the subway conductors call Line 9 the “subway from hell”, because they have to operate the trains on a three-team, two-shift basis without a second to rest. According to Hankyoreh, 12 people who worked on Line 9 were diagnosed with cancer between 2012 and 2017, and 88 out of 148 conductors quit in the nine years that the line has been operating. There were times when some worked without even drinking water for eight hours because they didn’t get enough break time to go to the bathroom. In 2015, a woman conductor fainted immediately after finishing her drive due to overworking, and two out of three married women conductors had miscarriages.
In addition, according to a study by Seoul Line 9 Workers’ Labor Union, Line 9 conductors worked three to four more days per month on average compared to conductors on Lines 1 through 8. The number of personnel per 1 kilometer of subway tracks was 66 for Lines 1 through 4, 40 for Lines 5 through 8, and 25 for Line 9, which was the lowest. The number of passengers carried per worker was 260,000 for Line 9, which was about 100,000 more than Lines 1 through 4 (160,000 passengers), and Lines 5 through 8 (150,000).
Ultimately, there were two decisive causes of the creation of the “subway from hell”: underestimation of demand, stemming from concern about the huge subsidies required for what may have been overestimations; and the private sector’s pursuit of profit. In addition, the basic plan of operating six-car trains was revised in 2007 to start with four cars.
On April 6, Park Young-sun, a National Assembly member for the Democratic Party, brought up this issue. “Compared to other subway lines, Line 9, which turns into the ‘subway from hell’ during rush hour is relatively poorly run due to the number of trains and operating frequency,” she explained. “Although the number of trains is similar to Line 6, which has a similar number of passengers, Line 9 operates with four-car trains, while Line 6 has eight-car trains. And the time interval between trains is six to eight minutes for Line 9, while it is only 3.5 to four minutes for Line 6.” She continued to point out that “the average number of passengers on Line 9 is about 600,000 people a day, but the 2005 feasibility study expected only 240,000 people to take Line 9. The population increase in Gangseo-gu, such as in the Magok District (the rate of population increase of 1.09% is the highest in Seoul), has been underestimated, together with the demand from Incheon and Gimpo. Moreover, while the demand is rising with the opening of phase 2, the number of trains has stayed the same because it takes three to four years from putting out an order to purchasing.”
Congestion level at 240% in March 2015…Seoul rushes to increase train numbers
Out of concern that Line 9 would become even more crowded, Seoul announced a plan to relieve the congestion, which included increasing the number of trains earlier than was originally planned, a few weeks prior to the opening of phase 2 section of Line 9. Initially, when the phase 1 section was opened in 2009, Line 9 had 24 trains (4 cars per train). This increased to 36 in 2011, but this was still not enough and the congestion levels soared. According to Seoul, in March 2015, the average daily number of passengers on Line 9 was 440,000. During morning rush hour (7 am to 9 am), when 25.1% of all Line 9 passengers take the subway, the congestion level reached 240%. This means that while the official maximum occupancy for one subway car for Line 9 was 158 passengers, 2.4 times that number, or 374 passengers, were squeezing into each car.
Seoul decided to move a scheduled increase in train numbers from 2018 to 2017. In March 2015, the city government ordered 70 trains. A year later, 16 trains were added to Line 9, and in August 2016 four four-car trains were put in as emergency express trains that shuttled between Gayang Station and Sinnonhyeon Station. This reduced the congestion level down to 190% (of the official passenger maximum), but twice the maximum number of passengers were still riding the trains in extreme discomfort.
In May, the citizens’ committee for the safety and public management of Line 9 conducted a survey of 2,057 Seoul residents regarding the worst inconveniences about Line 9, and 53% of all respondents answered that it was too crowded, while 17% said, “no workers on the platform to ask for help” and 15%, “train delays”. This means that 68% of the respondents experienced inconvenience in boarding and scheduling. Regarding the causes of such inconveniences, 49 answered that there was a “lack of investment in personnel, trains, and facilities”, while 25% answered that it was the “multi-level subcontracting structure”. In addition, 92% of the respondents felt positively about the integration and public management of subways Lines 1 through 9.
Seoul announced scheduling 17 six-car express trains by June and turning all 45 trains into six-car trains by the end of the year, but…
As people continued to experience difficulty due to the congestion on Line 9 trains, in February 2017 the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced that it would start increasing the number of six-car trains from the end of 2017 instead of ea.rly 2018 (with three new trains by December 30), schedule 17 six-car trains for the first half of 2018, and turn all 45 trains into six-car trains by the end of 2018. The decision was made because operating six-car trains rather than four-car trains would be more effective in reducing congestion. The city government expected that the congestion level would go down to 130 to 140% once 17 six-car trains were introduced by June 2018.
Since the announcement, however, the number of six-car trains has not increased much. As of September, there were only ten six-car trains on Line 9. Although the government announced that 17 six-car trains would be scheduled by June, this has not yet happened. There are enough trains: at the Metro 9 Gimpo Depot located in Gaehwa Station, there are trains that have not been put into operation. Regarding this, Park Tae-wook, manager of the Private Railway Operation Team of the Transportation Policy Division at Seoul’s City Transportation Headquarters, explained, “When we receive the orders, we do not receive all six subway cars but two cars. Then we have to attach those two cars to the four-car trains we have. Excluding the trains that have to be in operation and the ones in reserve, we can only work on three to four trains at a time.” Park added, “It also takes three months from receiving the subway cars to go through completion inspection, preliminary run, train attachment, pilot run, safety inspection by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT), and railway safety system update. We are now negotiating with MOLIT and the Korea Railroad Research Institute to shorten this process to two months.”
17 six-car trains have been ready since 2016?
Regarding the Seoul government’s explanation, Park Gi-beom, president of the Seoul Line 9 Workers’ Labor Union simply said that it was a lie. He claimed that the city already had 17 six-car trains in 2016, but the process of putting in six-car trains has been delayed due to manpower, time, and cost issues concerning train inspections and pilot runs, as well as cooperation issues with the operators. “There are ten six-car trains now in operation, but we already had enough subway cars to make up 17 six-car trains in 2016,” said Park. “But turning all trains into six-car trains has been delayed because of the lack of cooperation between Seoul Line9 Operation Co., Ltd., which operates phase 1 and Seoul Metro Line9 Corporation, which operates phase 2.”
According to Park, all 34 subways cars necessary to make up 17 six-car trains have been delivered. The phase 1 operator has enough for eight six-car trains (16 cars), and the phase 2 operator, nine six-car trains (18 cars). Regarding this, on February 2, 2017, the Seoul Metropolitan Government issued a press release titled “Seoul to relieve congestion of Line 9 by operating six-car trains” explaining that the “30 additional cars that we received from August 2016 to January 25, 2017, will be used to increase the number of cars per train (from four to six) in order to relieve congestion on trains. We will begin the operation of the first three six-car trains starting at the beginning of December 2017. By May 2017, the total number of additional cars will be 70, including the remaining 24. Using these cars, the city government will schedule in two six-car trains every month by June 2018 and operate them as express cars, which are in demand, to reduce the congestion level (for express trains) by over 50% from 190% now to 130 to 140%.”
In summary, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced that it scheduled 17 six-car trains by June 2018 because it expected to have enough cars to turn four-car trains into six-car trains by May 2017 and also expected to complete the process within a year. However, more than a year has passed from the time they should have received all cars to now, and there are only ten six-car trains. And the city already has enough cars to make 23 six-car trains (including the ones in operation).
Park said, “Of the ten six-car trains, Seoul Line9 Operation Co., Ltd. is only operating one. But since this is a private company, it has no reason to turn the trains into six-car trains sooner using its own money unless the Seoul government provides it with the manpower and cost required for the work. And it seems that the city government is unable to actively intervene.” But he also added, “It would be worse to push this ahead to resolve congestion issues and create safety issues later on, but the problem is that there is too much of a gap between the government’s plan and the current situation. This was something that our labor union has pointed out continuously ever since the plan was announced. Ultimately, it is the government’s fault for not having understood the characteristics of Line 9 and failed in managing the situation after handing over the business to a private company.”
Phase 3 was postponed
The delay in increasing the number of cars per train to six for Line 9 became a direct cause in delaying the opening of the phase 3 section that was scheduled to happen in October. Phase 3 connects the Gangnam area and the Gangdong area, and the Seoul Metropolitan Government has promoted that the opening of phase 3 will allow passengers to travel from Gangdong-gu to Gimpo Airport within an hour.
The Seoul government postponed the opening of phase 3 to December. The reason? The delay in securing six-car trains. The decision was taken of concern that opening phase 3 would result in even more congestion, considering that the 17 scheduled six-car trains had still not been put into operation. The tracks would be longer, but without additional trains the interval between trains would increase. Together with the rise in the number of passengers, congestion would intensify. In consideration of all this, Seoul postponed the opening.
Through an internal report, Seoul explained, “Opening phase 3 on October 27 would cause congestion, starting from the pilot run (September 2). Therefore it is necessary to adjust the schedule for the opening of the phase 3 section due to the congestion level resulting from the shortage of six-car express trains as well as the lack of information and promotion regarding the changes in the train operation plan. During the pilot run, the number of trips per day would decrease by 44, from 502 to 458. During peak morning rush hour, the number of trips would decrease by 16 from 72 to 56, causing the level of congestion to increase.” The report also revealed that “Phase 3 will open on December 1, and we will minimize expected complaints by issuing a press release regarding the planned opening. Based on the schedule for increasing the number of six-car trains and the results of the congestion study, we will hold a final review meeting on September 14 and announce the plan.”
About the change of plan, Park, president of the labor union, remarked, “If phase 3 is opened, the number of daily trips will decrease by about 8%, but if we have six-car trains, the decrease in the number of trips won’t matter as much. Since the length of the railway is increasing, and intervals between trains along with it, Seoul was trying to increase the transport capacity by turning all trains into six-car trains. But since that is being delayed, everything about the plan has fallen apart. So the government must have grown concerned since the congestion problem is bound to get worse on the ‘subway from hell’.” The Seoul Metropolitan Government only commented, “We will confirm the opening date and issue a press release.”
What about only operating non-express trains during rush hour?
One of the plans to reduce Line 9 congestion during rush hours is to remove express trains and operate only regular trains during those hours. This was proposed by National Assembly member Park Young-sun when she announced that she was running for Seoul mayor prior to the June 13 by-elections. “Many people prefer express trains to get to and from work more quickly,” she remarked. “But operating express trains mean that regular trains have to stop and wait for express trains to pass. This means that the reason regular trains take longer to arrive at the stations is not simply because express trains are quicker.”
She further added, “On weekdays, it takes regular trains 68 minutes to get from Gimpo Airport to Sports Complex Station, and 39 minutes for express trains. That’s a 29 minute difference. But if we only operate regular trains, considering the delays and the waiting time resulting from allowing express trains to pass, the actual difference comes down to 13 minutes, and the difference comes down to eight minutes if you consider missing the train because it’s full. So operating both the express trains and regular trains would continue to cause inconvenience for the passengers taking regular trains as they have to wait for longer, and those taking express trains have to take the “subway from hell” every day.
But regarding this proposal, Manager Park at the City Transportation Headquarters drew a line, saying, “It is difficult to do so due to structural and operational issues.” He explained, “The system isn’t structured to allow express trains to start running from a certain point in time after only running regular trains during rush hour. Regular trains have to evacuate for the operation of express trains, and if we run express trains when it’s time to, that means the regular trains have to stay out of the way, which is inefficient. Even if we come up with all kinds of effective operational plans, it does not change the fact that regular trains have to evacuate for express trains to run because of the way the tracks have been laid out.”
He added, “We conducted a study of the congestion level in the congested sections of Line 9 in early September. The results showed that the cars were crowded, but the congestion level was only at about 155%. It seems that the reason people feel that this is a “subway from hell” is because they are mostly concentrated near the doors. If you are in the middle of the car, it doesn’t feel as congested. In the past, people had to wait for the next train because the cars filled up quickly, but that didn’t happen at all during this survey.”
Seoul “will finish increasing the number of six-car trains to 17 before opening phase 3”
It seems that the only way to fundamentally resolve the issue of the “subway from hell” is to increase the number of cars per train and thereby increase the transport capacity. However, considering the current work capacity, increasing the number of six-car trains to 17, which was originally scheduled to finish in the first half of this year, will not happen by the end of this year. Moreover, the plan to increase the number of cars to 294 by 2019 to have a total of 49 six-car trains for Line 9 seems uncertain. In fact, when it was announced in February 2017, the original goal of this plan was to secure 294 cars by the end of 2018, but at the end of the 2017, the Seoul government reduced the number to 270 cars. The labor union president Park explained, “Making six-car trains out of four-car trains sounds easy because you only need to attach two cars, but once you do, all the trains have to be inspected again. This means that you can only work on three trains at a time, and this process takes two to three months. Since there are ten six-car trains already, that means we have to make seven more six-car trains, which would take a minimum of six months. So it is physically difficult to have 17 six-car trains by the end of this year.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government, however, plans to have 17 six-car trains in operation prior to the opening of phase 3 and to have all trains operate as six-car trains by the end of next year. “We will finish increasing the number of six-car trains to 17 by the time we open phase 3,” said Manager Park at the City Transportation Headquarters. “We came to the conclusion that it is possible after a meeting with the Seoul Metropolitan Infrastructure Headquarters. We will work on it over the weekends, increase the number of late night pilot runs from twice a week to three times a week, and also continue adding cars during operating hours as well.”