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South Korea launches high-speed train

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on March 30.)

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea's new bullet trains launch service this week at a landscape-blurring 185 miles per hour, catapulting the country into an elite high-speed rail club and fulfilling a decades-old ambition.

The project is a coming-of-age for a country obsessed with technology, but also a reminder of obstacles overcome and those that lie ahead.

At a demonstration test run Tuesday, acting president Goh Kun declared the trains ``the foundation of our prosperity in the 21st century.'' The train will begin passenger services Thursday.

``What we have envied and thought of as a dream has became reality,'' he said.

But since its inception in the 1980s, South Korea's bullet train has been plagued with cost overruns, delays, route and design changes and shoddy workmanship.

Supporters concede the sleek trains are already outdated at a time when countries like China are using futuristic magnetic levitation rails. Its vaunted April 1 launch -- already six years behind schedule -- is now tailed by terror concerns and financial woes.

``About 20 years ago, it was the best that was available,'' said Lee Inwon, a transportation professor at Seoul's Hongik University who was on the initial planning committee. ``We'll have to evaluate just how good it is after it opens.''

The cone-nosed, blue-and-gray KTX, or Korea Train Express, will nearly halve the almost five-hour trip, using conventional trains, from Seoul to the second biggest city, Busan, in the southeast. A spur line connects the city of Mokpo in the southwest.

Of the 46 trains, 12 were made by GEC- Alstom of France, based on the design of France's TGV bullet trains, the rest by South Korea with the help of the French company.

But the technology transfer is being used as the basis for a next-generation of homegrown South Korean bullet trains, expected to race at 215 mph.

That project is dubbed the G7, a patriotic nod to Seoul's push to join the Group of Seven rich industrialized countries -- an ambition that resonates with the public.

``I think it's about time we had those speed trains,'' said Nam Seung-yun, a 23-year-old university student in Seoul. ``Advanced countries like Japan and Germany already have it, and I feel that our country can now keep pace.''

On a recent demonstration run for diplomats, railworker families and journalists, the KTX raced past rice fields and whistled through tunnels with ear-popping speed.

Passengers cheered as the cabins' drop-down television monitors logged the train breaking the symbolic speed level tnat put South Korea in the prestigious company of such rail powers as Japan, France and Germany.

But busting the barrier wasn't so easy.

When the route is fully lined with high-speed railbed in 2010, the KTX will have cost an estimated $15.3 billion, more than double some projections.

To maximize cruising speed, some designers said the Seoul-Busan stretch should have no more than three stops. But politics has shifted the railbed to take in seven towns.

After years of delay, the KTX is finally coming online when neighboring China has built a high-speed megalev train in Shanghai. Riding on a cushion of air and driven by magnetic fields, that train tops 265 mph as the world's fastest.

A more important test will be whether KTX is financially viable.

Kim Yong-joo, an engineer with Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute who helped plan the KTX, said the trains won't sell all their seats. The system was based on projections from the booming economy of the 1980s and 90s, but demand has shriveled since the 1997 financial crisis, he said.

Despite months of ballyhoo, Korea National Railroad had sold only 25 percent of the April 1 bookings to Busan just two days before launch.

Korea National Railroad says the rail will carry 150,000 passengers a day during its first year and that the added capacity will save the country $1.5 billion in logistic costs annually. Construction costs will be recouped in 15 to 20 years, it says.

Someday, the government says, the KTX will be a vital link to rails in China and even the trans-Siberia railroad. But hermetically sealed North Korea will first have to cooperate before those dreams ever leave the station.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

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