Korea’s high-speed rail network makes it incredibly easy to cover the roughly 320 kilometres (as the crow flies) between Busan in the southeast and Seoul in the northwest, with the fastest services taking just a little over 2 hours to traverse the distance. In this report, we’ll see what a passenger can expect from the experience of travelling in the First Class compartment of a Gyeongbu HSR Line train.
Welcome aboard the Korea Train eXpress (KTX).
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.
Click here to read about a previous KTX journey I took on the same line, going in the opposite direction; i.e., from Seoul to Busan.
Country : Republic of Korea (South Korea)
Railway company : KORAIL
Service type : High-Speed Rail
Service name/designation : KTX 142
Rolling stock : KTX-I
Travel class : First
Line used : Gyeongbu HSR Line
Origin : Busan Station (dep. 15:10)
Destination : Seoul Station (arr. 17:25)
Journey time : 2 hours, 15 minutes
Date of journey : Monday, 04 February 2019
Let’s have a look at the route. Google Maps might 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 – though it should help give a general idea of the direction and distance involved.
If you’re already in Korea, you can purchase tickets from machines or from manned counters. Services between major stations are quite frequent, so this usually isn’t a problem outside of peak seasons. However, anyone doing so during the long Seollal or Chuseok holidays – when domestic intercity travel is at its heaviest – runs a serious risk of not being able to reserve seats on the ground.
For my part, I was well aware that tickets would be hard to come by during Seollal – a five-day weekend in 2019, from 2nd (Sat) to 6th (Wed) February – so I decided to book a few weeks in advance on the KORAIL website.
At the end of the reservation process, I was issued an electronic ticket…
…which I printed out and brought with me on the train. Note that this serves as your actual ticket – not merely as a voucher or proof of purchase – so there’s no need to queue up at a manned counter to exchange the printout for a “real” ticket when you arrive in Korea.
Depending on how far and how frequently you intend to travel, a KORAIL Pass might help save you money, though it could just as easily help you lose money if it’s not suited to your itinerary. I’d strongly recommend doing a journey-by-journey search first, adding up the prices, and then comparing the total against the KORAIL Pass type that covers your intended period of travel.
Whichever way you go – pass or no pass – it’s possible to reserve seats as far ahead as a month in advance (though the actual period has been known to vary). Even this might not be early enough for peak season travel, and there are additional restrictions on reservation periods for Seollal and Chuseok, so one shouldn’t put this aside until the last minute.
I paid KRW 84,300 for a First Class seat on the KTX 142 service from Busan to Seoul. The prices for a Standard (Economy) Class seat and a standing/non-reserved ticket on the same train are KRW 60,200 and 51,200, respectively.
Note that fares vary between different KTX services, even on the same route and type of vehicle. The basis for KORAIL’s tiered pricing isn’t entirely clear to me, although one factor appears to be journey time. The relatively expensive KTX 142, for example, is scheduled to complete the Busan-to-Seoul run in just 2 hours and 15 minutes. By comparison, the KTX 252 will do the journey in 3 hours and 21 minutes, but tickets are cheaper at KRW 75,500 for First Class and KRW 53,900 for Standard. Strangely enough, the slightly faster KTX 232 takes 3 hours and 15 minutes to cover the distance, yet the fares are even lower at KRW 68,300 for First and KRW 48,800 for Standard. In any event, one might reasonably assume that most travellers will choose a train based entirely on the schedule.
Busan Station (부산역) is the southern terminus of the Gyeongbu High-Speed Railway Line, with all the facilities of a major transport hub. This includes connections to local transport such as the subway (Busan Metro Line 1), the city’s scheduled tourist bus lines, commuter bus services, taxis, and the airport limousine bus service to/from Gimhae International Airport.
Whilst waiting for my train, I walked out onto the observation deck for a farewell view of the city’s iconic Busan Harbour Bridge.
There are restaurants and cafés all over the station where one might sit down to a pre-departure meal, or order food to take away. For my part, I simply raided a convenience store and assembled a bag of treats to enjoy during the journey.
Interestingly, the KTX platforms at Busan Station aren’t physically segregated from the station’s public zone; i.e., there are no faregates or turnstiles that would prevent non-ticket holders from approaching (or even boarding) parked trains. There are signs near the concourse identifying the start of the fare-paid area, but no physical barriers to control access. 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 high-speed Shinkansen platforms.
That’s not to say that KORAIL’s boarding arrangements are purely honour-based. During the ride, you might notice a conductor armed with a hand-held device – presumably showing which seats are reserved and paid for – walking down the full length of the car, glancing at the occupants on either side of the aisle. (For cars with non-reserved seating, it’s reasonable to assume that tickets would be inspected individually.) I also observed that the attendant in charge of serving complimentary snacks to First Class passengers knew exactly which seats to approach, especially after additional passengers had come aboard from intermediate stations, so there must be a centralised record of reserved seats that would make it easier to spot people sitting where they shouldn’t.
Bottom line: any fare dodgers would be in for a nasty surprise.
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 previous journey.
Beyond comfort, the KTX is designed and built for speed: maximum 305 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 route, so these trains don’t travel at full speed all throughout.
Note the retractable step bridging the rather large gap between the train and the platform, as well as the two additional steps one would need to negotiate when climbing aboard. If you’re accustomed to riding trains in places like Japan – where carriages stop almost flush with the platform and the floor level is exactly the same between the vehicle and the station – you’ll need a tiny bit of extra caution when using KORAIL services, especially with wheeled luggage or prams in tow.
Some KTX services on the Gyeongbu HSR Line use second-generation KTX-Sancheon (a.k.a. “KTX-II”) trainsets, which are fitted with different interiors from those documented in this report. Click here to see what the First Class cabin is like on one of the newer trains.
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 this report I’ve written about another KTX journey.
Not all seats on KTX-I trains are fitted with power points, but a few are located next to wall-mounted outlets for both USB and conventional plugs.
Let’s have a look at the tray table. Rather than folding down aeroplane-style, it must be pulled upwards out of a slot in the seat back and then lowered into position.
The overhead racks can just about accommodate medium-sized trolley cases. Here’s a picture of mine for reference – it’s about 43 cm (17 in) wide, excluding protrusions.
Now for a couple of odds and ends. If you’re mulling over which class of travel to book, bear in mind that not all Standard (Economy) Class seats on the older KTX-I trains are forward-facing (i.e., turned in the direction of travel). In most KTX-I Standard Class cars, 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. This means that whichever direction the train is travelling, about half of the economy passengers in the car will be facing away from the direction of travel. Here in First Class, the seats are always mechanically rotated to face towards the train’s destination before each journey. (On the newer KTX-Sancheon trains, all seats – regardless of class – are designed to rotate.)
The windows are also worth mentioning. Those fitted on the KTX are exceptionally wide – long enough to encompass about one and a half First Class seats each.
The large openings offer great views and all, but here’s a point of concern: who gets to decide whether the window shade stays up or down? I suppose “whoever has more of the window” works as a rule of thumb, but doesn’t really resolve the matter, 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. I, for one, was peacefully observing the Korean countryside until the person ahead of me pulled down the shade on our shared window … thereby depriving me of one of the great pleasures of long-distance train travel. (Aaargh.)
Let’s pop out into the vestibule near the car doors and see what else our train’s been fitted with.
The available features may differ depending on which end of the carriage you’ve wandered into. Here in this particular vestibule, there are racks for luggage and shelves stocked with reading material.
There’s also a vending machine that dispenses small bottles of water, free of charge. Note that it’s for the exclusive use of First Class passengers.
The toilet in this car is of the compact setup one normally encounters on trains or aeroplanes.
COMPARE: First Class on a KTX-Sancheon Train
Click here to see pictures of the First Class cabin on one of KORAIL’s newer, second-generation trains.
COMPARE: Standard Class
ONBOARD SERVICE AND AMENITIES
Each First Class passenger is provided with a complimentary snack pack. Today’s assemblage includes a sweet cookie, mixed nuts, and a moist towelette.
There’s also the free mini-bottle of water from the vending machine we saw earlier. If you’re on a KTX-I train, you’ll need to fetch this yourself. If you’re on a KTX-Sancheon (which is fitted with paid vending machines), a complimentary bottle will be served at your seat.
Here’s what I found in the seat pocket. Mostly in Korean, but (if memory serves) parts of the KTX magazine were in English.
The fast and (generally) reliable KTX is a major convenience for travellers who need to cover long distances in Korea with a minimum of time and effort. Where bridging the gap between Busan and Seoul is concerned, the KTX offers an attractive alternative to both flights and highway buses, given the central location of its terminal stations and the comfortable, comparatively spacious environment on board (as opposed to that of an aeroplane or road vehicle).
On the matter of travel classes, I’m of the opinion that an upgrade to First is well worth the extra cost required. Granted, those on tight budgets might wish to do something else with the roughly KRW 20,000 incremental expense, and I’ll admit that the KTX’s Standard Class cabin isn’t such a bad place to spend 2-3 hours in. Nonetheless, it’s hard to put a price on that precious veneer of privacy afforded by a single seat – especially for those who share my not-particularly-sociable disposition.