Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Public Transportation: Trains

The second type of public transportation available is the train. Seoul has a very expansive subway network that is currently being expanded – I believe they just finished the extension from Gangnam to Bundang. Just outside of my apartment building in Yeongtong, there is subway work that seems like it will never end. I believe this construction will connect Yeongtong to Bundang. Other cities in Korea also have subway systems (like Busan and Daegu) that provide convenient transportation. In addition to the subway, passenger trains also run throughout the country, including a high-speed train, the KTX.

The subway is a super convenient way for foreigners to get around Seoul since learning the buses in the area can be difficult if you don’t live in that particular area. Plus, with a regular population (not counting visitors) of over 10 million people, the streets can be a bear to navigate through even on good days. If you don’t mind being crammed into a metal box with dozens of other people as it hurls down a track, then this is the transportation method for you.

I believe the starting time for the subway is 6 a.m., and the ending time depends on the line – but this will usually be about midnight. If the subway stops and you aren’t to your destination yet, oh well! Sucks to be you. Go get a taxi.

The subway is easy to navigate and has signage displayed in English, Chinese, and Korean. A map of the subway system is also standard on any non-smartphone purchased in Korea, but it may only be available in Korean. If you have a smartphone, iPod touch, iPad, or Galaxy Tab, subway map apps are available for free in their respective app stores. If you have none of these and want to go old-school, paper maps are available at subway stations. I don’t remember how much each stop costs on the subway because I’ve never used an actual ticket – I always charge-up and use my T-Money card just for simple convenience.

Despite its convenience, sometimes the subway’s not quite the fastest way to get from point A to point B. Sometimes taking a bus or taxi might be the best if you’re crunched for time, even though the taxi will cost more (unless you’re splitting it with some friends). Some problems with the subway can be that you might have to make more than one or two transfers to get to where you’re going or there may just be too many people and you have to wait for the next train. Seoul really isn’t that big of a city size-wise, but traffic can make it feel like it’s absolutely huge, so if traffic is light, a taxi might be the quickest way.

And it wouldn’t be Korea if you didn’t have to deal with the occasional drunk old man on the subway or the car that smells like stale soju and piss. Sometimes I’ve been out with a friend and as the train is zipping by us to come to a stop, we spot a nearly empty car and do a little happy dance because it means we can actually get a seat. But nope. The happy dance is premature. The Koreans have abandoned the car because there’s some drunk old man stumbling around trying to talk to people. I once had a drunk old man scoot across the floor on his ass to follow me to my new seat as he looked offended by my moving away from him (he wanted a lighter so he could smoke his cigarette). The other two people in the car (an American guy and his Korean buddy) motioned for my friend and me to follow them to the next car and leave the drunk man to his drunken babbling and pining away for a lighter. Being bothered by sloshed people seems to be worse if you’re a foreigner since I guess they decide to be all brave and “talk” to the weird looking people. This is where an iPod and pretending to sleep save the day.

Passenger Trains
The passenger trains are a fast and inexpensive way to get around the country. Trains might not go everywhere, but they can probably get you pretty close to your destination quickly. There are basically 5 types of trains available to choose from: the KTX (Korea Train eXpress), the Saemaeul, the Mungunghwa, the Nooriro, and a commuter train (can’t remember the name) that basically runs a couple of times a day for people commuting for work from smaller outlying areas. Each train has its own designated stops so your starting point and destination will determine which train is best for your trip.

The KTX is Korea’s high-speed train and gets you from Seoul to Busan or from Seoul to Mokpo in less than 3 hours. The KTX doesn’t stop at all stations, unfortunately, but Suwon was finally added as a KTX stop in 2010 (about freaking time!!). This will be the most expensive way to travel, but it’s super fast and nicer than the other trains. Even if your starting point isn’t a KTX station, you can transfer at one and still save a good chunk of time on your trip.

The Saemaeul stops at a lot of stops and is slower than the KTX but cheaper. The Mungunghwa is even cheaper than the Saemaeul and often smells like stale piss in the cars, and I have no clue why. The Mungunghwa also stops at fewer stops than the Saemaeul. The Nooriro is also cheap, but I’m not too sure about how many stops it makes. An example of paying a couple of extra won to make your day easier is traveling to Suwon from either Yongsan or Seoul Station on either the Mungunghwa or Saemaeul. At the end of a long day of tromping around Seoul, getting back to Suwon in 30 minutes instead of an hour combined with the knowledge of knowing I won’t have to stand for that time period makes it worth taking a train back instead of the subway. Granted, I then I have to get from Suwon Station to Yeongtong, but that’s a pretty short trip by taxi or bus.

Check out their website to book tickets online, check routes, and check prices: The site is available in English and Korean. Click on “Booking” to check ticket information.

If you plan on taking the ferry from Busan to Japan and then traveling around Japan by subway, there are some special packages available to get you from Seoul -> Busan -> Japan. Go to and click on “Railroad Traveling” > “Foreign Railroad Traveling” to check out these packages.

HappyRail Pass
Another convenient item offered by KORAIL is the HappyRail Pass. This is a pass exclusively for foreigners to use over a set period of days. I don’t really know how worth it is unless you plan on traveling by train A LOT over a course of a couple of days. There is also a KR Pass available, but I’m not exactly sure what the differences are, though. These cannot be used for the subway or commuter train. For information on these passes, go to and click on “Railroad Traveling” > “Foreigners Railroad Traveling.”

AREX is the airport train system in Seoul that takes you to and from Incheon International Airport and Gimpo Airport. I've never used these trains (there are 2: an express and a commuter) to go to the airport since I live in Suwon and just take the shuttle bus. For information on the routes, fares, and schedule go to Expansions are planned in the future for connections to the southern parts of the country.

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