Thursday, August 17, 2006


South Korea is, for all practical purposes at the moment, an island. And not a terribly huge one at that. So it's amazing to compare the quality of the passenger railroad service here and in the United States.

First, there are the high-speed trains, that run several times an hour between Seoul and Busan. Another high-speed line runs from Seoul to Gwangju and Mokpo. The Seoul-Busan line is often packed.

One step below the high-speed trains are the Saemaul trains, which run only a few times a day but link up every city in South Korea of any size. I traveled by Saemaul between Seoul and Gwangju, economy class (first-class seats are also available), and other than the lack of a tray table the ride was considerably more comfortable than riding Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Not only the seats - the ride itself seemed to be smoother.

Then there are the cheap trains, the Mugunghwa trains, which presumably stop at all the little towns that the Saemaul train I was on sped by. There is also an excellent intercity bus system.

Compare to the United States. Passenger trains don't even run any more to central-eastern Maine - I can take Amtrak from DC as far as Boston before I have to switch to a bus. Koreans value cars - as a status symbol especially - but they don't have the US's car-centric culture that relegates all other forms of transportation to secondary status. I've been spoiled living here.

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