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Although the construction of the Korean railway began during the Japanese occupation, it was the significant achievements and ability to adapt by the Korean Railway sector that gave Koreans the ability modernize and become innovative leaders moving into the 21st century.
On the small but highly populated country of South Korea, railroads continuously prove to be the best mode of transportation for both passenger and freight. From both, the environmental and economic perspective, this is also the best solution for transportation because the population and traffic continued to rise. The need for faster, cheaper and convenience of rail systems are always evolving to meet the needs of the people.
In present day Korea, the railroad and metro system has ranked among the top five safest, most reliable and efficient railways in the world. However, this has not always been case. When the country was first introduced to railways, it was under the Japanese rule and used mostly for Military and political purposes. To fully understand how the Korean railroad began to modernize, it is important to understand the developmental processes that have taken place since its introduction.
The United States of America and Korea first established diplomatic ties under the 1882 Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce, and Navigation and in the 1890’s the royal government had recognized the potential of electrical power and became determined to extend it to the public sector. In 1898, King Kojong granted authorization for the creation of a joint venture with two American businessmen, Henry Collbran and Harry Rice Bostwick, called the Hansung (or Seoul) Electric Company. The new company, 50 percent owned by the king himself, was charged with establishing a public electrical lighting network in Seoul, and contracted with Collbran and Bostwick Company to build an electric streetcar system as well.
In May of 1899, Koreas first tram was opened that linked Seadaemin and Dongdaemun. The tram which is also known as a streetcar or trolley was entirely new to the people of Korea, before that the use of bikes, stagecoach and rickshaws was the common modes of transportation. The electric tram was imported originally to support the procession of King Kojong to the Royal Tomb where his wife was buried. Collbran later convinced the king that it could also be used to serve the ordinary people and then later by increased demand, the line was expanded to 8, 40-seat cars and one VIP car for the Royal Family. There were no stations at the time, so people would wave their hands if they wanted to stop the tram and due to the overall convenience of this public transport it became the main mode of transportation within the city.
Four months after the opening of Korea’s first tram, the Gyeongin line was opened. Korea’s first train that was 33 km long ling between Incheon and Noryangjin in Hansung. This was beginning of mass transportation and the beginning of the revolution in Railways as increased transport continued to increase.
Soon after, the Gyeongbu Line (1904) which linked Seoul to Busan and the Gyeongui Line (1904) that linked Seoul to Sinuiju was also opened. Before the completion of both lines, Korea had inadequate funds to complete both projects, which Imperial Japan saw as an opportunity to gain control of the projects that would keep Korea under its influence, as well as a stage for future confrontations Russia which eventually happened during the Russo-Japanese war. Under the pressure of Japan, Korea was forced to an agreement that gave Japan’s military full control over the Korean Railroads. In 1906, the Gyeongui line was used transportation of Japanese soldiers and war supplies. This altered the way Koreans intended to use their railroads, it was no longer owned by different companies and instead transformed by the Japanese into one unified system of railroads. After the unification of railway management by Japan in 1906, a broad network emerged, based on the railroad and linking various domestic cities with the outside world.
With the implementation of railroads came the restructuring of how cities would begin to function entirely and expanding the distance at which the people could commute in a much timelier manner. Hansung (Seoul) is a perfect example of the effects of how railways can change society. Seoul was a walled city that surrounded the main palaces and which all activities including markets, restaurants, and all trading took place. Before the introduction of trams and trains, the local population was confined to this smaller inner city of Hansung. The railway’s connection with the tram system, which was based on the existing urban structure of Hansung-bu, expanded the scope of people’s daily lives beyond the boundaries of the castle town. Consequently, along with socio-structural change, the old structure of the walled city began to alter.
When Joseon became a colony of Japan in 1910, Imperial Japan, which intended to exploit Joseon as a stepping-stone for its invasion into the continent of China, pushed forward the railway’s construction in order to convey goods and troops to China. In 1914, the X shape railroads were complete which links all four main railways together that converge in Seoul. This greatly increases the range at which transporting goods and freight could be delivered to and from ports as well as connecting north and south ends of Korea. Something that may not have taken place as quickly had the Japanese not unified the railroads.
Increased Japanese presence near certain stations like the Yongsan station allowed the Yongsan region to grow tremendously due to military outpost being stationed there. The south gate of the palace walls where the south gate station was built, acted as a transit point for the Gyeong-in line. While others like the west gate became the terminal from the Incheon port and making the region there play an important role towards diplomatic relation with China.
During the Sino-Japanese, the manufacturing district in Gyeongsung-bu had developed because of the convenience of transportation previously established and the Gyeong-in manufacturing developed greatly from the Incheon harbor during the second Sino-Japanese war.
Due to high land value, Gyeongsung-bu factories moved to Yeongdeungpo and the area of Gyeong-in. This made it the ideal location for munition factories, and workers received housing from the Housing Administration in Yeongdeungpo area in 1941. As a result, the Yeongdeungpo station felt the immediate effects of these urbanizations taking place around the station. As the growth of Yeongdeungpo Station was triggered by industrialization in the Yeongdeungpo area and the consequent increase in the distribution of goods, the growth of Cheongryangni Station occurred due to the increased distribution of goods to Kangwon and Gyeonggi province following the construction of the Gyeong-Chun (1939) and Chungang lines (1942). This also affected the increase of passengers that traveled to Manchuria via the Korean peninsula.
A liberated Korea
After WWII, Korea was finally liberated from the Japanese on August 15 1945; however, the country was divided between Russia and the United States. While the soviets had influence over North Korea, The United States also had influence over South Korea. The Korean railways were divided between both sides of the country and then suspended by the Soviet Government. This wasn’t the end of the railroads that had seemingly begun under the influence of the Japanese. With Trains firmly embedded into Korean culture and an integral part of the city and nations infrastructure, the Koreans continued to improve the railway system to benefit South Korea.
The Joseon Liberator was the first Korean Locomotive that was developed by domestic technology. This Express train reduced the time between Seoul and Busan to 13 hours. But not all was without consequences, after the liberation of the Korean Peninsula, rail volume decreased sharply; rail passengers reduced by 39 percent and cargo by 13 percent. Without the ongoing war, the effects on transportation were felt all around. During the years leading up to the Korean war, there railways had stagnated and there wasn’t any real improvements or developments on the railway system.
The Korean War
The Korean war had a devastating impact on Korea, upwards of 50 percent of passenger cars and 55 percent of the electrical grid was destroyed. The war also damaged more than 75 percent of the entire railway system. During the war, General MacArthur for asked for two hospital trains, which by years end, two complete 10-car trains were forming a continuous shuttle between the front and Pusan. These railways proved to be a huge boost to morale for troops in South Korean. Allowing for reorganization in the American forces and allies who then began to regain ground, see withdrawals as well as move to the front and back to Pusan just as quickly. Train wreckers who could easily deploy in the case of derailment also followed these hospital trains. The United States also sent 35 Brand-new 105-ton, 800 horsepower Electromotive Division SW8 diesel switcher units. Diesel electric locomotives had many advantages over coal-powered trains; the main reason of which only one car was needed to refuel one car for a 700-mile range compared to 20 cars of coal. During the Korean conflict, these new locomotives and innovations quickly came together to make a difference in how the war went. The last major operation took place on November 27, 1953 for civilian relief when refugee housing went ablaze and quickly spread destroying over 3000 buildings in downtown Pusan. After this event, the hospital trains were disassembled and then moved to the European, Japanese and state side in anticipation of future conflicts that never came about.
Postwar Reconstruction Period – Industrial and Economic Growth
After the war with most trams and trains in Seoul destroyed and with the introduction of the car and public bus transportation. The remaining trams systems were abandoned in 1968, causing a decline in the public transportation by rail within the metropolitan of Seoul.
The introduction of high-performance locomotives with the help of foreign aid gave Korean a new outlook on how passengers and freight were to be moved going forward. In 1960, Trips between Seoul and Busan was cut down to about 6 hours and 40 minutes with speeds averaging 62kn/h and by 1969, the trips were reduced to just under 5 hours and traveling at an average of 92km/h. By this time Korean railways had once began in an upward trend after recovering from the post Korean War.
Completion of the electrified railway 1972 between Jeunsan and Gohan, a 10.7km trial run, which began the era of electric railways. This was followed by the completion of the Jungag line, Taebaek line, and the Yeongdong line, which became industrial railways. These offered greater pulling capacity between Yeongseo and Yeongdong. This would later be introduce on more lines. Thanks to these convenient modes of transportation, the railway system once again began to thrive.
Subway construction on the Gyeongni-Gyeongsu lines began in 1971. Before the construction of the subway, the only form of public transportation was by bus and with the rise private motor vehicles, the passenger numbers had dropped making it more difficult for commuters. With Seoul’s population at nearly up to 5.5 Million, there was a need for a mass transportation solution. In 1974 Koreas first subway was completed, this line (line 1) serviced Incheon, Suwon and Seongbuk. The people were overall excited and welcomed the new subway, which paved the way for further projects to take place. Seoul Line 2 was a loop that connected six different stations and instead of opening all at once, they were opened in stages over 4 years spanning from 1980 to 1984. It is still being used today and transports over 2 million people per day. Which makes up about 30% of overall passenger transportation in South Korea.
Seoul Metropolitan Subway Corporation was established in 1981 as a public corporation, it was also tasked with operating lines 1 and 2 as well as picking up future operations of line 3 and 4. In just over 10 years, the Seoul Metro had completely changed the way transportation was in Seoul by creating these underground highways of railways. In 1990, the Seoul Metro rapid transit began construction on lines 5 through 8 and completed in August of 2000.
Construction on Gyeongbu high-speed rail began in 1992 by Korean Rail Express (KTX) and completed in 2004 for phase I and 2010 for phase II. This cut down the travel time between Seoul and Busan again, this time to just 2 hours 30 minutes. The number of KTX passengers reached 10 Million within 142 day of opening. While the opening of the Gyeongbu high-speed rail increased transportation capacity for passengers by 3.4 times and freight by 7.7 times
Advanced Era Begins
KTX-Sancheon operating using domestic technology
Hemu 430X beings operation (430km/h)
After learning about the history and the progress made during the development of the Korean railway, there is enough evidence showing the correlation between railroads and growth and development. Cities, streets, and infrastructure all closely follow wherever the railroads lead. This also shows the improvements and impact it has had on the Korean public. Trains between Seoul and Busan that took 30 hours in the early 1900’s now only take 2-hour 30-mins in 2018. As Korea continues to improve their own technology and work with the international community, we can only take guesses as to what to expect in the future.

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