Saturday, March 24, 2007

AREX. Taking the airport train

Yesterday the new railway linking Incheon International Airport with Gimpo International Airport opened to the public. Once again I travelled to Gimpo subway station on line 5 to check it out. The passageway leading to the new railway line was now open and led down a gentle incline to the transfer area.

I passed through the normal subway ticket gates and, ignoring the small ticket office, I approached the first of three ticket machines. I was given the option of selecting a future date and time or selecting 'ticket for next train' for Incheon. Choosing the latter, I tried to pay using my UK credit card, but that was rejected. I attempted to pay the 7,900 won fare with one of the old style 10,000 Won notes. At this point the customer assistant, who had been silently observing me, politely took it off me and used the nearby change machine. She came back with ten 1,000 won notes and helped me feed them into the ticket machine. She said 'level B4' a couple of times. She spoke no other English, but I believe that the machine only accepts the new style 10,000 won notes.

Armed with a ticket for the express train at 17:00 I tried to pass through the AREX gates at 16:20 but was denied access, "Please check departure time of train on ticket" I was instructed in a loud American voice from the ticket gate. Caught between the two ticket gatelines in the small transfer area I was marooned with no escape possible. After several more tries, I was finally allowed through into the AREX station at 16:45. I'm sure Centaman Entrance Control gates are much more friendly.

And wow, what a station. It is enormous. I hope yesterdays pictures give an idea of the impressive height and width of the underground station hall. Descending to Basement level 3, I admired the platform edge doors of the commuter train platform and watched one departure.

I descended again to level 4 for the express train platform. Here the other 7 passengers for the 17:00 waited patiently in the new train.

We departed for Incheon exactly on time. The ride was comfortable, but not quite as smooth as I might have expected from brand-new, recently laid track. There are two TV's at each end of the six carriages. They were playing a mixture of news and comedy clips at quite a high volume with the temperature of cities worldwide displayed on the left hand side of the screen.

Inside the express train the line diagrams show the AREX line with the extension into Seoul Station under construction, This is due to open 2010. The subway trains always have the Seoul Subway map with English stations names marked as well, but here it is in Korean only, which seems perverse.

During the trip I perused one of the 'AREX magazines' neatly stored in every seat-back. It contains foreign travel related articles and advertisements only. The only two pages with any English contained several spelling errors and provided no useful information such as timetables, airport layout maps, subway maps or even a diagram of the six stations on the line.

On exiting through the gates, the ticket must be inserted into the card reader slot in contrast to passing it over a panel on entering. The ticket was retained so all I have is the photo as a memento!

The AREX station building at Incheon is also of remarkable size and design. The two long corridors running the length of the building are like botanical garden greenhouses and have been planted with hundreds of specimens.

For the return journey I started from arrivals area E and followed the signs. I arrived at the station in less than 5 minutes and I used my normal U-pass card to pass through the gates this time (T-money also works). There was a commuter train leaving imminently and, less than 10 mins from the arrival gate, I was on my way again.

Note that : the machines for the express train tickets are identical to those issuing commuter train tickets, apart from the small label at the top, so don't get confused.

The commuter trains have longitudinal bench seats, so, if there is no one standing in front of you, the legroom is much better than the express train. The four intermediate stops give the commuter train a slightly longer journey time of 33 minutes compared with 28 minutes on the express train. The major benefit of the express is the seat reservation, but the express trains only run once an hour, so the extra five minutes saved and their low frequency makes it hard to justify the extra 4,800 won.

In summary, the new railway is a very impressive piece of Korean engineering. It provides a welcome additional option for those travelling to and from the two Seoul airports. In my opinion, the enormous added cost of providing the express trains and the separate tracks at Gimpo, will prove impossible to justify in revenue terms. However, I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

This is how the JoongAng Daily reported it. Here's the Korea Herald's version. Just a few lines from the Korea Times , KBS and Arirang. The story earlier in the week from Chosun Ilbo and Railway Technology has the story. There is one line on Reuters. The Old Man of Seoul has a photo of the opening ceremony. Meanwhile Incheon Airport website has not been updated yet to reflect it.

Update: Two more news links from The Nation. (HT: ROK Drop), and International Railway Journal. Tour2Korea.
Update: Railway Gazette article.

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