Seoul part 5: On size

Searching for a train, I make my way through narrow corridors along with dozens of people; an underground river of humanity ebbing and flowing every day through the underside of the city.

The river pools on a platform and we set to waiting. At first we hear a rumbling noise in the distance, then a gust of air, quickly escalating to gale force until the train makes its stop in front of us. Doors open like a dam and the river pours in.

I take place on one side, bending my neck down to follow the curvature of the wall. Too many people in too small a place. I can perceive the mass of humanity, rather than see it, as the awkward position is forcing me to stare at my boots. I close my eyes for a moment and think fondly of riding a spacious Metro train in Seoul, instead of this miserable Northern Line train in London.

The Seoul Metro counts a whopping 18 lines with more than 500 stations and it transports more than 2.6 billion people every year. In terms of passengers, it’s second only to Beijing and Shanghai.

For comparison, the London Tube has 11 lines, less than 300 stations and it transports 1.2 billion people a year (less than half).

Trains are unbelievably large and long. Used to London and the dreaded Northern Line, I just couldn’t believe the spaciousness of stations, platforms and trains.

In fact, while writing this post I decided to compare the official rolling stock measurements to verify whether my impression was correct. To make things more interesting, I threw Milan’s Metro into the mix.

Comparison of train measurements (side)

Based on rolling stock produced by Hyundai for Line 2, in Seoul trains have 10 cars, are at least 195 meters in length, 3.12 meters in width, and 3.75 meters in height.

Meneghino trains in Milan have 6 cars, are about 105 meters in length, 2.85 meters in width and 3.65 meters in height: much shorter, but almost as spacious.

For a (somewhat unfair) comparison, trains in the Northern Line 1995 rolling stock have 6 cars, are about 110 meters in length, are only 2.63 meters in width and 2.875 meters in height, with infamously curved sides to make standing even more of a challenge.

Comparison of train measurements (front)

(Looking for data online, I found a fascinating TFL document with a wealth of technical details on all Underground rolling stock. Say what you want about TFL, I love that they make these obscure documents freely available online).

London doesn’t really come out well in this lineup. However, to be fair, it’s worth noting that metro trains started operating in 1964 in Milan and in 1974 in Seoul; the first underground train in London ran in 1863: about a century earlier. It’s kind of inevitable that the Tube will lose the comparison to its more modern counterparts.

It’s not just trains that are big in Seoul. The same seems to be true for all public spaces: most roads have 4 lanes, pavements are wide, both residential and commercial buildings have a huge footprint and 15–20 floors.

Initially, this reminded me of the U.S., where everything appeared larger than life — at least to my European eyes.

However, my feeling is that size in the States is about granting more personal space to individuals: cars are big, seats are enormous, food comes in portions fit for giants and so on.

Conversely, in Korea size is about fitting more people in. Buildings are huge because they’re a honeycomb of tiny apartments; trains are wide to allow people-pushers to pack more commuters in; roads are larger to accommodate a swarm of small cars and mopeds, buzzing back and forth each and every day.

The Han is a river that snakes its way in the middle of the city. Its topography is pretty similar to the Thames in London, but it’s huge in comparison: it can be 1km wide.
To put the figure in perspective, consider that the Thames at London Bridge — which is what I see in my mind when I think of the Thames — is only 275 metres wide.

Size is not only about large and long, but tall as well. Seoul is big in that respect too: metro stations are deep underground, buildings are very tall and in general the city is pretty hilly. Seoulites apparently love stairs and we did a lot of vertical travelling while touristing around.

Speaking of vertical travelling: escalators — when you can find them — are decidedly unlike the ones in London.

First of all, they are unbearably slow: it can’t be more than a tiny fraction of other cities’ speed, but it’s definitely noticeable. In addition, people have to stand on the right and on the left, taking up all available space. This makes sense, as it’s forbidden to walk on most escalators.

If you’re from London, this may be enough to trigger a fit of commuter rage and I admit I was feeling a bit antsy myself. If you look at it in perspective, though, is standing still for half a minute really something that can ruin your day?

Sometimes it takes travelling half a world away, to recognise the silliness of behaviours we completely take for granted.

The previous article I published was on Hangul, the Korean alphabet.

Watch this space for my sixth and final diary, which will tackle the lofty subject of the ineffable.

And toilets.