During my 14 years in the Army I always heard about how great two nation’s public transit systems were: Korea and Germany.
I heard how wonderful the subway system of Seoul was. I heard stories about the train system that would “take you anywhere easy!” in Germany. I heard these stories from soldiers who had lived there and used the system but strangely almost all of these soldiers lived in the barracks while they were there. Hmmm… how odd.
I had the opportunity to check out the public transportation system in Korea firsthand since my very first tour was there. They have extensive busing networks, subways, and a nationwide train system. It all sucks ass.
My first trip in Korea was on a chartered bus from Seoul to Pyongtaek. The bus was slow, fairly dirty, and either too hot or too cold depending on the bus driver’s mood. In other words it was like a bus trip in almost any country.
I didn’t hit the subway in Seoul until after an excruciating trip to Seoul via the national rail system. The ticket was cheap but that was because it doesn’t guarantee you a seat on the train. I am my friends stood while this train went from Pyongtaek to Seoul stopping at every podunk town in between. It doesn’t matter how fast the train goes in between stops because of the very long stop time and acceleration time at each place. The trip took hours and was spent packed in like sardines. Seriously, it was standing room only the whole way.
This applies eventually to almost any train line. The line might start out as an “express” line between two distant points with no stops in between but it is only a matter of time before smaller points along the route petition and bitch their way into being a stop too. Eventually your “express” line is just as slow as the other lines are.
Once we got to Seoul we transferred to the subway system and it was somewhat less packed but still just as dirty. Additionally, the network is bafflingly complex (even when you speak the language) and going from one point to another usually involves multiple transfers. From Pyongtaek to our destination in Seoul took around 4 hours for a trip that encompassed about 100 km or so. Not good, but it only cost about 8 dollars per person. Meh.
When I went back to Korea I was authorized to have a car and never looked back. The worst days in Seoul traffic were better than the best trips I had using the public system and they usually cost me less in gasoline especially if there were 3 or more people in my car. Additionally if you have ever tried buying a bunch of stuff from any of Seoul’s great shopping districts and then humped them over a 4 hours trek of the public transportation system you will appreciate having a car with a trunk.
On to Germany: I loved Germany. I was actually angry with the Army when I got there after being stuck in Korea for so many years. Wiesbaden Germany is incredible. It has great food, great beer, incredible wine, wonderful shopping and culture, and a shitty train system. Let me explain.
We had a rental car and Pseudosoldier was our driver. He wasn’t all that confident about driving in Europe but did a great job (after the SpielBank incident anyways). When we decided to try and catch a German version of the Renaissance fest at a castle though we decided that:
- We didn’t want to risk the drive.
- We had too many people for one car to seat comfortably since the Bourbon Biker was coming along.
- Pseudo wanted to be able to drink freely.
So we decided to take the train system we had heard so much about. What an error in judgment that was. We bought tickets that would take right where we wanted to go at about 13-15 Euros apiece (around 17 bucks at the time so 5x17 = 85 USD for 5 people) and boarded the train in Wiesbaden. From Wiesbaden we went to Frankfurt (which was about a 10 minute drive) and waited for a transfer to our next train for about 40 minutes.
Once on that train we waited for our stop… and waited…. and waited… I hadn’t thought it possible for a train to move more slowly or stop more often than the ones in Korea but this one certainly did. Additionally the stops were not announced or listed in the same way that the tickets said they were. Consequently we were on the train for almost 3 hours and missed our stop.
We got off and figured out that after 3 hours of travel we were in Fulda. Acquiring a map we were a bit shocked to find that Fulda is just on the other side of Frankfurt (maybe 20-25 more minutes in a car tops (look for yourself)). Our stop was supposed to be a small town between Fulda and Frankfurt. We could have driven there in less than 30 minutes for about 5 dollars worth of gas round trip!
After shopping and drinking in Fulda for a few hours (in the rain) we decided to get 2 cabs and head back to Wiesbaden. The cabs combined cost us about 60 dollars and took us right back to the base in 30-35 minutes.
Bottom line? The train was 5 times slower than cabbing or driving and between 17 and 1.5 times as expensive.
Now I knew many Koreans who spoke wondrously about their public system but they all had one thing in common. They didn’t know how to drive and didn’t own their own car. The Koreans who did own a car and who had learned to drive used their cars almost exclusively even with the outrageously expensive gas prices there (they tax the hell out of gas just like Europe does).
The soldiers who told the stories? Well most either never had a car in Korea or were really reciting a “party line” they had heard endlessly from their language instructors. The public system was great if your only other choice was walking.