When Last Train Comes Into Depot, Army of Workers Arises
UNDERGROUND SEOUL ― At around 1 a.m., when Seoul, the city of 12 million people, is heading to bed, some 1,400 people are starting their morning, putting on their hard hats and getting their toolboxes, in order to ensure a smooth and safe tomorrow for millions of commuters using the megacity's spider web of subways.
They clean up, inspect and repair a total of 290 subway stations scattered around Seoul and its neighboring areas, the hundreds of kilometers of the railroad network and hundreds of subway trains, every single night.
It's obvious that their overnight dedication has made it possible for an estimated 4.5 million people to enjoy safe, clean and convenient underground travel every single day.
But not many citizens are aware of this.
Ahead of New Year's Day, The Korea Times spent a night with the subway workers, often described as "morning breakers," at two subway stations and a regional base, catching a glimpse of their overnight duties.
The mercury dropped to minus eight degrees Celsius in Suseo station on line No. 3 in southern Seoul, Tuesday. An eight-lane road and the sidewalk near the station were icy following the snowfall that covered the city a day earlier. A group of people, seemingly on their way back home from a year-end party, were huddling together, trying to catch a taxi.
At the same time, some five wide-shouldered, masculine men began to carry dozens of cement sacks piled up beside the crossroad down to the station. "They are to be used to install screen doors in the subway platform," a worker said.
It was announced that the last subway bound for the station will arrive at 01:39 a.m., thirty minutes later than usual after additional services aimed at aiding the snow-hit road traffic.
"Our work starts after the last train leaves the station. And it continues until the arrival of the first subway for tomorrow," another worker said. "The deadline to complete the installation has already passed. So we have to make it as early as possible. But such an extended operation makes it tougher for us to do so."
The second to last train arrived and dozens of passengers, including faltering ones, walked out of the train. Workers sitting on benches alongside the platform stood up and began to arrange grinders, shovels and welding machines on the floor. It took just minutes for the platform, crowded with passengers during the day to turn into a virtual "construction site." Ear-splitting noise from the grinders sporadically shattered the tranquility of the station.
Some ten women in their late 40s and early 50s were crouching down on the floor and plugging gaps between marble tiles with cements. Chill winds from subway tunnels radically dropped the temperature of the station, but it did nothing to halt the progress.
"It's so cold. But I do it to make a living," a female worker said, smirking.
"This is the last stop for this train. Please leave the train," Yoon Seok-bong, the driver of the last train, No. 327, spoke into his microphone upon arrival. After checking out that all the carriages were empty, he exchanged pleasantries with a driver on the opposite side of the tracks.
Then he slowly drove the vehicle to a regional base located one kilometer away from the station, where dozens of trains and other heavy equipment are stationed.
The first train bound for Daehwa, another base located nearly 40 kilometers northwestern from here, is scheduled to leave the base at "exactly" 05:08 a.m. and arrive at Dogok station, five stops away, at 05:28 a.m.
"I feel happy when I wrap up the operation as scheduled without any trouble," Yoon said, smiling.
Jin Cho-hwan started the engine of a railroad inspection train, named "Dr. Find." It was scheduled to inspect railroad conditions between Suseo and Hakyeoul station.
A total of five engineers hopped into the 50-ton, 19-meter-long vehicle, produced by MER MEC in Italy.
"It can inspect dozens of factors on the railroad on a real time basis," he proudly said. "It can detect problems to within a 0.1 millimeter margin of error."
Seoul Metro operates subway lines No. 1, 2, 3 and 4, with the total length of railroad it has totaling 276.95 kilometers. It checks the entire railroad four times a year.
The train left the base and trundled to Hakyeoul station. "Driving the train at this time is much more risky than during the day time," said Jin who has been engaged in this field for fifteen years. "During the day time, the subway tunnels are free from people, but it's not the case at night. Many inspectors patrol the tunnel to locate any problems with the walls, tracks or the power lines."
He frequently sounds the horn in warning and pays greater attention when the train approaches a curbed line or a station under construction.
"In the 1980s, all inspection practices were conducted by foot patrols. It was common at that time for people with heavy equipment to be walking alongside the tracks all night long," he said.
The Dr. Find arrived at Hakyeoul station after finding nothing wrong. Workers at Hakyeoul were just as busy as those at others stations installing screen doors and cleaning the platforms.
Five workers seemingly in their 50s were sprinkling water on the floor using a hose and rubbing the floor with an electric cleaning machine.
A woman operating the machine said, "It takes nearly four hours to wipe the entire floor of a station." She refused to answer additional questions, saying "Time is running out. The work should be completed by 04:30 a.m." Nearly two thirds of the floor remained untouched.
On way back to the base, Jin said, "Frankly, night work is tough. I was told that overnight work would shorten my life span. But I do this job for a feeling of satisfaction that I cannot get elsewhere.
"You don't know the feeling we get when we see the subway running smoothly with the rising sun as the backdrop. I think this is my calling."
The cold spell froze many things. The subway was no exception. Inspector Kim young-ryong and Park Duk-soo, who were checking the operation systems of train No. 331 ― Tuesday's first train, scheduled to depart at 05:08 a.m. ― made an emergency call to the administration center.
"We need another train to replace it. No. 331 has a system problem," Park said into a walkie-talkie. The office took immediate action by changing the trains.
"If the departure of the first train is delayed, it has an enormous trickle-down effect. The operation timetable for today would be comprehensively modified and countless passengers would be affected," Kim said.
The two drivers for Tuesday's first train ― Min Kyung-sik and Lee Dae-nam ― arrived at newly-assigned train No. 326 at 04:30 a.m. and the inspectors wished them good morning and handed over the key.
"We usually wake up one hour ahead of departure," said Min, who has operated subway trains since 1985.
A briefcase he was holding was packed with a roll of newspapers and toilet paper.
"These are must-have items for subway drivers," he said. "We will have no time to go to the restroom for up to three hours. This is for emergencies."
Lee, who has done this job for 13 years, added, "All subway drivers will understand this."
Min stressed that the first drivers are responsible for the train departing as scheduled and arriving at stations on time.
"The first subway has more significance than the following ones," he said. "It's like the first steps in life. If we do this right, the rest of the day will go smoothly. If not, however, major efforts will be added to get it back on the right track.
"Subway staff should put work ahead of their private life and entertainment for the general public. In particular, we work longer on holidays and during this time of year. But the satisfaction we get doing this job is much stronger."
At around 4:50 a.m. when the train arrived at Chungmuro station in central Seoul, its ten carriages capable of carrying up to 3,500 passengers were already crowded.
Source: The Korea Times