Post #51 – A Guide to The Seoul Subway System (from TAKE-KR MAGAZINE’s November 2017 Issue)
The fascination humans have with cities hidden under cities extends from the antiquity to modern times, from Napoli Sotterranea to Montreal’s La Ville Souterraine. While the first one dates back hundreds of years and offers a glimpse into the city’s past, the latter is a vibrant winter haven for Montreal residents, filled with stores, restaurants and clubs. People’s fixation with the underground has not always been dictated by the weather. WWII converted Paris’ catacombs into bunkers, while Beijin’s Underground City was going to be built for protection during the Cold War.
Seoul started building its subway system in 1971 opening to the public in 1974. The system, which helps commuters to move around the city, also serves as shelter for more than just the weather. With that being said, Seoul’s Metropolitan Subway holds records and superlatives that make it one of the most outstanding underground networks in the world.
It is 5th in the world in length extending over 331 kilometers, ranks 7th by the number of stations, and 3rd by human traffic. The system has 9 lines within the city proper, all equipped with public Wi-Fi, and platform screen doors. One doesn’t have to “Mind the Gap” because there is rarely one. Trains run smoothly and quietly, although the top-of-the-line trains function on the most recently opened lines, such as the unmanned Shinbundang Line.
All signage is in Hangul, Hanja and English. While in the train, stations and transfers are announced in Hangul, English, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese. All stations are equipped with real-time LCD screens to monitor arrivals. Most trains also have screens showing the stations while these are announced. Seats are heated in winter time, and there is climate control during the summer.
Certain stations have been upgraded with gigantic LCD screens for ads and entertainment. Gangnam station boasts 48 transparent advertising screens, while other stations display gallery-quality works of art, such as those on the UI-Sinseol Line opened in September 2017. Several additional lanes or extensions are under construction in Seoul and Incheon. A world-wide first is the virtual mart for smartphone-users which opened at Seolleung Station in 2011, and where commuters can buy groceries by taking virtual photographs of over 500 products on their way to work and getting them delivered the same day.
All payment needs are covered by smart cards such as T-Money, available for a small fee at each station. Machines have menus in English and allow you to add cash in seconds. These cards can also be used in a select number of bus lines and stores. Both major airports in Seoul, Incheon and Gimpo can be reached via subway lines and the connecting Airport Railroad. The subway service in general is open from 5:30 am to 1 am, and there are plans to extend it soon overnight in certain areas.
Aside from being a superb network system for public transportation, Seoul’s Subway is a city hidden under a city. Each station has stores and eateries, and a whole world of shopping malls can be directly reached from the subway, either underground of above the surface. Exiting the subway at Jamsil leads you directly into the world of LOTTE shopping, although at first you might think you landed in Rome, facing the Fontana di Trevi. Taking the subway is easy; shopping underground is an entirely different ballgame. The underground shopping malls require stamina and orientation. Most of the cosmetic brands in Korea have at least one store at each one of these malls. Clothing for about $10, shoes, socks, purses, umbrellas, you name it – there is everything to be found. There are some very large underground malls, such as the ones in Gangnam, Jamsil or Youngdeungpo. If shopping is on your list and it is raining, you will never get bored in the city hidden under the city of Seoul.
Using the subway in Seoul is easy.
Download a Seoul Subway App. There are many in PlayStore and they are useful even when you are off line. While online they offer updates on routes, show you the fastest way to reach a destination and tell you how long it will take to get there in real time and in English. If you are not connected to the Internet, you can still use the app’s map and zoom into the areas you are researching, while printed maps are not updated and fall apart after sitting in your pocket for a few days.
Buy a transit card and fill it up with 10,000 or 20,000 Won, the equivalent of about $10-20 USD. Each trip will cost you about $1 more or less. Seoul Subway only charges you once from the moment you enter until you exit the electronic gate, unlike the one in Tokyo. So there is no need to calculate; the card will show you each time you used it how much money you have left.
Chose the line you will ride by number and color, and select the station at which you need to get off. In order to get onto the right train you also have to know the name of the last station of the line. That station is used on signage to show the direction in which the train is heading. Familiarize yourself as well with the names of the stations before and after your point of departure. These are marked on top of each platform screen door, showing with arrows what route your train is taking.
On the platform, line up in front of one door. There will be rush hours and lining up is a disciplined way of getting on and off without hassle. Find a place to sit, but don’t occupy the seats assigned to the elderly; these are marked with visible graphics.
Keep an eye on your end station. Most trains have LCD screens or announcements in English. Nevertheless monitoring them on your app is advisable, in the event that any given station has been skipped, what happens very rarely.
After leaving the train, look for the street exit. These exits are all marked in yellow and numbered. Before reaching your exit, you will have to scan your transit card again, in order to pay. Entering and leaving via these scanners is simultaneous for the ongoing in and out traffic. Do not attempt to pass where the light is red. Look for a green arrow and proceed. If you don’t know your street exit, look for a map. All stations have one somewhere. Major points of interest and touristic areas are marked in multiple languages. In case of doubt, follow the crowd.
Enjoy riding the Subway. There are sections where the subway lines pass over the Han River bridges, giving you a stunning rolling view of Seoul, be it by day or night. Make your journey count. Be adventurous. Get off places you don’t know and you will wonder at what you find. Some of my ultimate favorites are: Dongdaemun History and Culture Park, Jamsil, Sports Complex, City Hall, Hyewa, Noksapyeong, Myeongdong, Apgugeong Rodeo, just to name a few.
Traveling the Subway is a daily routine for most Koreans. You will become familiar with their subway habits, from putting on makeup, to watching dramas on their smartphones, or falling asleep. Respecting these habits as well as following the unwritten rules of subway transit is entertaining. Some of these are: don’t stretch your legs out when you sit, keep your elbows in, don’t eat, don’t speak loud and keep your phone calls to a minimum, tuck your umbrella under your seat, place your bag on the top shelf, and don’t ever sit on a seat designated for the elderly – you will be stared at.
Otherwise, enjoy the ride!