Like Britain's Channel Tunnel Rail Link, South Korea's first high speed rail line has had something of a rocky time, not least because of the Asian currency crisis two years ago. The huge £9.7bn project is due to start coming on stream at the end of this year. It is led by Wu-Hyeon Lee, executive vice-president of Korea High Speed Rail project, a division of the country's national rail authority.
Lee has spent most of his working life on South Korea's national railway and is now in charge of the jewel in its crown. The project was restructured following the Asian devaluation crisis. As with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Bechtel has been drafted in as project manager and the project has been split into two phases.
One of Lee's key concerns is quality assurance. 'According to Korean law, construction work has to be inspected regularly for quality. Between July 1998 and April 1999, we carried out nearly 1,700 inspections and no major faults were found. If we have any problems during construction, the third party foreign engineers will join the contractor to jointly supervise. If poor construction is found, we will destroy it. It will not be permitted by KHSR.'
The system is unforgiving. Two bridge sections were recently demolished and reconstructed after minor defects were detected. Design work is being undertaken by local companies, supported by engineers from DEC of Germany and Systra and SEEE of France.
The project has also had to overcome other problems. 'Land acquisition has not been so easy - many farmers do not want to sell their land to KHSR. The second thing has been anti-pollution protestors,' says Lee.
Anxious farmers and environmentalists have raised fears about dust, noise and vibration. But Lee says welded rail joints, noise screens and pre-washed ballast means these fears are unfounded.
Trials on the first 36km section within the 282km first phase between Seoul and Taegu are due to start in December. The line will operate trains running at speeds of up to 300km/h when it opens in April 2004. The first phase will end at Taegu, 130km short of Pusan.
Construction of the 130km second phase will be between 2004 and 2010. When the whole project is complete it will cut the journey from Seoul to Pusan from 160 minutes to 116. It is forecast that 157,000 passengers a day will use the service initially, rising to 418,000 by 2031.
A soft government loan accounts for 45% of the cost of the £6.7bn first phase. The rest will be financed by foreign loans and a bond issue, which depends on South Korea receiving a favourable credit rating from Moodys later this year. The service is forecast to start generating profits in 2009 with construction repaid in 2031.
The line will be 412km long, including 111km of earthworks,112km of bridges, and 189km of tunnels using the New Austrian Tunnelling Method.