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By the early 1990s, South Korea was building it’s first high-speed railway line, the Gyeongbu HSR between Seoul and Busan; while preparatory works for the infrastructure, such as tunnelling, enbankment and viaduct construction were progressing smoothly, the decision on wich sistem was to be used had not been made yet: due to the lack of domestic experience in the matter, South Korea decided to import High-speed railway technology from overseas. Three consortiums presented their bids in 1991: a French one, led by GEC-Alsthom, wich proposed the well-proven TGV system, a German one, led by Siemens, and a Japanese one, led by Mitsubishi, wich proposed a Shinkansen-style system.
Ultimately, the French consortium won the bid in 1994, due to a multitude of factors: primarily the fame of the well-working TGV system, wich at the time was already being exported abroad (to Spain, where the first line of the country’s AVE system opened in 1992), and the already well-present, long-standing and strong cooperation between South Korea and Alsthom, as the latter had already provided South Korea’s 25Kv 60Hz* AC electrification system, the majority of the Class 8000 electric locomotives (the remainder of wich had been built in South Korea on license from Alsthom) and several technical componets, such as “traction packages” (both Choppers and GTO-VVVF Inverters) for Seoul Subway trains. Nonetheless, one additional factor in securing Alsthom’s win was that the TGV system could (and did) operate not only on High-Speed Lines but on conventional lines as well, while the other major contender, the Shinkansen system proposed by the Japanese Consortium, required an entirely isolated infrastructure**.
With the French consortium’s win secured, Alsthom started the design of the new TGV-style trains for South Korea, initially designated as “TGV-K”.
The new trains derived mainly from the TGV Résau (wich had entered french service with SNCF in 1993), but had some elements from the AVE 100 Class (from the afromentioned Spanish AVE system) as well, namely the design and arrangment of the power car. One fundamental difference however, setting the TGV-K apart from it’s european relatives was the nose design, wich was more “pointy” than it’s predecessors; this was to cope with the numerous tunnels that would have been present on the line.
The TGV-K were to be mono-voltage trainsets (in South Korea both conventional and high-speed lines are electrified at 25Kv AC 60Hz) formed of two power cars sandwiching 18 articulated coaches: two second class “transition cars”, three 1st class cars and 13 2nd class cars. The livery of the trains was decided to be white with blue horizontal side bands and aquamarine or red vertical bands near the passenger doors, denoting 2nd and 1st class cars respectively. Some more slight differences that TGV-Ks had with their european counterparts were that the first bogey of the “transition cars” (on the power cars’ side) was motored (as opposed to non on european sets) and there was no buffet or resturant cars for the sake of maximium capacity – instead evry passenger car was fitted with vending machines (and a payphone).
As part of an agreement with the South Korean government, out of 46 TGV-K sets planned, 12 were to be built in france, at Alsthom’s La Rochelle plant, while the remaining 34 were to be built under license in South Korea by Rotem (similarily to what had already been done with the Class 8000 electric locomotives 20 years earlier).
The first power car was completed in france in 1996, with the first full train being finished one year later in 1997. Upon completion, the first set was briefly tested in france before being shipped to Korea in 1998, where the first test run was made one year later in 1999. Upon their arrival in South Korea, the TGV-K sets were officially classified as the 100000 Series, altough by then, they were already widely known by the nickname of their service: KTX (“Korea Train Express”).
The fleet of 46 KTX sets was completed in 2003, with intensive pre-service testing starting in January 2004.
On the 1st of April 2004, KTX service officially opened to the pubblic, running between Seoul and Busan in under four hours at a maximium speed of 300Km/h. Such speeds however could only be attained between Seoul and Daegu: the remaining HSR section between Daegu and Busan had not been built due to budgetary concerns and the outset of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. For the remainder of the journey between Daegu and Busan, the KTX trains ran on the “old” Gyeongbu Line, wich however, had been extensively upgraded and electrified, allowing for a relatively high (for conventional lines) maximium speed of 150Km/h.
The start of KTX services wasn’t entirely free of problems, with small teething issues with the trainsets, wich forced Korail often to resort to use out-of-service KTX sets as spare parts donors until the necessary components could be imported from France or built locally. However, this was only a brief period, and the situation “normalized” in a couple of years’ time. Another initial small issue with the KTX was the high level of interior noise when running trough tunnels, something that was solved in 2005 by strenghtening the rubber sealing between the cars.
With most of the “early days” problem solved, KTX trains earned a reputation for being very comfortable and reliable, being liked by both passenger and railwaymen as well.
In the service history of the KTX sets, only two serious incidents were recorded, both in 2007: in the first one, wich happened in June, a damper between two passenger cars got loose and hit the ballast, with the train being safely stopped soon after with emergency brakes, and without any injuries (except two people on a road nearby the HSR wich were hit by the thrown ballast and sustained light bruises), while in the second, in November, a KTX set rear-ended (at low speed) another KTX inside Busan station, again, with only two people sustaining light injuries.
Finally, in 2010, the remaining section of the Gyeongbu HSR was completed, running from Daegu to Busan and enabling full HSR speed between Busan and Seoul. At the same time, a new type of KTX trains entered service: the KTX “Sancheon”, wich were a South Korean domestically-built derivative of the TGV, built under license from Alstom***. With the new model of KTX entering service, the original 100000 Series was redubbed KTX-I, while the newer ones became the KTX-IIs.
As of today, all 46 KTX-Is sets are still in service, being the main workhorses of the Gyeongbu HSR, running between Seoul and Busan at 300Km/h. However, they can also be occasionally seen running the busiest services on the Honam HSR as well, where KTX-Is are advantaged over the KTX-IIs due to their far superior capacity.
Early 1993 plans for the TGV-K design called for a “shovel nose”-style of front, something that was soon discarded in favour of a more “conventional-TGV-like” shape.
At 388 meters in lenght, from nose to nose, KTX-Is are among the longest trains in the TGV family, and have the absolute longest articulated car “block”
In November 2007, the maximium allowed speed for KTX-I trains was increased from 300Km/h to 305Km/h. This was due to a frequent, but vey unusual, complaint coming from many passengers: with the old limit, the train’s speed displayed on the TV screens installed in the cars always remained little below the advertised 300Km/h!
A KTX-I trainset running the KTX No.101 service from Seoul to Busan is the central setting of the famous 2016 Train to Busan horror movie.
*While most electrification systems built under the technical guidance of Alsthom (as part of the famous “50c/s group”) were electrified using the european 50Hz frequency (such as in Portugal), South Korea became an exception, as the country uses US-derived technical standards, wich mandated the usage of a 60Hz frequency to be compatible with the rest of the national power grid.
** While there are lines where Shinkansen trains run on conventional lines (the so-called “Mini Shinkansen” lines: the Yamagata Shinaksen between Fukushima and Shinjo and the Akita Shinkansen between Morioka and Akita), the concept of the Shinkansen itself as presented by the Japanese consortium, a completely segregated new mainline to decongestion busy conentional lines, while more closer to the original intent of the South Korean railways (building a new mainline to decongestion the overcrowded Gyeongbu Line) was nonetheless less attractive than the possible flexibility offered by the French TGV system, taking into account the non-ignorable fact that South Korea’s conventional lines’ track gauge is the standard 1435mm (as opposed to Japan’s narrow 1067mm), eliminating the need at the root to have a completely segregated HSR system.
Nonetheless, the same Japanese consortium got it’s revenge over the same european rivals (Siemens and Alstom) less than a decade later, with the Shinkansen system being choosen for Taiwan’s Taipei-Kaohsiung high-speed railway.
*** Alstom famously dropped the “h” in it’s original “Alsthom” name in 1998, during a restructuration of the company.