High speed trains make sense in bustling S. Korea, but not in depressed Britain

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

MANCHESTER, England — The Brits face a problem that Koreans might — or might not — appreciate.

By now Koreans have gotten thoroughly used to zipping up and down the Republic of Korea, that is, the Korean peninsula south of the DMZ, on super-fast trains at relatively inexpensive prices.

The new high speed train in South Korea.

Who would believe that Britain, that is, England, Scotland and Wales, crowded onto a “tight little island” that should be ideal for high-speed rail traffic, is actually stuck back in the 19th century, or maybe the early 20th century, with a rail system that slogs along at a slow but dignified pace from London compared to the swift pace of travel from Seoul down to Busan on the east and Mokpo on the west?

Although the world’s first passenger trains operated in England and Wales in the early 19th century, Britain has ceded to just about every other “advanced” country the race to be first with high-speed rail service.

The coalition government led by conservative David Cameron is now talking about a high-speed link running from London to Birmingham and Manchester, England’s second and third biggest cities, both within range for trains that could get there in half the time they take today.

The project would cost a stupendous 32 billion pounds — more than 50 trillion won — but that’s not the only obstacle. The plan faces such strenuous objections from politicians and academics and environmentalists along the proposed route that construction may not begin for another decade.

The KTX network in Korea faced plenty of criticism from people who worried about the impact on the environment, but there was no doubt that type of high-speed rail service was needed as an integral facet of Korea’s continuation as a modern industrial power. In the case of Britain, the shrill objections to a similar service seem to be another sign of a declining country whose economy faces severe problems.

Critics of high-speed services here say only the wealthiest people living in London and some of the destination cities would really profit from the scheme. They doubt if the plan would create thousands of jobs outside London and benefit the biggest cities served by such a service. Those caught between the major destinations, they say, would scarcely benefit at all while everyone else would have to pay higher taxes to finance the scheme. In the meantime, the rail network would chew up some of England’s most beautiful countryside.

The furor over introducing high-speed rail service to Britain suggests yet another overwhelming problem — the rising rich-poor gap in a country and society divided by class differences and distinctions that seem more severe than in most other countries I’ve visited. Prices here for just about anything are already among the world’s highest, and you can be sure the cost of riding on a high-speed train would be far higher than most people would like to pay.

At issue, though, is the dynamism of a society that has long since given up on building ships and motor vehicles and a host of other products in which South Korea has gained supremacy.

Nor does it seem entirely coincidental that the government faces enormous problems in catching up with other industrial societies at about the time that Britain’s membership in the European Union appears strained and possibly untenable. It’s as though the Brits would prefer to look inward and backward, to a past in which life seemed simpler and no one doubted Britain’s leadership in a mercantile world.

Here in Manchester, you sense the contrasts between a glorious past and a tarnished present in the form of rows of desolate semi-slums that surround a core of fine old buildings and museums that stand as monuments to times gone by.

You find it hard not to sympathize with the complaints of people who wonder who really gains from the ability to get to London in 68 minutes instead of two hours. You can hardly blame people for suspecting that the rich would get richer while the poor and middle class continue to flounder in a stagnating economy in which prices zoomed upward while income for most people remained about the same.

It’s a little depressing to note, however, that such questions reverberate around Korea as well. Koreans seem capable of overcoming just about all complaints in building high-speed railroads and highways, but Koreans complain of a widening rich-poor gap and rising unemployment in a system that’s breeding a new nobility made up of the super-rich and their executive servants and hangers-on analogous to that in Britain.

The chaebol chieftains and their extended families dominate the elaborate socio-economic structure that’s risen in South Korea in the span of nearly six decades since the end of the Korean War.

Like the Koreans, the Brits have got to get used to the reality of a world that moves faster than a lot of people would like. High-speed rail service is as inevitable as faster, bigger planes, mobile phones and the internet. Shed a tear as the countryside vanishes over the horizon.