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The Peninsula

Building the Seoul Metro System, Part 3: Silicon

Published November 27, 2019
Category: South Korea

By Rachel Kirsch 

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway is often considered one of the best in the world. From trains that routinely arrive on time to cars enabled with Wi-Fi, the Seoul metro provides riders with a positive experience and short travel times. This near-optimal metro system was not built by accident. It was the result of Seoul’s focus on three distinct aspects of the public transportation system. This is the final piece in a three-part series focusing on the development of the Seoul metro system. Please see Part 1: Steel and Part 2: Plastic.

After the reforms in 2004, Seoul built a public transportation system that covered a large breadth of the city while remaining affordable and convenient. But Seoul refused to stop bettering the system. Most recent developments have focused on further integrating technology into the system and enhancing ways that the metro can meet the needs of the people.

The Addition of Technology to the System

Following the success of the T-Money Card, the Seoul government began adding more technological advancements to improve the quality of the metro system. One of the most noticeable upgrades was the installation of digital screens both in the stations and on the trains. On the platform, the screens share a plethora of useful information with riders such as the real-time location of the next train. Meanwhile, inside the car, screens provide information on the upcoming stop as well as play a variety of different shows to entertain riders.

In 2009, automatic doors separating the platform from the tracks were added to every station. The principal benefit of these doors is safety. Since the doors only open when the train arrives, passengers are much safer around the track, and the government reported that these doors have reduced suicides on the tracks by 62%. Additionally, the doors cut noise pollution in the stations by 7.9% and lowered heating and air conditioning costs.

To further digitize the system, transit authorities worked to ensure internet-accessibility underground. In 2010, the Seoul government began equipping its train cars with Wi-Fi, allowing passengers to use their phones and access the internet while underground. The internet also improved the system when Seoul Metro introduced an app allowing riders to receive updates without being physically present in a station. The app helps travelers plan their routes, gives real-time train locations, and alerts riders of any notification regarding line delays or changes.

Safety and Sustainability

The city has also worked to revitalize the pre-existing infrastructure. For example, Seoul has gained renown for its user-friendly maps and signs. Numbered exit signs from the station, for instance, help riders easily identify the path they need to take to leave the station and reach their final destination. Companies have also worked diligently to make the system accessible to foreigners. Instructions at kiosk stations are available in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and English, signs throughout the station have Romanized versions of station names, and even train announcements are typically in multiple languages.

Private sector stakeholders have profited from these investments into the metro system. Screens and platform door installation gave the companies new spaces to advertise. Ads for a variety of products, events, and programs can be found on almost every surface in the stations and on the trains. This has provided a major source of revenue for Seoul Metro. In 2016 alone, 143,000 ads on Lines 1-8 generated 44 billion won in profit. This level of income gives the metro capacity to continue investing in the future.

Future of the System

There are currently plans to extend Lines 1,5,6,7, and 8 as well as expanding and introducing additional commuter lines. The city is also working on upgrading the Wi-Fi capabilities in stations and on the train cars to make it faster for users.

But the future does not come without problems or struggles. Even though Seoul runs trains frequently, during rush hours, cars are often crammed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. The metro system recently faced a number of strikes, which reminded observers that the system is exposed to broader societal challenges in South Korea, including labor rights, livable wages, and employment.


Each new technological addition that Seoul made aimed to enhance the experience for riders while simultaneously generating revenue for the system. Seoul never grows complacent with its system, and these constant improvements have made the system safer, more sustainable, and more admired around the world. Furthermore, Seoul has already started planning how it will expand and advance in the future.

Overall, Seoul has been able to develop a successful metro system because it consistently dedicated resources to the system and constantly evolved which aspects of the system it focused on. Even the best metro systems struggle to achieve success in as many different areas as Seoul. By building an extensive network of tracks, accelerating access to trains, and delivering greater information and safety to users, Seoul built one of the greatest metro systems in the world.

Rachel Kirsch is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute. Rachel graduated from Belmont University with a degree in international politics. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

The picture is from user run2vee on flickr

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