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Wednesday, March 27, 2024

GTXtension(s) - fast transit rather than mass commuting?

In case you missed it, three new projects of GTX (Great Train eXpress) lines were announced earlier this year. Since we're getting closer to the inauguration of the first section on March 30 (GTX-A from Suseo to Dongtan), but also to key elections on April 10, I'll spare you all the wonderful urban development pledges that have popped up from all sides (I guess merging Gimpo with Seoul was one of the most radical), and talk a bit more about these Great Train extensions and GTX-tensions.

By stretching ABC and adding DEF, the network reaches further North, South, West, and East, and draws a first ring around Seoul and across Gyeonggi-do (GTX-F):

If GTX clearly brings places closer together, dividing by 3 the time to join Suseo and Dongtan, and if it reaches relatively fast speeds (105 km/h in its inaugural section, with peaks at 180 km/h), the system is 'express' in the sense that it makes few stops. And so far, it has more or less managed to resist intense pressure to add intermediary stations, particularly within Seoul. 

Which makes the success of seamless multimodal transport hubs even more critical, and I'm not sure that will be the case from day one. 'Luckily', the traffic shall not be too massive, because as it is conceived now, GTX can't really handle mass commuting. 

Beyond the limited number of trains per hour, their shortness is an issue, and commuters may struggle to find a spot to hop in, particularly in intermediary stations. I've experienced rush hour on Paris region's RER, with its long, double-decker trains, and that's not always pleasant... We may not see scenes similar to Line 9 saturation on steroids, but expect at least significant frustration from a lot of people who were expecting GTX as the instant panacea.

GTX provides fast transit before mass transit, it shortens connections before coping with mass commuting, and that's already something big. Even if you won't commute to work there, simply knowing that you can go to Seoul very quickly for lunch, dinner, or on a weekend can make moving far away less alienating. 

These massive and costly extensions do add Gangwon-do (Chuncheon and Wonju) and Chungcheongnam-do (Cheonan) to the equation, but also risk of further widening the gaps between sudogwon (Seoul-Incheon-Gyeonggi) and the rest of Korea as well as within the capital region and within the capital itself. With its relatively cheap fees (KRW 3.2K + 250 per 5 km), GTX may even cannibalize such alternatives as KTX.

The choices of routes and stations is always debatable and many areas within and beyond Seoul will remain underserved, but I always welcome transversal approaches in transport, and cooperation within the capital region. Nowadays, Seoul is collaborating much closer with Gyeonggi-do, including for its Climate Card now, and a ring bringing Gyeonggi closer together and bypassing the capital altogether marks a significant step.

Somehow, GTX is forcing the emergenceof  the grand vision, the great debate that's always been lacking. The way this whole region keeps developing remains a litany of missed opportunities, particularly since most of this urban and transport development (or lack of) relied on new towns built from scratch. And you know how often I complain about so much urban planning without urbanism or planning.

Now we're hearing about covering the Gyeongin Expressway and the rift between the Eastern and Western sides of Dongtan new town, and both will cost a fortune, but the Seoul-Inchon axis dates from ages ago, and that rift should have been solved from Dongtan's very conception. As demographics plummet and finances shrink, Korea can't afford not to get it right from the beginning. 

This nation is so great at alphabets, it should contemplate beyond ABCDEF.

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