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Research underpins Korail's drive to be a global player

01 May 2007

'KOREA is not an island', emphasises Kang Gil-Hyun forcefully, adding that 'we want to play a big role in the Asian railway sector and reconnect South Korea to the developing Eurasian railway network'. He points out that the choice of theme for next year's World Congress on Railway Research - Towards the Trans-Global Railway - is no coincidence.

As Senior Executive Director of Korail, Kang was elected Chairman of the WCRR organising committee last year, and he is working to position the Korean railway industry firmly on the world stage. Due to be held in Seoul on May 22-28, WCRR 2008 is being co-hosted by Korail, infrastructure authority KNRA and the Korean Railway Research Institute.

Korail hosted UIC's first Asian Railway Summit in Seoul last September, and at an executive board meeting in Delhi on March 21 Korail President Lee Chul was elected as the first Chairman of UIC's new Asian Regional Assembly.

Addressing the Delhi meeting, Lee emphasised that 'planning, partnership and co-operation must be our top priorities'. He is very keen to see the development of Eurasian rail links, and in particular the creation of international corridors as envisaged in Escap's Trans-Asian Railway network. 'Completion of the missing links will bring prosperity and development for all people in the next decade the railways will contribute to political, social and economic development of the region', he insisted.

Trans-Korean links

As a major step towards this objective, Lee told his fellow railway representatives in Delhi that 'trial operation on the Trans-Korean Railway must be realised in the near future.'

Korail and KNRA have already invested considerable sums in restoring the three cross-border railway corridors between South and North Korea - one line crossing the DMZ close to each coast and one in the centre of the country. 'There were many meetings last year', says Kang, adding that although RZD President Vladimir Yakunin organised a three-country summit on the TKR project in February and March 2006 this failed to reach an agreement. It was 'very difficult to negotiate', he recalls.

Neverthless, Yakunin agreed to restore the cross-border link from Tajin in North Korea to a branch of the Trans-Siberian at Posyet. Work was due to be finished by the end of last year, but Kang says completion has been delayed by funding constraints.

'In 2002-06 we spent almost US$120m on reconnecting and revitalising the Kyongji line', he says. Reopening the 30 km connection between Munsan and Kaesong would reconnect Seoul with Pyongyang. Similarly, a great deal of effort was put into restoring the central route from Sintanri to Sepo. 'Another US$100m is needed to restore the East Coast route (Kangneung - Kosong) because a lot of the track south of the border was removed after the war. This is a sparsely-populated area, and there the local government saw little potential in the railway at that time.'

'We were ready to start test-running on all three cross-border routes in July 2006', Kang confirms, 'but the North Koreans cancelled the programme at the last minute'. He is hopeful that reopening talks will resume following the forthcoming presidential elections.

In the short term, the South Korean government is looking at introducing a maritime shuttle to move containers to and from Russian ports pending the reopening and upgrading of the lines through North Korea.

Kang says 2008 is the target for introduction of through trains between Seoul and China, following a meeting between Lee Chul and Chinese Vice-Minister of Railways Wang Zhiguo in November 2006. However, this too will require the co-operation of the North Koreans, who already run through trains from China to Pyongyang.

International training centre

Meanwhile, Korail is stepping up its contribution to the region's railways by endorsing proposals for the creation of an International Rail Training Centre for Asia which will be built at Uiwang near Seoul.

'Education is the key to mobilising technical development and achieving a fully-operational Trans-Asian Railway,' Kang told the UIC regional assembly in Delhi. 'This will create trust and confidence between Asian railways and promote regional benefits as we work towards interoperable rail networks in Asia.'

Since the idea was first proposed by Vietnam Railways' representatives at the Seoul summit, Korail has already commissioned a survey of training needs from railways in the region, and Kang is waiting for the responses. Iratca has been established as an independent subsidiary of Korail, but other railways have been invited to join the consortium.

Korail is already building its own training centre at Uiwang, which is due to open in 2008, and has allocated space on the 33 000 m² campus to add the international facilities as a second stage. According to Kang, construction would start on Phase 1 in May 2008 and Phase 2 in 2010, with the full centre to be completed by June 2012.

'Iratca will expand the opportunities for railway training in Asia, promote relevant and appropriate training, and enable us all to share knowledge and exchange best practice', he explains. It will cover all disciplines - technical, managerial, operational - and will be open to all UIC regional members, Trans-Asean railways and participants in the Asian Railways summit. Training will be done in English with some simultaneous translation.

Kang anticipates that the centre will offer around six courses per year from 2009, increasing to 10 from 2012, with up to 20 participants on each course. Individual courses could last from two weeks to four months depending upon the content.

Investing in research

The new training centre will also benefit from a considerable expansion in Korean railway research funding over the past few years. 'The government has become a lot more active since 2000', says Kang. 'It is currently providing around US$100m a year for high speed development, compared with about U$15m a year during the 1990s.'

Funding is offered on the basis of open bidding between the different research institutes, with technical committees identifying the top priorities and suitable project leaders. Kang says an increasingly important consideration is the provision of match funding from the private sector. 'The government expects a minimum of 20% to 30% of private funding, and ideally 50:50. All of the institutes are looking to win more grants to support their staff, whereas the universities don't need so much money as their professors are already funded from the academic budget.'

He expects research spending to increase further in the next few years. In January the government decided to invest 40bn won in magnetic levitation research over the next five years, including the creation of a new Korean Maglev Research Institute. This will be based near Taejon, where an experimental test track is to be built.

Another major focus of research spending is high speed train development. A contract for a fleet of 10 KTX2 trainsets was awarded to Rotem in June 2006, and Kang says the final design concept for these 10-car sets has now been completed (below). Unlike the TGV-derived KTX sets, which carried their 100 millionth passenger in April just three years after the launch of commercial services, KTX2 will have aluminium bodyshells based on the locally-developed HSR350 prototype.

KTX2 will retain the concept of separate power cars and articulated trailers, but last year the South Korean government announced plans to develop a third-generation high speed train with distributed power over the next five or six years. The concept has been designated HEMU-400X to reflect its tentative target of a 400 km/h maximum speed (RG 9.06 p485). It has not yet been decided whether this project will be led by Korail or KRRI, but Kang anticipates a formal decision later this year.

Kang says HSR350 was 'very expensive' for the rolling stock industry, with infrastructure works accounting for between 30% and 50% of the total cost. 'We needed to upgrade a lot of old bridges, and examine the earthworks for structural vibration at higher speeds. The government was not willing to spend on these works, which had to be funded by the project partners'. He puts the final cost of the programme at around US$200m.

By comparison, the government expects to spend US$102m on the HEMU-400X programme. 'A lot of the basic work has already been done', he explains. One effect of this reduced funding has been the break-up of the KTX research team, with around half focusing on the development of distributed power technology and the rest moving to the maglev programme 'which will see the biggest spend in the next few years'.

Kang says the pay-back of this increased spending is already becoming apparent. Development of new EMU designs and high speed trains has helped the Korean rail industry to compete in international markets. 'Rotem is very active in Ireland, and has sold metro cars to India. Now they have started to build commuter rail trains for the American market. And I know they are looking to offer high speed trains on the world market, with China a possible customer.'

KTX2 and TTX take shape

As well as the aluminium bodyshells, another major difference between the first and second generations of KTX will be the power electronics. As a rolling stock engineer, Kang has been closely involved with the evolution of Korean traction drives through the past two decades, and is keen to keep the railway at the cutting edge of technology.

In 1990-93, KNR refitted all its EMUs with asynchronous AC drives to permit regenerative braking, using a Toshiba design of VVVF control. 'We were very early into this technology the Japanese and ABB were the only other people using GTOs at that time.'

In 1994 GTO-equipped EMUs were introduced on Seoul metro lines 3 and 4. 'Seoul Metro Corp wanted to adapt the concept for a DC traction supply using inverters, but the Japanese were reluctant to fund the development', he recalls. This gave a real kick-start to local industry. Rotem took on the challenge and developed a workable solution using Toshiba and Mitsubishi components.'

So an asynchronous GTO drive was specified for KTX, which he says did not require any significant redesign of the TGV Réseau power cars. But such is the rate of progress in power electronics, Kang says, that not only is the GTO obsolete, so is its successor the IGBT. 'Although the IGBT is stable, there are still some power losses', he explains. Following successful trials with HSR350, Korail's next generation of high speed trains will use Integrated Gate Commutated Thyristors, which Kang believes is 'the way ahead'.

Distributed traction drives for Korean high speed trains are being pioneered on the TTX tilting train prototype developed by KRRI and Rotem, which finally began test running in April. The 180 km/h TTX is also the first tilting train with a hybrid carbon fibre bodyshell (RG 6.06 p328).

Originally launched as a KNR project, the TTX programme was transferred to the Ministry of Transport & Communications in 2005, although Kang says Korail is still closely involved and is looking at potential routes for tilt operation in commercial service.

'Korail will be looking at the scope for tilt performance on all main lines', he says. 'We have to identify the scope for higher speeds, the operating and upgrading costs and the potential benefits.'

The need for speed

Kang says Korail is acutely aware of the need to raise average speeds on its conventional main lines, which are severely hampered by sharp curves as they thread through the mountains that make up 70% of South Korea's land area. 'We have not seen any real speed-up on the conventional lines since the Saemaul trains entered service in 1986', he notes. 'That brought 160 km/h operation on the Seoul - Pusan corridor, which was the best we could manage until KTX opened in 2004.'

Thanks to a better understanding of curving conditions, Kang says it should now be 'theoretically possible' to operate at 170 or 180 km/h on KNRA's conventional lines. The scope to increase speeds is currently limited by the existing signalling, but this constraint should be removed over the next two to three years as ETCS-based automatic train protection is rolled out to replace the existing ATS equipment on all main lines. 'With ATP in place, hopefully we will be able to launch a speed-up in 2008', he suggests.

A further 12 KTX2 trainsets are likely to be ordered during 2007, augmenting the 10 ordered last year. At present through services from Seoul to Mokpo are being operated by 20-car KTX trainsets, but Kang says this results in relatively poor load factors on the less-busy Honam line. Delivery of the 2+8 KTX2 sets will better balance supply and demand, whilst releasing the longer sets to augment the Seoul - Pusan fleet in time for the opening of the final section of the new line.

Korail stopped buying diesel locos and conventional loco-hauled coaches about three or four years ago, says Kang. Today the focus is all on EMUs and high speed trains. Following the completion of electrification work on the Honan line in 2004, and on the Gyongbu line in 2006, Korail's strategy is to switch all long-distance services to EMUs.

The railway plans to spend around US$300m a year on new EMUs for delivery over the next three years, starting with an initial build of 32 six-car EMUs ordered from SLS and Hitachi for delivery in 2008-09. These 160 km/h sets will work regional inter-city services.

Kang expects the first series order for 180 km/h EMUs to be placed in 2008. Kang says the new trains will not be fitted with tilt, noting that 'there are lots of discussions in progress, but we have yet to make a business case'. Korail will wait for the results of the TTX test programme before deciding whether to pursue tilt in future.

Infrastructure investment

Over the next few years, says Kang, the government is expected to invest around US$3bn a year into the Korean rail network. 'Top priority is to complete the second phase of the Seoul - Pusan high speed line', he emphasises, 'followed by construction of the new Honam line' (RG 10.06 p681).

The Ministry of Transport & Communications is expected to announce shortly that the Osong - Iksan section of the new Honam line will be fitted out as a future test track for very high speed trials. Fitted with higher-tension overhead catenary and instrumented slab track, this would supercede an earlier proposal to develop a test section on the Daegu - Pusan line now under construction.

Kang says that KNRA and the ministry have already decided that future high speed lines will be built with ballastless track rather than the French ballasted design adopted for the original Seoul - Daejon - Daegu route.

There will also be some funding for infrastructure works on the conventional network, notably for the roll-out of ATP. KNRA's existing main lines to the east coast and the northeast are still partly single track, although some have been upgraded as part of recent electrification work. Other routes were electrified back in the 1970s to carry heavy coal traffic and are now being upgraded to permit faster speeds. Kang says this work is scheduled for completion in three or four years.

However, Korail does not expect conventional lines to remain competitive in the longer term. Studies are already underway for construction of further high speed lines, which he hopes will begin within two or three years. South Korea is currently bidding to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, which Kang sees as a major spur to encourage more investment in the rail network.

But he is concerned that the government may be looking to scale back rail spending following the election, in the light of other commitments such as welfare reform. 'The ministry is keen to reduce its direct investment and to encourage greater involvement by the private sector, such as the Incheon airport rail link in Seoul' (p297), he explains.

'In addition, the government is currently committed to spending around US$1bn a year on metros and urban rail projects, although this will also start to decline. The big heavy metro lines in the main cities are approaching completion and smaller cities are focusing on automated light metros or light rail schemes.'

 

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