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Why Seoul Metro and Taipei MRT Are Two of the Top Subway Systems in Asia

Proud to be an engineer, Mazlan loves to share the engineering marvels in Asia and other parts of the world.

These Asian subway operators not only generate profits for shareholders but play responsible social roles for stakeholders and the communities.

These Asian subway operators not only generate profits for shareholders but play responsible social roles for stakeholders and the communities.

Top Rated Asian Subway

Tokyo Subway and Hong Kong MTR have established subway services that are rated highly, not only by locals and tourists but also by international rating agencies and travel consultants.

Seoul Subway and Taipei MRT (Metro) are the other Asian subways that are ranked highly in terms of reliability, efficiency, safety, and cleanliness.

Let's find out why.

Seoul Metropolitan Subway (Lines 1–9)

Seoul's Metropolitan subway network is the most extensive in the world. With 17 lines, it connects almost all parts of Seoul and the suburbs. If this is not enough, nine new subway lines and one new extension will be added to the existing line. If the plan goes ahead, Seoul citizens will have only a ten-minute traveling distance to the nearest station!

Seoul's subway is also the world’s largest in terms of passenger-track length.

Operated by four Government-owned rail operators and other small private rapid transit operators, it has a staggering combined daily ridership of more than 3 billion (yes, with a 'b')

For this article, we will concentrate on the network for lines 1–9 that covers Seoul Metropolitan, as a direct comparison to the other subways in other parts of Asia.

The Seoul subway map looks complicated but is color-coded for convenience.

The Seoul subway map looks complicated but is color-coded for convenience.

Seoul Subway Express Train

Construction for the Seoul subway system began in 1971 and opened for commercial operation on August 15th, 1974. The subway network has now expanded to 17 lines with Lines 1–9 covering the Seoul Metropolitan area.

These are operated by four different companies, which are:

  1. Seoul Metropolitan Subway Corporation or Seoul Metro, which operates part of lines 1–4
  2. Korail (Korea Railroad, formerly Korean National Railroad), which runs the other parts of lines 1, 3, and 4
  3. Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation (SMRT), which runs lines 5–8
  4. Seoul Metro Line 9 Corporation, a private company that runs line 9. It connects the east and west part of the Seoul area located south of the Han river. This makes line 9 the country's first privately operated subway line. With its triple track, it has the first express train service in Seoul.

January 2018 Update: Seoul Metro and Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation are now merged on 31 May 2017, and known as Seoul Metro. It now operates Lines 1 through 8 and the 2nd stage section of Line 9. These combined lines mean a total of 307 stations covering 331.5 km (206.0 miles) of track-line and a staggering ridership of more than 3 billion.

Display TV screens at one of Seoul subway station

Display TV screens at one of Seoul subway station

Despite its massive networks and high daily ridership, the Seoul subway is not only efficient and reliable, but it is clean, too. It is easy to use and has high service frequency, which is rated highly by many travel experts and transportation consultants.

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Seoul Subway's Facilities

Commuter comfort and other material things are just as important. Hence, the newer train carriages are spacious to allow for quicker access on and off the train. But not for the older trains, which will soon be replaced with newer models.

The carriages are air-conditioned during summer. There are also carriages with a lower level of air-conditioning for people who cannot stand the cold. If you happen to be in that carriage on a hot summer day, be ready to sweat!

Other creature comforts when traveling on the Seoul subway are:

  • Heated passenger seats in the winter
  • TV signal for cell phones
  • 4G Wi-Fi
  • Display TV screen (in newer stations, you get international news and sports highlights, stock prices, and service announcements.)
  • All announcements and signage are in both Korean and English at all stations
  • For the convenience of foreign commuters, stations that lead to tourist areas will have additional announcements in Japanese and Chinese.
  • Travel time between subway stations is only two to three minutes.
  • For a refund on your travel card deposit, insert the card into the machine that says, "Deposit Refund Device," located after the turnstile at your destination
  • Use the Seoul Subway Digital map for the best route to your destination. It also gives the travel time, fare, the number of station stops, transfer station, and facilities available at the station. The Seoul subway map can also be downloaded for iPhone and Androids phones.
  • Free cell phone charging service.
  • Nursing space inside the Public Service center at most stations. It has a baby bed, sofa, and coffee pot.

Seoul Subway Hours

Depending on the line, the subway starts at 5.30 am and ends at midnight.

Signage in Korean and English at Seoul Metro Station

Signage in Korean and English at Seoul Metro Station

Which Travel Card to Use for Seoul's Subway

Another factor for its high ranking is its travel card to pay for the ride.

You can still buy a single-ride ticket but the hassle of joining the queue and putting the money into the vending machine can be time-consuming.

With the rechargeable travel card, you don't have to go through this hassle and it works out cheaper. But which card to use?

T-money card

If your stay in Seoul is more than four days, you are better off with the T-money card. You can use them on buses, trams, taxis, and at convenience stores. Once you are done with this T-money card, you get the remaining balance, less 500 won for service charges. By the way, the subway fare is cheaper by 100 won when you use T-money.

Tip: reload in small amount only with total card value not in excess of 50,000 won when you apply for a refund. If it is in excess of 50,000 won, the refund process is complicated and time-consuming.

Seoul City Pass

Otherwise, get the 1-day, 2-day, or 3-day Seoul City Pass that currently sells for 15,000, 25,000 and 50,000 won (US $14.54, US $24.23, US$48.45) respectively. With this card, you can travel on the bus and subway up to 20 times a day, irrespective of the travel distance. In addition, you can use it on the Seoul City Tour Bus that takes you to all the popular tourist sites, as many times as you like. The only caveat is, it is not applicable on the Red Bus, Gyeonggi Bus, or Incheon Bus. For visitors on a short stay, this is a better bet.

Tips on How to Ride Seoul Subway

Despite the tough-looking Seoul subway map. its subway is not that complicated and easy to learn. The following tips will help you learn faster.

  • Route maps above the train door show white dots for doors that open on the right and yellow dots for doors that open on the left.
  • To go through the turnstile, swipe your card but at Line 9, it is a free transfer.
  • For some stations, you have to walk a bit longer distance for the train transfer. So allow sufficient time for this walk.
  • Do not forget to tap your travel card on the sensors whenever you exit the subway or get off the bus. Otherwise, you will be charged twice the next time you use the subway or bus.
  • The transfer must be within 30 minutes from the time you scan your transit card at the exit of the last subway station or bus. Between 9 pm and 7 am you have an hour to do the transfer.
  • Seoul Metro operates part of lines 1–4, which are the oldest subway lines. Some of their stations are cramped and poorly ventilated, and their trains are slower.
  • Lines 5–8 are newer lines with more spacious and airier subway stations. The trains also run faster.
  • Line 9 has the best stations and trains.

Seoul Metro Station Naming Rights

As an additional source of revenue, Seoul Metro signed contracts with several companies for their subway station naming rights. So, Apgujeong Station on line No.3 is now named as 'Hyundai Department Store Apgujeong Station' and 'Kangbuk Samsung Hospital' will be added to Seodaemun Station, etc.

The cost for these naming rights varies with the Seodaemun Station at KRW 180 million (USD 152,000) being the least expensive, and Euljiro 1-ga Station as the most expensive at KRW 340 million.

Comparison of Train Frequency and Cheapest Single Ride Ticket

Generally, Asian subways are cheaper. However, Moscow is also very competitively priced. London is expensive as it tries to discourage the use of single-journey tickets.

CityTrain FrequencyCheapest Adult Single Journey Ticket (exclude special concession rate)


2–10 mins depending on the hour

1,250 won (US$1.16)


2–4 mins interval at peak hours. 4–7 mins during off-peak hours

NT$20 (US$0.66)


2–3 mins at rush hours. Up to 10 mins at off hours

¥170 (US$1.66)

Hong Kong

varies from 1–2 mins depending on hours

HK$3.50 (US$0.45)


1min 49sec at peak hours and 5–15 mins at off peak

£4.90 (US$6.95)

New York

varies 4–20 mins depending on hours



2 mins during peak hours. 8–10 mins on off peak hours

1.70 Euro (US$2.35)


1–3 mins depending on the hours

30 RUB (US$0.84)

Taipei Metro's logo

Taipei Metro's logo

Taipei MRT

Taipei MRT branded as Taipei Metro opened on March 28th, 1996, much later than the other three subway networks In Seoul, Hong Kon, and Tokyo. It has newer trains and the routes are not as complicated as in Seoul or Tokyo.

With an average daily ridership of only 2.04 million per day (an annual ridership of 746m—Jan to Dec 2017 statistic), it is the least busy of the four subway networks and not as crowded. So, during peak hours you still have a decent standing space.

It currently operates from 6 am to midnight and uses downtime for maintenance. It has only 3.5 hours to do this, as the last train arrives at the depot at 1:30 am, and at 5 am tracks are inspected before service starts.

Taipei MRT Line

Taipei MRT line is not referred to by color name but by their terminal station name. For tourists, this can be difficult. So, the red line is named Tamsui–Xinyi line that serves Tamsui, Beitou, Shilin, Datong, Zhongshan, Zhongzheng, Daan, and Xinyi areas.

Taipei MRT Map

Taipei MRT map

Taipei MRT map

Taipei MRT Current and Future Expansion Plans

Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation runs Taipei Metro, which is 99.64% owned by various government agencies. It also operates the local bus services.

The first stage of the Taipei subway network spans over 78.3 miles (126 km) on 11 lines and has 109 stations. These are in operation since early 1996.

As of December 2017, it has now increased to 117 stations and 131.1 km (81.5 miles) of track line. Future expansion will increase stations and track lines to handle up to 3.6 million riders per day.

Clean and not so crowded Taipei Subway Station

Clean and not so crowded Taipei Subway Station

Facilities at Taipei MRT Stations: Responding to Commuters' Needs

Taipei Metro has a customer satisfaction level of 95.9% (2017 statistic) and this is due to its excellent customer service and facilities for commuters:

  • Train punctuality averages at an impressive 99.75%, slightly below Hong Kong which had 99.9% on-time performance (2017 figure)
  • Toilets at every station that work and clean, with additional facilities such as breastfeeding rooms
  • "Anti-peeping" measures in ladies' toilets!
  • Special waiting room for women commuters, especially for nighttime travel
  • Also for the ladies, intercoms in the trains and on platforms
  • Again for the ladies, when manpower permits, women exiting the station can be escorted to the taxi stand (taxi numbers will be recorded)
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Free charging stations for cell phones and computers (currently more than 260 charging stations)
  • Announcements are in Mandarin, Hakka, Taiwanese, and English. Unlike most subway announcements, these are crystal clear.
  • Big signage (in Chinese and English) at platforms to help commuters with directions and other information.
  • Quick transfers
  • Barrier-free station environment with special consideration for the visually impaired
  • 12,272 bicycle rack spaces (2016 figures) are provided at Taipei Metro stations and bicycles are allowed on board the trains on weekends and public holidays. This is to encourage Taipei residents to cycle rather than drive or use taxis on these days
  • To expedite passenger movement, speed gates instead of turnstiles are installed, and for a single journey, the magnetic cards are replaced with RFID tokens.
  • Commuters who share their birthday with the Taipei Metro enjoyed free travel on 28 March and are allowed to bring a friend.

Most of Taipei's houses and workplaces are a maximum of a 20-minute walk from an MRT station.

Taipei Metro Community Service

During the upgrading of station elevators, Taipei MRT used buses equipped with automated wheelchair lift platforms to ferry mobility-impaired passengers to nearby Metro stations, free of charge. These small details matter to commuters.

Taipei Metro is also mindful of the community and its neighborhood. It installed acoustics barriers along the medium and high-capacity tracks to reduce the ambient noise level by an average of 6 – 10 dB for residents along its track routes.

In addition, Taipei Metro organized regular station open houses for nearby residents, schools, and other community associations. These interactions help the public understand the station operations during normal and emergency times. These activities also create rapport between station staff and the communities.

Taipei MRT Customer Service Hotline

To remain accessible to public complaints, grievances, or gratitude, Taipei Metro put in place a 24-hour customer service hotline. Commuters can also e-mail their complaints or send them to the Mayor's mailbox. Alternatively, they can fill in the passenger comment forms available at all Metro stations.

Taipei Subway Bicycle Rack Spaces

Taipei Subway Bicycle Rack Spaces

Taipei MRT Station Ticket

One of the biggest hassles is buying the right ticket. Here's a quick guide to solving this problem.

Subway Tickets for Taipei MRT

If you don't use the subway that often, buy a single journey ticket, which costs between NT$20 to NT$65 (US$0.66 – US$2.15) depending on the destination distance. The ticket is in the form of an RFID token that you scan as you enter the gate, and deposit into a slot at the exit gate.

For a short stay but with lots of traveling, buy the one-day pass at NT$150 (US$4.95) that gives you unlimited travel on the subway within a day.

If your stay is longer and you do a lot of traveling, then the EasyCard is cheaper, which gives you a 20% discount on the fare. The card sells for NT$500 (US$16.52) of which NT$100 (US$3.30) is a deposit. The deposit and any unused portion will be refunded when you return the card. You can also use this card on the bus and at certain car parks. If your transfer from the subway to a bus (or vice-versa) is within two hours, you pay half of the bus/subway fare.

Tips on Taipei Metro

  • You cannot use cell phones in the first and last coaches of the train.
  • Smoking, drinking, and chewing gum are not allowed in the stations or train coaches
  • Pets are allowed but must be in hand-carry cages/bags
  • Wall maps (In Chinese & English) at all MRT stations show the attractions in the neighborhood
  • Tickets are valid only on the day of purchase (except the EasyCard)
  • If you like Hello Kitty, Taipei Metro has the Hello Kitty train on its brown MRT line.

Taipei Metro Financial Performance

Based on the current 2016 Annual Report, Taipei Metro had a profit before tax of NT$1.51 billion (with a 'b') i.e. US$51.7 million, and after-tax net profit of NT$1.26 billion based on the total revenue of NT$19.31 billion.

These are from its subway and bus services, its affiliated businesses from car parks, stores at stations and underground shopping malls, merchandise, and advertisements.

It may not be as impressive as Hong Kong's financial performance (for almost similar track length), but impressive enough for any transport operator.

Top Service From Asian Subway Operators

We read how Seoul, Taipei and in the earlier series, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, put in place first-class services for efficiency, reliability, safety, and cleanliness.

Their services are affordable and most important of all, they listen to their customers, the commuters. The subway is an integral part of the daily activities in these cities and the commuters expect high levels of safety and punctuality on a daily basis.

These Asian subway operators not only generate profits for shareholders but play responsible social roles for stakeholders and the communities.

Infrastructure and Economic Growth

Economic growth in any country relies on many factors. Efficient and reliable transportation services and their easy accessibility are part of these factors. Likewise, for clean, safe and reasonably priced transportation.

Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom, in their report, showed the important relationship between a good quality transport infrastructure and economic development.

These are some of the reasons why cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo succeed as important global financial centers.

Best Subway in the World

Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, and Osaka are other Asian cities that are fast catching up in excellent subway services. Soon, most of the top ten subways in the world will be from Asia.

Based on the July 2017 CNN travel rankings, these are their 9 best subway in the world but no criteria were given on how they arrived at this listing:

  1. Hong Kong MTR
  2. Seoul Metro
  3. Singapore MRT
  4. London Underground
  5. Paris Metro
  6. Madrid Metro
  7. New York City MTA
  8. Tokyo Metro
  9. Guangzhou Metro (China)

Do you agree with this?

Seoul Subway vs. Taipei Metro

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Mazlan A

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