05 December 2008

A few observations

My Internet connection is extremely sluggish, especially with Blogger and some other services. I wonder if the 2MB loyalists have planted a virus inside my computer... I had no problems before and during my Hong Kong visit. If things get really bad, I may have to retire my current laptop and get a MacBook even earlier than planned - and while I can afford it (on top of all my traveling and my new car), I don't want to spend more money than I have to.

First, a bit of good news. The Nazi bastards at BMW are reporting a dramatic drop in November sales - about 26%, to be exact.


Unfortunately, the people who can afford BMWs are still quite well off, and continue buying them. The more egalitarian brands are suffering even worse; major Japanese and South Korean makes have seen their November US sales drop by at least a third over last year's figures. Sure, I can probably expect some good deals when I return to the US and visit my local Hyundai showroom to purchase my Genesis, but on the other hand, there will be the risk of the Genesis being pulled from the US market, much like the Volkswagen Phaeton, an extremely nice car that happened to be just too expensive. That will hurt the resale value and make long-term parts availability questionable. Of course, the US Big Three are asking for some major financial concessions from the government, and the United Auto Workers are pitching in with their own sacrifices too.

Meanwhile, some observations continue as I reflect on my Hong Kong experience and compare it to my current situation in Seoul. While I continue to feel that Incheon is a superior airport to Chek Lap Kok, there is one huge edge in Chek Lap Kok's favor - transportation into the city. Chek Lap Kok's plans included a dedicated airport rail line, which opened concurrently with the airport, and provides fast, efficient service to Kowloon and Hong Kong. Incheon, however, only had road links to Seoul at its inception - and while a rail link, A'REX, was added later in the planning stages, it didn't even open until 2007, a full six years after the airport opening. Even now, A'REX terminates at Gimpo Airport, requiring a transfer to the subway system, and full service to downtown Seoul will not be reality until 2010. The A'REX tracks are rated for 200 km/h service, but trains on the line are lucky to hit half that speed. This inconvenience makes it virtually useless for now, and even though fares have been steeply discounted, ridership is only a fraction of initial projections, and as a result, frequency is pathetic, further decreasing ridership.

A'REX was the first rail line in the Seoul area built with private funding. Apparently, the private investors had a very lousy business plan, that the authorities accepted not for merit, but for sweetheart connections. For now, the primary method of getting into Seoul from Incheon Airport continues to be the various bus lines, which can be next to impossible to figure out for those on their first visits to Seoul (especially if they don't speak Korean).

The private rail lines are here to stay, however. Seoul's subway system is gaining Line 9 very soon, running along the major population centers of southern Seoul from Gimpo Airport to Olympic Park, and it will be managed by a division of Hyundai Motor Company, using Hyundai-Rotem trainsets. The new residential developments of the Pan-gyo District of Seongnam, under construction right now, will overwhelm the existing Bundang Line, so a New Bundang Line is being built as a parallel relief line, also with private funding. Both Bundang Lines will also link to a light rail line in Yong-in, which will run to the Everland amusement park; it's also private. Even the government lines are seeing private funding, notably the various major stations on Korail lines that are being rebuilt into multi-story shopping malls. I can only hope that the private funding is for better running efficiency and easier capital procurement, rather than crony favoritism, but I am not holding my breath. At least, all these private lines will continue to offer through ticketing with the current government rail lines as an integrated system. (A'REX does not, however, as it is an airport access line and therefore has separate ticketing. T-Money can be used, however, but still, it's a full additional fare.)

On the subject of Seoul area rail lines and their operators, I am taking another look at Seoul's city-owned subway operators. I am currently using SMRT, which runs Lines 5-8, as much as I can. SMRT is short for Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit, its official English name, but its real name is 서울도시철도공사 (Seoul Urban Rail Public Corporation). SMRT's official slogan is 행복미소 (Happiness and Smiles). Lines 1-4 are run by the hated Seoul Metro, whose original official name was Seoul Metropolitan Subway Corporation; its Korean name was 서울지하철공사 (Seoul Subway Public Corporation), but now, its Korean name is Seoul Metro too, written as 서울메트로.