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S.Korea joins high-speed train elite

(Reuters circulated the following article on April 1.)

SEOUL -- A sleek, French-designed bullet train slipped out of Seoul on Thursday on a high-speed journey to the southern port city of Pusan, opening an $11-billion line that will cut traffic jams and boost cargo deliveries.

South Korea joins an elite club with its 300-kphKTX as it is only the fifth such service in the world after Japan, France, Germany and Spain. The high-speed train will cut 90 minutes off the 400-km (250-mile) journey to South Korea's second city, now less than three hours away.

The project should help reduce jams on the motorways of mountainous South Korea and free up conventional rail for more freight in a country that depends heavily on exported goods and imported materials.

There was little fanfare as bleary-eyed passengers boarded the 5:30 a.m. (2030 GMT) service but a big ceremony when the train arrived in Pusan two hours and 40 minutes later -- compared with four hours and 10 minutes previously.

Passengers welcomed the train as a source of national pride.

``It is amazing our country has this kind of technologically advanced transit system,'' said Lee Jae-gul, a college student.

About 70 passengers on a later Pusan-Seoul service were delayed by 14 minutes when they had to transfer to a back-up train in the city of Taejon after the driver of the original locomotive detected a minor lubrication problem.

Security was low-key but tight around the revamped Seoul Station after bomb blasts on trains in Madrid last month killed 191 people. Police in Seoul said they received a bomb threat but found nothing untoward. They suspect an April Fool's Day prank.

In southern Germany, two people were hurt when a high-speed Intercity Express train derailed at low speed after crashing into a tractor that had fallen down a slope on to the track, police there said on Thursday.


Eventually two lines will serve Pusan and the southwestern port of Mokpo and cities along the route. The journey time will be cut to just under two hours once high-speed tracks are completed all the way to Pusan by 2010.

Officials say the service will persuade people to switch from the myriad short-haul flights of domestic carriers Korean Air Line Co and Asiana Airlines and eventually to commute into Seoul from cities along the route, easing congestion in the capital.

``With the beginning of the KTX service, the transport system of South Korea will be reorganized,'' Song Seung-Myoung, public relations director for the KTX, told Reuters. KTX stands for Korea Train Express.

Song said the last event of similar status was the 1970 opening of South Korea's first motorway, a road that helped to transform the country from rural backwater to industrial power.

Officials said the first train was half full. Eventually, they expect one million people a day to use the service.

At a ceremony on Tuesday, Acting President Goh Kun said the train could be ``the starting point for a 21st century Iron Silkroad'' to Europe, although such a railway would have to pass through communist North Korea before reaching Russia or China.

The train, which is 388 meters (424 yards) long and can carry 935 passengers, uses the same technology as France's TGV train and was built by French engineering group Alstom.

``Its effects on our life and economy will be enormous,'' Choi Yeon-hye, a professor at the Korean National Railroad College, said on Tuesday. He noted Japan's bullet trains had helped the economy and said he expected a similar effect from the KTX train.

``In a nutshell, the KTX signifies a new step for South Korea to jump into developed-country status.''

Thursday, April 1, 2004

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