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Backpedaling on reform

July 04,2017
The new administration is poised to undo railway competition that had been pursued as a part of privatization and reform in public railroads over the last decade. Following an earlier plan to merge a fledgling high-speed railway system Supreme Railways (SR) with nationwide high-speed railway system Korail (Korea Railroad Corporation), the government also wants to combine Korail with the Korea Rail Network Authority. The diversification of railway systems was initiated under former President Roh Moo-hyun under whom President Moon Jae-in served as a chief of staff based on public consensus.

The Democratic Party is said to have promised to the Federation of Korean Trade Unions to merge the public railway authorities in return for winning their support during the last presidential election. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport suggested to the state planning advisory commission that it will study a merger to solve the problem on behalf of the president.

The proposal is more controversial than its idea of integrating SR, which has been positively reviewed for its cheaper rates and quality cabin service since its launch in December. States with advanced railway systems like Germany, France, and Japan all have been separately running infrastructure maintenance and train operation for 20 to 30 years. After fiery debate, Korea decided to break up the rail monopoly 13 years ago and has left the facility operation to the Korea Rail Authority and train operation to Korail. Service has been upgraded as result.

Social consensus is more important than a promise with the union. The ministry’s reasoning citing public interest is too weak. Korail’s poor profitability should not be solved through integration with the more lucrative SR or a facility operator. It should be more blamed on the reckless management of the union, which habitually goes on strike demanding increased salaries.

Instead of blindly following the orders of the union, the government must conduct feasibility studies and go through public debate before making any decisions. What should matter most is the public’s opinion, not the union’s.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 3, Page 30