Rail Report: Seoul to Busan on the KTX, South Korea (04 June 2017)

I’ve taken high-speed rail services countless times in Japan, but not (until recently) in Korea, even though I holiday there at least once every year. That changed one bright summer’s day this past June, when I broke away from Seoul to spend a few days in faraway Busan – and rode Korea’s blazingly fast KTX to get there.

And I’m happy to report that there wasn’t a single zombie in sight. There, I’ve said it. No more 부산행-derived jokes, okay? (^_^)

Note: Schedule/route information, equipment type, and other details are accurate only for the specific journey documented here. This information may not necessarily apply to previous or future trips, even if offered by the same railway company on the same route and under the same service designation.

UPDATE 2: Click here to read a new report (journey date 04 February 2019) describing the First Class experience on a KTX train from Busan to Seoul. Even though the journeys were very similar (albeit in opposite directions), the newer post describes certain aspects of the experience in greater detail – e.g., pre-booking tickets online, comparing the train used to other equipment employed on the same route.

UPDATE 1: I travelled in Standard (Economy) Class on a couple of KTX journeys in February 2018. One trip was on a KTX-I train, the same type featured in this present article. The other trip was on a second-generation KTX-Sancheon (KTX-II) train. Since I was travelling in First Class on the journey documented here, these two newer Rail Reports may be of interest to readers who’d like to see what Standard Class accommodations on the KTX are like.

OVERVIEW

Country : South Korea
Railway company : KORAIL
Service name/designation : KTX 125
Date of journey : Sunday, 04 June 2017
Origin : Seoul Station (dep. 11:00)
Destination : Busan Station (arr. 13:42)
Travel class : First Class
Journey type : One way, full-line trip.

ROUTE MAP

Let’s have a look at the route. Bear in mind that Google Maps may generate different results (including non-rail options) depending on the settings used, so the track shown below won’t necessarily reflect the actual path taken by the train. It should, however, give a general idea of the direction and distance involved.

TICKETS

Tickets can be purchased from machines or from manned counters. I booked mine over the counter, mainly because I wanted to use a credit card and didn’t want to risk it without a human operator to help sort out any issues. (I’m not even sure if the machines would accept a foreign-issued card to begin with.) For the record, I’ve purchased Korail tickets from cash-based machines before, and would have done so again if I were also paying in cash this time.

Reservations can also be made online up to a month in advance through Korail’s official website. This is an option well worth considering if one intends to travel during peak periods.

PRICE

As of the day of my trip (04 June 2017), a one-way Standard Class ticket for the roughly 2.75-hour journey from Seoul to Busan on a KTX service would have set me back KRW 59,800 (~USD 53 at current rates). The price I actually paid for a First Class seat on the same train was KRW 83,700 (~USD 75), higher by KRW 23,900.

By comparison, a reserved seat on the slower ITX-Saemaul service costs just KRW 42,600 (~USD 38), though the trip will be slow going at about 5 hours. The Mugungwha train is priced even lower, at KRW 28,600 (~USD 25) – but in this case the travel time reaches a whopping 5.5 hours.

DEPARTURE STATION

Seoul Station is the northern terminus of the Gyeongbu High Speed Railway, with all the facilities that passengers would expect from a major transport hub (including connections to two subway lines and the airport rail link).

Taken on 28 January 2017.

Most convenient of all – at least for the peckish – are the small kiosks arranged along the outer concourse above the train platforms, selling boxed lunches and snacks for the enjoyment of long-haul passengers.

There’s also a fantastic view of the platforms (and any parked trains) from the concourse level. I didn’t take photographs from that vantage point on this occasion, but here’s a snapshot from one of my previous (non-KTX) rail journeys out of the same station.

Taken on 15 September 2015.

Down we go to my platform.

The KTX is, of course, a very long train – 20 cars including the power units on either end – so only a part of it extended out into the soaring space of the main boarding area. Alas, my car (Number 3) was in that portion of the train parked directly underneath the station building: more sheltered from the elements, but neither as well-lit nor as inviting.

Interestingly, the KTX platforms at Seoul Station aren’t physically segregated from those used by other rail services. In fact, the entire boarding area isn’t physically segregated from the station’s public zone; i.e., there are no faregates that would prevent non-ticket holders from approaching (or even boarding) parked trains. By comparison, at a typical high-traffic Japanese station, one would need at least a valid base-fare ticket to gain admittance to the general boarding area, and an additional ticket to enter the separate Shinkansen platforms.

That’s not to say, of course, that Korail’s boarding arrangements are purely honour-based. During the ride, I noticed a conductor armed with a hand-held device – presumably showing which seats were reserved and paid for – walking down the full length of the car, glancing at the occupants on either side of the aisle. (I’ve read that some KTX services have non-reserved seating in selected cars, and it’s reasonable to assume that direct ticket inspections would be carried out in those cases.) I think one can expect that any fare dodgers would be in for a nasty surprise.

INTERIORS AND SEATING

Now then, let’s get ourselves on board. This beast is a KTX-I train: one of the first generation of high-speed rolling stock to see service on the KORAIL network.

I don’t have a shot of the lead vehicle on this particular trainset, but here’s a picture of another KTX-I power car that I snapped during a later journey.

Taken on 17 February 2018.

The interiors aren’t quite as nice as those on the second-generation KTX-Sancheon (a.k.a. “KTX-II”) trains, such as those employed on Seoul-Pohang services. That said, there isn’t much cause for complaint as all the expected conveniences are available. For example, the space between Cars 3 and 2 is fitted with shelves for bulky luggage and a small “library” (bit of a stretch but all right…) stocked with basic reading material.

There’s also a vending machine that dispenses bottled water free of charge, and a sign posted on the front clearly states that this is a First Class-only privilege.

Seats in the First Class cars are arranged 1-2, three abreast in each row, with single seats (labelled “A”) on one side and paired seats (labelled “B” and “C”) across the aisle. This contrasts with the tighter 2-2 layout in Standard Class, which you can see in newer reports I’ve written about other KTX journeys (here and here).

Although I didn’t specifically ask for one, I was assigned a single window-side seat, which suited me perfectly. As a somewhat anti-social chap, I was quite happy not to have anyone sitting next to me on the long journey to Busan.

There’s plenty of legroom, of course. Perhaps even a little too much legroom for not-particularly-tall folk (myself included), since the distance between seats is great enough to put the small built-in footrest beyond reach.

The seat reclines at the push of a button, and with a bit of force simultaneously applied to the back rest. Note that it does so within the confines of its fixed base cradle, so the seat cushion itself will slide forwards at the same time.

Let’s have a look at the tray table. The design is a little different from what I’m used to: rather than folding down aeroplane-style, it must be pulled upwards out of a slot and then lowered into position.

The table is quite spacious, but unfortunately it can’t be slid closer to where one is sitting (unlike the adjustable surfaces on Shinkansen trains, for example). Here’s another disadvantage that comes with the exceedingly generous legroom: excepting long-armed folk, those who need to use laptops or write on paper must perch themselves closer to the edge of the seat in order to reach the table. (I speak from direct experience, since I was using a Bluetooth keyboard paired to an iPad during the journey.) Sadly, that rules out assuming a more comfortable position whilst working, with one’s back resting fully against the rear cushion.

Oh, and one other thing to consider when choosing your class of travel: not all Standard (Economy) Class seats on the older KTX-I trains are forward-facing (i.e., turned in the direction of travel). In a typical Standard Class compartment, the fixed, non-swivelling seats are turned away from the doors and towards the middle of the car, where the halves converge in two rows facing each other across a fixed table (marketed as “family seats”). This means that whichever direction the train is travelling, about half of the economy passengers on board will be facing away from the direction of travel. Here in First Class, the seats can be rotated and are always turned to face towards the train’s destination before each journey. (Note that both First and Standard Class seats on the newer KTX-Sancheon trains can be swivelled forwards, so the issue doesn’t exist on services employing second-generation rolling stock.)

Now then, let’s talk about the windows. This is a part of a train that I don’t normally have much to say about, except that those on the KTX are exceptionally wide – long enough to encompass about one and a half First Class seats each. Let’s have another look at an image posted earlier, to illustrate the point.

In contrast, the windows on Japan’s Shinkansen (whilst having sufficient width to offer unimpeded views) are just about wide enough to serve a row of seats each, with a bit of staggering depending on the class of travel. There’s no question that the far wider KTX windows provide a much better view, but here’s one area of concern: who gets to decide whether the window shade stays up or down? I suppose “whoever has more of the window” is a fair rule of thumb, but doesn’t resolve the matter completely, since the other chap will still either lose their view (or have the blazing hot sun roasting their face) depending on what the person in power chooses. For my part, with the knob under my control, I lowered the shade just enough to block out the worst of the noonday sun, whilst leaving most of the view intact.

I have no idea what the passenger behind me thought of this choice, however. (^_^)

UPDATE: I travelled in Standard (Economy) Class on a couple of KTX journeys in February 2018. One trip was on a KTX-I train, the same type featured in this present article. The other trip was on a second-generation KTX-Sancheon (KTX-II) train. These newer Rail Reports may be of interest to readers who’d like to see what Standard Class accommodations on the KTX are like.

ONBOARD SERVICE

In addition to free bottled water from a vending machine, each First Class passenger is provided with a complimentary snack packet. The contents are probably changed from time to time, but as of the day of my trip the pack consisted of a sweet cookie, honey-butter flavoured almonds, and a moist towelette.

Small benefits, to be sure, and by themselves not really sufficient to justify the added expense of a First Class ticket. Needless to say, the key advantage to booking a more expensive car on the KTX is the more spacious seating, and if you’re happy with a basic seat then Standard Class is the way to go.

If you’re after anything more substantial once on board – assuming you didn’t have the time to stock up at one of Seoul Station’s food kiosks or convenience stores – a cart loaded with edible merchandise will roll up and down the aisle several times during the journey. You’ll have to pay for the stuff, of course; First Class privileges don’t extend that far!

RIDE

The KTX offers a quiet, smooth, and stable ride, with well-controlled deceleration and acceleration as it pulls into and out of stations along the way. That said, the ride isn’t quite as smooth and stable as the ones I’ve experienced on Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen network. The vibrations seem ever so slightly more pronounced, and one could feel a discernible (though very mild) lateral pitching from time to time.

Nothing major, mind you, and I’ll concede that these observations of mine are entirely subjective. Overall, the experience was very comfortable indeed. If I weren’t forcing myself to stay awake for the duration (I wanted to take in the full length of the journey), I’d have easily fallen asleep along the way.

Beyond comfort, the KTX is designed and built for speed: over 300 kph in normal operation, up to 330 kph on paper. Bear in mind that Seoul-Busan KTX services use the conventional Gyeongbu Line for a small portion of their length, so this velocity cannot be maintained all throughout. It’s only when the train has broken free of the urban congestion of Seoul, and enters its own dedicated high-speed trackway, that one begins to observe the countryside zipping past far more quickly than with a normal train.

OVERALL IMPRESSION

I’ve taken conventional rail services in Korea several times before, but this was my first long-distance journey from Seoul – in fact, my first time anywhere south of Gyeonggi-do – so the KTX was really the only practical choice. More expensive than the ITX-Saemaul or the Mugungwha, true enough, but also much faster, and speed was a major consideration on this particular holiday as I had very little time to spare.

In terms of comfort, the First Class car offered everything I needed and then some. The generous personal space (and, most importantly, the advantage of an isolated single seat) more than made up for the extra cost, though it’s important to bear in mind that this was a matter of personal preference. Most people will likely find Standard Class perfectly adequate for their needs.

UPDATE 2: Click here to read a new report (journey date 04 February 2019) describing the First Class experience on a KTX train from Busan to Seoul.

UPDATE: I travelled in Standard (Economy) Class on a couple of KTX journeys in February 2018. One trip was on a KTX-I train, the same type featured in this present article. The other trip was on a second-generation KTX-Sancheon (KTX-II) train. These newer Rail Reports may be of interest to readers who’d like to see what Standard Class accommodations on the KTX are like.

All things considered, I’d rate myself a satisfied passenger, and I’ll gladly take the KTX again on this route.

7 responses to “Rail Report: Seoul to Busan on the KTX, South Korea (04 June 2017)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Three Days in Busan, South Korea – Day 1 (04 June 2017) | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Rail Report: Seoul to Gyeongju on the KTX and Mugunghwa, South Korea (16 February 2018) | Within striking distance·

  3. Pingback: Rail Report: Gyeongju to Seoul on the Mugunghwa and KTX, South Korea (17 February 2018) | Within striking distance·

  4. Pingback: Field (and a bit of Rail) Report: Suwon Hwaseong Museum, South Korea (18 February 2018) | Within striking distance·

  5. Thank you so much for your blog post. It was really very very very helpful as I’m booking first class seats for the first time!!

  6. Pingback: Rail Report: Busan to Gyeongju via Singyeongju Station, South Korea (02-03 February 2019) | Within striking distance·

  7. Pingback: Rail Report: First Class on the KTX from Busan to Seoul, South Korea (04 February 2019) | Within striking distance·

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