This month South Korea joins the elite club of railways operating commercial services at 300 km/h when a fleet of 46 TGV trainsets will transform travel on Korail's prime inter-city route between Seoul and Pusan. Reporting from Seoul, Murray Hughes finds that it has not been an easy ride for Korea TGV Consortium and its partners

EVERY DAY for the last few weeks passengers catching Saemaul express trains between Seoul and Pusan have watched the arrival and departure of the blue and white Korea Train eXpress trainsets.

This shadow service using 25 to 28 trains a day has served to bed in the 223·6 km new line built between Seoul and Taegu, and on March 15-22 the KTX services were made available to fare-paying passengers. Every technical and commercial detail of South Korea's most ambitious rail project was under scrutiny to check for pitfalls before the acid test of commercial service on April 1. From that date Korail plans to run up to 92 trains a day in each direction over the new line.

The US$17bn project was first talked about seriously in the 1980s, and in 1994 a 'core system' contract was signed with Korea TGV Consortium, a group of 13 companies led by Alstom subsidiary Eukorail (panel). This was the organisation responsible for rolling stock, electrical power and signalling. Other work was entrusted to local companies.

With traffic on the Seoul - Pusan axis forecast to reach 120 million passengers/year, it is set to become the second busiest inter-city route in the world after Tokyo - Osaka, with the possibility of trains departing at 3min headways. According to Vincent Fertin, Executive Vice-President & Project Director of Eukorail, South Koreans are inveterate travellers, and the advent of KTX, he suggests, will persuade many people to switch from air to rail. At the moment 'wide-bodied jets fly every 10min' between Seoul and Pusan, the catch being 'that it is difficult to reach the airport'. Journey time by KTX with two intermediate stops will be just 2h 40min compared with 4h 10min by Korail's fastest conventional Saemaul trains.

Fertin has overseen the long process that has brought TGV technology to South Korea, which he likens to 'building a cathedral - the designer never saw what he had built'. Essentially, the trains are derivatives of the TGV Réseau, while the TVM430 signalling plus the catenary are derived from the equipment used on TGV Nord. There are several important differences from the SNCF trainsets, the most obvious being the formation of two power cars and 18 intermediate cars with the outer bogies of the end vehicles motored (panel p228). Each Korean trainset will seat 935 passengers.

Coping with the Asian crisis

Eukorail employs around 330 people, of whom half are local, reflecting the partnership with Korean companies that characterises the project. 'It is a very challenging atmosphere', says Fertin, who recalls the Asian financial crisis when 'we were really afraid they would stop the project'. He professes to being 'very impressed' with the Koreans' handling of the situation, which saw the scheme slide into 'contractual limbo' in 1996-99. But KTX enjoyed the status of a national project, and steps were taken to ensure its survival.

Many changes followed. Alstom and its fellow French suppliers had not anticipated the merging in July 1999 of its local rolling stock partners, Daewoo, Hyundai and Hanjin into Koros, which was renamed Rotem in January 2002. At one point the technology transfer deal 'was in abeyance', but this was resolved by one of many contract amendments. Fertin says that the French suppliers needed compensation for the disruption, and while this was 'not a claim or dispute', it was 'a very complicated situation' which Fertin says was 'handled in a very positive way'.

Civil engineering work carried out by local contractors was another difficulty. This was not part of Eukorail's remit, but Fertin says the arrangement whereby different companies were responsible for design and construction was 'not appropriate'. The situation was made worse as 'the different companies were not supposed to interface with each other'.

But sufficient progress was made to have an initial test section available for the first trials to take place in 1999, and a demonstration run with the Korean President on board was staged on December 19 of that year.

The hilly terrain called for long sections on viaduct or in tunnel, as the line is designed for speeds up to 350 km/h. Nearly all the track is ballasted, but tracks in some stations have a ballastless design; 60 kg/m rail is used throughout, with Pandrol fastenings. Wayside safety equipment includes rail temperature detectors, windspeed, snow and heavy rainfall detection, hotbox detectors, dragging equipment detectors, and tunnel intrusion alarms.

Taegu - Pusan

A major revision of KTGVC's contract in 1999 saw removal of the Taegu - Pusan section from its remit, and this part of the route is not now expected to be complete until 2008-10. Civil works on this section will in any case be carried out by Korean companies, and six contracts have been signed already. Four more are in preparation, and work on all 10 should have been started by the end of this year.

The arrangements for electrical and mechanical equipment are under discussion, with contracts due to be signed next year. 'We hope to have some involvement - they want us in the loop', says Fertin. One possibility is for the Koreans to lead with the French 'in a back-up position - Eukorail is of course a Korean company'. Extensive use of ballastless track is likely.

To allow KTX services to reach Pusan before the second stage is completed, the 118 km from Taegu to the port city has been electrified at 25 kV 60Hz. This work was finished only at the end of last year, and a KTX ran to Pusan for the first time on November 4.

On October 22 last year the client notified Korea TGV Consortium that KTX services would also run to Mokpo over the Honam line from Taejon, which was also wired last year. The same KTX unit reached Mokpo on November 11.

There will be 60 to 64 KTX services a day in each direction between Seoul and Pusan, plus another 22 to 28 to and from Mokpo taking 2h 58min; to avoid congestion at the main station, some Mokpo trains will start and finish at Yongsan. This level of service will require 35 out of the 46 trainsets to be available. The Saemaul and Mugunghwa expresses on both routes will be rescheduled, with end-to-end services cut and retimed to feed in an out of KTX.

Fares on KTX will be nearly 50% higher than on conventional trains, but still pitched below current airline fares.

Project changes

Among the many changes in the 'rescoping' of the project following the financial crisis was the postponement of new construction through the cities of Taejon and Taegu. At present the Seoul - Taejon section of the new line ends at a yard north of Taejon, and there is a long, slow approach over conventional tracks. The decision to delay what would inevitably be expensive civil works led to a substantial cost saving. According to Korea Rail Network Authority, a decision has yet to be made on whether to build the missing section underground, at grade, or on elevated alignment.

Another incident with the potential to disrupt progress was the Taegu metro fire on February 18 2003 (RG 3.03 p113). 'It was a big event for us', says Fertin, 'because the question was "what's going to happen to a KTX in a tunnel?".' Given that there will be 190 km of tunnel between Seoul and Pusan, this was clearly of major concern. 'Within a week of the disaster', Fertin continues, 'we had arranged a demonstration showing someone with a torch trying to burn the inside of a KTX trailer - of course it does not burn.' He points out that KTX is built to the same fire safety standard as the Eurostar sets.

Balanced contract

Marc Chatelard, Alstom's Senior Vice-President, Asia Pacific Region, elaborates on the relationship between the French and the Koreans. 'It was a balanced contract, and it worked well, but we had to adapt our way of thinking, especially as our client was a government company'. Everything was negotiated using interpreters, he adds.

The consortium has also coped with the reshaping of Korean Railways. Its original client Korea High Speed Rail Corp became KRNA on January 1 2004, and the process of handing over sees the contract transferred to the operator Korail; the core assets and liabilities changed hands on January 5.

Throughout the life of the project, various consultants have been involved. SNCF International is responsible for commissioning (RG 8.03 p506), and Georges Devaux, who oversaw the commissioning of TGV Méditerranée, has been seconded to the scheme. Other consultants include DE-Consult, Ingerop and Systra. Earlier, Bechtel International had been involved in project management, but it withdrew in November 2001.

By December last year all the Alstom and Rotem trainsets had been delivered, and the catenary energised. Signalling and TVM430 train control was fully installed and tested by the same date.

Maintenance strategy

Eukorail is not responsible for maintenance, but the company delivered maintenance manuals to its Korean partners in November as it is responsible for supervision of maintenance activities. Fertin sees this as an opportunity to extend the contract, and Eukorail held a review to examine options in February.

Depots to service KTX trains have been built in Seoul and Pusan. The Seoul depot is located at Goyang, 20 km north of the main station. Facilities include a set of Neuero jacks able to lift an entire 20-car trainset, a Washtec train washer, and a Hegenscheidt MFD wheel lathe, which Divisional Manager, Reliability Management Oh In-Tack says 'we are having to use too much already'. Another wheel lathe is provided at Pusan depot, but a new wheel lubrication system is being fitted to tackle the wear problems, which Fertin says are caused mainly by the need to run the trains over sharply-curved parts of the existing network.

The extensive depot site at Goyang has nearly 32 km of track, including a 2·2 km test track. Its construction did not enthral local residents. New sporting facilities were built to keep the peace, but the most spectacular concession was construction of a two-track KTX station especially for Goyang residents. Service levels to and from Goyang had still to be decided in February.

With KTGVC's role winding down, Eukorail is actively seeking business. It already has a contract for work on the Incheon airport line, now under construction. With an eye to the future and the need for maximum capacity on the KTX route, Chatelard also notes that there is a proposal to discuss technology transfer for TGV Duplex to South Korea. 'But that does not mean selling at any price', he warns.

Korea TGV Consortium

Alstom, Eukorail, CSEE Transport, Rotem, Hyungai, Hanjin, Daewoo, Samsung SDS, Samsung Electronics, Iljin Electric, Hyundai, LG Industrial Systems and LG Cable.