^ New Yongin Everline promotional video (in Korean)

The 18km “Everline” rapid transit system in Yongin (near Seoul), South Korea, which utilizes the same “SkyTrain technology” trains used here in Vancouver, has celebrated its two year anniversary this past week – and along with that, city residents and officials have also been celebrating its positive effect in transforming the city of Yongin.

A new report published in English by the Korea Herald reports that the Everline is transforming Yongin City – helping to foster business growth and attract high-tech industries, encourage more people to adopt transit-oriented lifestyles and reduce congestion. The Everline is now meeting the ridership projection that was initially made in 2011.

Yongin, once regarded as a commuter town in Gyeonggi Province, is now developing into a business-centered metropolis equipped with a growth engine as it amasses infrastructure befitting a city of more than 1 million residents.

The development has been underway since Mayor Jung Chan-min took office nine months ago. The city is setting up several industrial complex centers including the Yongin Techno Valley currently under construction, and the once-dormant light rail ‘Everline’ is currently used by over 30,000 passengers daily.

[Yongin growing into business-centered city – The Korea Herald]

The Everline story: dismal beginnings

The Everline opened for service in 2013, after being unable to open in 2011 (the line had been fully constructed and in a ready-to-open state since before even then) and again in 2012, due to refusal from the City over issues with both construction and projected ridership (see INTERVIEW with Joongang Daily – Feb 2011). The delay was seen negatively by the Yongin Rapid Transit Company (YRTC), the line’s operator, which was awarded nearly $500 million in damages through the International Court of Arbitration, after suing Yongin City for delaying the opening of the line.

These issues, among others, gave the Everline a very dismal reputation among city residents – and a reportedly low ridership when the line was opened did not make things any better. One group of vocal residents, who were understandably not too happy about the delays and lawsuit, at one point called for the Everline to be dismantled altogether.

Yongin Everline Train
Although the Everline service operates at an exceptional frequency, trains operate with a single car and that has created even more dissatisfaction among critics. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA Minseong Kim

But, according to The Korea Herald’s report, it turned out that one of the key problems with the Everline during its initial year of operation was a total lack of fare integration with surrounding transit systems. There was also no direct station-to-station connection or fare integration between the Everline’s terminus station in Giheung, and the nearby Giheung Station of the Bundang Line subway connecting to Seoul City Centre.

Both of these issues were fixed by late September last year, causing ridership levels on the Everline to increase by triple by this April, a period of just over 6 months.

Everline, the major light rail line of Yongin, opened two years ago, but it had been long regarded as a public nuisance with fewer than 10,000 users per day. After implementing the Metropolitan Unity Fare system in September last year, the number of passengers drastically increased. After one month, over 20,000 passengers on average used the light rail daily, and the number reached an average of 30,000 passengers last month.

The ridership is now close to meeting the latest daily ridership forecast of 32000, by the Gyeonggi Research Institute in 2011; and at this rate will surpass it some time this year.

This is very significant for Yongin, because one of the things that pressured the City into refusing to open the line in 2011 was the lack of confidence that it would meet this projection – the city’s internal projections of 10,000 daily riders disagreed with the Gyeonggi Research Institute. The Mayor stated the City did not want to open the line, expressing concern about the increased operating subsidy and a loss of revenue due to lower ridership.

When the line finally opened in 2013, Korean transit blog Kojects noted that the city’s projection had turned out to be true (see No Passengers on Yongin Everline – June 2013) – with the line recording just under 10,000 passengers daily. However, the fare integration with surrounding transit had not yet been implemented, despite its anticipation during previous attempts to open in 2012. Now that it has been implemented, the ridership level is now triple the city’s initial projections and nearly matches the projections set by the Gyeonggi Research Institute; it will handily surpass those projections within this year.

The Everline costs about $26 million to operate yearly, which is a relatively low cost made possible by driver-less train operation. As a result, it is now close to half-way to reaching its total “break-even” point when daily ridership hits 75000 (This is according to a Korean newspaper – [see here]). At 75000, fare revenues will 100% cover all operating costs, completely eliminating the operating expense for city taxpayers.

By comparison, here in Vancouver our SkyTrain lines have hit their break-even points and are covering their operating costs through fare revenue. The newest Canada Line, opened 2009 and using Korean-built trains from Rotem in two-car sets, hit its break-even point of 100,000 daily riders in 2011 (against projections of hitting this in 2013). However, our SkyTrain lines have opened on-time and on-budget. The Canada Line opened several months early, and was bolstered further by the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Everline as an asset to Yongin City

Map of the Yongin Everline
Map of the Yongin Everline

On top of the recent fare integration, new efforts – including the promo video at the top of this post – have been made to promote the viability of the line to residents, many of them still bitter from having to wait years to ride and sitting through the handover of a major chunk of the city treasury.

It’s taken some time, but shuttle buses from the four main universities that are connected by the Everline, which previously were connecting to major transit centres, are now connecting to the Everline (According to previously linked report in Korean – [see link]), helping the universities reduce their transport costs. Activity on the line is increasing and there are now buskers performing at many of the line’s busier stations, fostering a lively urban atmosphere.

New developments on the line aim to take advantage of the Everline’s convenience. One multiple high-rise proposal, at the Everline’s junction with the Bundang Subway Line at Giheung Station, is expected to be a massive contribution to the line’s ridership (see report in Korean – [link])

The new Mayor of Yongin, who was elected to office 9 months ago, has supported the Everline and demonstrated its versatility by making the Everline a part of his own commute (the Everline has a station in front of Yongin City Hall), and has organized a citizens committee to make the best of the line now that it has been built. He has also used the Everline’s example to push for further rail investment in Yongin City – which may include further extensions of the Everline itself.

Everline trains consist of a single car, which is the same length as our Mark II cars but as wide as our Canada Line vehicles at 3.2m wide. The trains have been termed by some media and riders as “cute”, but derided by critics as being “more like buses”.

Nevertheless, trains run every 4 minutes during weekday peak periods, and no less frequently than every 6 minutes except during early mornings and late nights on weekdays and weekends. This is a higher quality service than many grade-level, driver-operated Light Rail systems. In addition, all stations are ready to accommodate 2-car trains.

Significance to Vancouver

Although the Everline operates an exceptional frequency, the fact that trains operate a single car has created additional dissatisfaction among critics.
You betcha that Everline train looked just a little too familiar. Look, linear motor rails!

The Everline has often caught the attention of transit observers in Metro Vancouver, noting the identical ‘SkyTrain technology’ from Bombardier being used on the new line.

Critics of SkyTrain expansion in our region were the first to jump on the Everline story, framing its issues as reasons that we should avoid expanding our SkyTrain system. I find it particularly ironic that it is the same kind of interference from municipal politicians – which resulted in the Everline’s shortfall as a Yongin City asset – that has been desired by critics referencing that shortfall as a way of stopping SkyTrain expansion.

But it should be clear that none of the problems with the Everline were the result of ‘SkyTrain technology’, or Bombardier. In his interview with Joongang Daily, the Mayor of the City in 2011 cited two reasons why the City was refusing to open the project: issues with ridership (which we now know to have been lack of integration), and issues with construction resulting in “noise and safety concerns”. These apparent construction issues were related to the elevated guideway structure and so a result of the construction contractor, not Bombardier or anything regarding ‘SkyTrain technology’.

Regardless of everything, the Everline has proved to be a successful transit system – and every day it carries more passengers and transforms life for more and more citizens in Yongin, it is turning around its dismal beginning of being a “failure” or a “white elephant” and becoming a true rapid transit icon in Korea.

I believe the Everline Story has two main lessons for all of us here in Metro Vancouver:

  1. “P3” transit projects must be carefully planned and considered. The Yongin Everline is essentially akin to a “what if the Canada Line P3 failed” scenario, with ridership not meeting projections – except the disaster was also kind of pre-empted as a result of fear of failure from the City’s politicians, the resulting delays in opening, and the lack of fare integration. The Canada Line did not fail because it was built on a well-demonstrated transit corridor (the previous 98 B-Line rapid bus was demand proof) and kept a promise to riders by mandating travel time improvements – the designer was actually required to orient its proposal around a set travel time value, and the Canada Line’s reliability in meeting that travel time was subsequently found to be the line’s #1 most-liked aspect in rider surveys. The City of Surrey should particularly be paying attention because it wants to use a P3 model on its proposed grade-level Light Rail system, which is more vulnerable to ridership not meeting projections than a grade-separated SkyTrain extension.
  2. The value of integrating transit fare systems. Major metro areas in North America like the San Francisco Bay Area are facing serious challenges dealing with multiple transit agencies, including major ridership losses due to the lack of integrated fares. We don’t have this problem in Metro Vancouver because of our system of having a single transit operator throughout history. As a result, TransLink is one of North America’s most efficient transit systems.