South Korea’s first domestically-developed maglev train opens

Posted on : 2016-02-03 18:37 KST Modified on : 2016-02-03 18:37 KST
The train, linking Incheon International Airport to Yongyu, could provide an opportunity for Korea to sell its maglev technology abroad
The new “Ecobee” maglev train conducts a test run at Incheon International Airport
The new “Ecobee” maglev train conducts a test run at Incheon International Airport

There was a low hum as the maglev (magnetic levitation) train departed from Incheon International Airport Station. Called “Ecobee,” a name that combines “eco-friendly” with “bee,” the maglev train is completely based on homegrown technology.

The maglev train passed through six stations - Long-Term Parking, Combined Government Office, International Business Complex, Waterpark and Yongyu - before arriving at the depot 15 minutes later. Starting on Feb. 3, the train will run at 15 minute intervals every day from 9am to 6pm and will be free of charge.

On the morning of Feb. 1, shortly before the line was set to open, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport and the Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials (KIMM) gave reporters a test run on the train.

With a maximum speed of 110km per hour, a maximum operational speed of 80km per hour, and an average speed of 30km per hour, the maglev train made hardly any noise or vibration, offering a very smooth ride.

There was an occasional squeaking sound, caused by the wind blowing against the train, and there was also a little vibration, which the staff said resulted from the surface of the line not being completely clean. That said, there was less noise and vibration than on any train that this reporter had ridden before.

Another advantage of the maglev is that it costs less money. The per kilometer construction cost of the maglev line was 42.7 billion won (US$35.16 million). This is in the ballpark of other light rails (between 40 and 50 billion won (US$33-41 million)) and just one third of the cost of regular trains (100 to 150 billion won (US$82-123 million)).

And while the cost of supplying electricity to a maglev line is 30% greater than for a regular light rail, it costs 60% to 70% less to operate the train, which means that in terms of the total construction and operation cost, maglev is cheaper than light rail.

Between 1989 and 2003, South Korea developed maglev prototypes, and since 2007 it has been working on the Incheon Airport line as a test project. But because the train can be jostled in strong winds and because of the risk of rain causing a short circuit, the opening of the line was delayed no fewer than five times since 2013 because of safety concerns.

“Many felt that, because of other accidents, we should exercise the utmost prudence in opening the line, which is why we have been carrying out inspections over and over again,” said Shin Byung-chun, head of a team at the KIMM in charge of commercializing urban maglev trains.

The Ministry and KIMM expect that the opening of this line will serve as an opportunity for launching the maglev train industry in South Korea.

While Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia, and the US have expressed interest in adopting South Korea’s maglev technology, none of these projects have materialized since the technology has not yet reached the market in South Korea. And in 2005, Japan had already succeeded at making commercially viable low- to mid-speed maglev trains that are comparable to South Korea’s.

The reason why the timing of the line’s opening was moved forward from April to February was because of news that China was planning to unveil a low- to mid-speed maglev train similar to South Korea’s in the city of Changsha around the time of the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 8 this year.

But maglev trains still have quite a few hills to climb before they can really get rolling. The steepest hill of all is the competition they face from streetcars, which have recently been the subject of much discussion as a method of urban transit. With a per kilometer construction cost ranging from 20 to 30 billion won (US$16-24 million), streetcars are the most affordable kind of rail service, and they are also very convenient since they run on the surface of the road. Maglev trains cost much more than streetcars, and their equipment requires them to run on elevated railways.

And while three of the stations on the Incheon Airport line (Incheon Airport, Long-Term Parking, and Yongyu) are already built up, the other three (Combined Government Office, International Business Complex, and Waterpark) have almost no development around them.

The reason that Incheon International Airport was selected as the location for the test project was because of the large number of foreign visitors and the big development projects planned for the area. But the majority of those projects were canceled as a result of the economic downturn.

“If the line had been built in Daejeon, Gwangju, or Daegu - which competed with Incheon for the bid - the technology would probably have become commercially viable and successful more quickly. It’s a bit unfortunate,” said a senior official on the Ministry’s project team.

By Kim Kyu-won, staff reporter

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