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Signaling error causes KTX train to jump tracks

15 people are sent to hospital, Korail’s CEO may be endangered
Dec 10,2018
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KTX cars derailed in an accident on Saturday are returned to the rails by cranes operated by recovery personnel on Sunday. [WOO SANG-JO]
A KTX bullet train broke apart after screeching off its tracks near Gangneung, Gangwon, on Saturday morning, injuring over a dozen passengers on board.

The Seoul-bound train carrying 198 passengers derailed five minutes after departing Gangneung Station at around 7:30 a.m, while traveling at a speed of 103 miles per hour.

All 10 of its cars went off the rails, with the front two cars splitting off and coming to a rest at oblique angles to the tracks.

15 passengers were taken to a nearby hospital after suffering minor injuries from the accident.

Operations to remove the derailed cars began immediately on Saturday evening and continued through Sunday amid freezing temperatures in Gangwon. Over 300 personnel were deployed for the recovery operation, along with several cranes.

The exact cause of the accident, which came less than a year after the Seoul-Gangneung KTX line was opened ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in nearby Pyeongchang in February 2017, is believed to have been a faulty signaling error, according to an initial assessment by Transport Ministry officials.

The accident occurred at a juncture where a single track leading to Seoul diverges into two separate tracks headed to Gangneung and Yeongju, North Gyeongsang.

A faulty signal did not properly convey that the tracks had not yet been switched, said Oh Young-sik, CEO of the train’s public operator, the Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail).

Korail shut down KTX train services between the capital and Gangneung, leaving dozens stranded in the northeastern province. The recovery operations were expected to be completed on Monday morning.

The accident came as a shock to both Korail and the government, since only three days earlier Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon dressed down the company for mismanagement following two other mishaps in Busan and North Chungcheong.

“We would like to extend our sincere apologies to the people with regards to yet another accident,” said Transport Minister Kim Hyeon-mee in a lengthy apology given at the accident site on Sunday. “The fact that such a major accident has occurred testifies to how imprecise operations have been at Korail.”

Saying that Korail had “lost the trust of the people,” Kim vowed that the government would take appropriate measures with regards to the company’s management, a statement some analysts say could mean the ministry intends to sack Oh - a former ruling party lawmaker - as Korail CEO.

The political opposition, headed by the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), used the accident to criticize the current administration. The LKP floor spokeswoman, Song Hee-gyoung, on Saturday said that over a third of Korail’s top management are political appointees linked to the ruling Democratic Party (DP), who she claimed have “little experience or understanding of railway operations.”

Another LKP lawmaker, Hong Chul-ho, cited a Korail report that showed there have been 661 train-related accidents between 2013 and last July, with 109 of those accidents involving KTX bullet trains. Among the 51 accidents that occurred this year, 22 of them - 43.1 percent - were caused by mechanical errors that ranged from outdated infrastructure to breakdowns.

Hong, who is a member of the legislature’s land, infrastructure and transport committee, said that Korail should focus on preemptively monitoring possible mechanical faults rather than trying to fix problems after they have already occurred.

This latest accident, the biggest railway disaster this year, also raises doubts about the government’s grand plan to connect South Korea’s railroads to the North and export the country’s rail systems abroad.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]