Seoul Subway and Taipei MRT (Metro), Two of the Top Four Subway Systems in Asia

Updated on May 11, 2016
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Proud of being an engineer, Mazlan loves to share the engineering marvels around the world

In the earlier part of this series, we read how Tokyo Subway and Hong Kong MTR put in place 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.

Inside one of Seoul's subway train
Inside one of Seoul's subway train | Source

Seoul Metropolitan Subway (Lines 1-9)

Seoul's Metropolitan subway network is probably the most extensive in the world. With 17 lines, it connects almost all parts of Seoul and the suburbs. If this is not enough, there are plans for nine new subway lines and one new extension to the existing line. If the plan goes ahead, Seoul citizens will have only a ten-minute travelling 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 9.8 million (a 2012 statistic).

However, for this article we will concentrate on the network for lines 1 to 9 that covers Seoul Metropolitan, as a direct comparison to the other subways in other parts of Asia. Statistics for 2012 showed daily ridership for this network at 7.0 million commuters, lower than Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Logo of companies that operate Seoul's subway
Logo of companies that operate Seoul's subway

Seoul Subway Express Train

Construction work for the Seoul subway system begun in 1971. It opened for commercial operation on August 15th, 1974. The subway network has now expanded to 17 lines, but Lines 1-9 cover 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 line 1 - 4
  2. Korail (Korea Railroad, formerly Korean National Railroad), which runs the other parts of line 1, 3 & 4
  3. Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation (SMRT), which runs lines 5 - 8
  4. Seoul Metro Line 9 Corporation, a private company which runs line 9. 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.

Display TV screens at one of Seoul's subway station
Display TV screens at one of Seoul's subway station | Source

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

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 getting on and off the train. This may not be so for the older trains, but will soon be replaced with newer models.

The carriages are air-conditioned during summer. However, 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 that you will get to enjoy when travelling on Seoul's 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 have announcements in Japanese and Chinese also.
  • Depending on the line, the subway starts at 5.30 am and ends at midnight,
  • Travel time between subway stations is only two to three minutes.
  • For a refund on your travel card deposit, just insert the card at the machine that says, "Deposit Refund Device," just after the turnstile at your destination
  • Use the Seoul Subway Digital map for the best route to your destination, travel time, fare, 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.

Signage in Korean and English at Seoul Metro Station
Signage in Korean and English at Seoul Metro Station | Source

Which Travel Card to Use for Seoul's Subway

Another factor for its high ranking is the use of a 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.

When you use the rechargeable travel card, you do not have to go through this hassle and it works out cheaper.

But which card to use?

If your stay in Seoul is more than four days, you are better off using the T-money card. You can use them on the buses, trams, taxis and at convenience stores. Once you are done with this card, you will get back 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.

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 get to travel on the bus or subway up to 20 times a day, irrespective of the travel distance. In addition, you can also use it on the Seoul City Tour Bus, which takes you to all the popular tourist sites, as many times as you like. The only caveat is you cannot use Seoul City pass 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 the Seoul Subway

Seoul's subway is not that complicated to use and you will pick up the 'know-how' fast. 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.
  • Even though you have to go through the turnstile and swipe your card at Line 9, it is a free transfer.
  • For some stations, you may have to walk a 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. If you forget, they will charge you twice the next time you use the subway or bus.
  • Don't forget to do the transfer within 30 minutes of 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.
  • SMRT operates lines 5 - 8, which are relatively newer lines. Their subway stations are more spacious and airier. Their trains run faster.
  • Seoul Metro Line 9 Corporation, which runs Line 9, has the best stations and trains.

Comparison of Train Frequency and Cheapest Single Ride Ticket

Train Frequency
Cheapest Single Journey Ticket
2-10 mins depending on the hour
1150 won (US$1.11)
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
£4.70 (US$7.89)
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)
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.
Taipei Metro's logo
Taipei Metro's logo

Taipei MRT or Metro

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

At a ridership of only 1.9 million per day (average figure for 1st Q2014), it is the least busy of the four subway networks and not as crowded. Hence, during peak hours you still have a decent standing space.

It currently operates from 6am to midnight and uses the 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 Current & 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 have been in operation since early 1996.

The second stage, which is under construction, will add another 25.7 miles (41.3 km) to the network and 35 new stations. Construction will be completed in stages, with the last line scheduled to be complete in January 2018.

Stage three, in the planning stage, will add another 63.75 miles (102.6 km) to the network and will be able 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 | Source

Facilities at Taipei MRT Stations; Responding to Commuters' Needs

Taipei Metro claims a customer satisfaction level of 94 percent, and these are due to its excellent customer service and facilities for commuters:

  • Train punctuality averages at an impressive 99.58%, slightly below Hong Kong which had 99.9% on-time performance
  • Toilets at every station that work and are clean, with additional facilities such as breast-feeding rooms
  • "Anti-peeping" measures in ladies' toilets!
  • Special waiting room for women commuters, especially for night time 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 your 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
  • More than 13,200 bicycle rack spaces at most of their stations. Bicycles are allowed on board Metro trains on weekends and public holidays, to encourage Taipei residents to cycle rather than drive or use taxis on these days

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

Taipei Metro Community Service

During the upgrading of station elevators, the company 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.

Besides taking care of its commuters, Taipei Metro is also mindful of the neighbourhood. It installed acoustics barriers along its medium and high-capacity tracks to reduce the ambient noise level by an average of 6-10 dB. This should help improve the living quality of 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 them understand the operations of the stations during normal and emergency times. They also create rapport between the 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.

Bicycles parking for Taipei Subways
Bicycles parking for Taipei Subways | Source

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 neighbourhood
  • 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.

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

Subway Tickets for Taipei MRT

If you do not ride the subway that often, buy the single journey ticket, which will cost between NT$20 to NT$65 (US$0.66 - US$2.15) depending on the destination distance. The ticket is in the form of a token, which you scan as you enter the gate and deposit into a slot at the exit gate.

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

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

Taipei Metro Financial Performance

Based on the currently available 2012 Annual Report, Taipei Metro had a profit before tax of US$ 29.07 million (NT$880 million) based on turnovers from its subway and bus services, its affiliated businesses from car parks, stores at stations and underground malls, 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 operators.

Guide on How to Use Taipei Metro

Seoul Subway vs. Taipei Metro

Which Subway is better, Seoul Subway or Taipei Metro?

See results

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 to 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 its easy accessibility are part of these factors, as is clean, safe and reasonably priced transportation.

Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom in their report show the relationship between 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.

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

What say you?

© 2014 Mazlan


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    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 2 years ago from Malaysia

      Hi James. It is a tough choice. I do agree with you that Taipei is less congested and easier to use and navigate compared to Seoul. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

    • profile image

      James Luke 2 years ago

      I'll vote for Taipei metro for sure.

      Taipei metro is much clean and easier to use.

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 2 years ago from Malaysia

      Hi Kristen Howe, Venkatachari M and mikeydcarroll67 , thanks for the visit and your comments and compliments.

      mikeydcarroll67, Thanks for sharing your experience on Seoul subway. I too, had a pleasant experience on Seoul Subway. It was years ago and it was almost midnight. I wasn't sure if it was safe for me to take the late night subway ride or to take a cab instead. I decided on the subway and I was surprised that it was clean, brightly lighted and you feel safe and secure.

    • profile image

      mikeydcarroll67 2 years ago

      I can definitely vouch for the Seoul Metro System. It was a fairly quick way to get around town and offers the location in Korean and English for the riders!

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting hub. It is a fully detailed hub with all related information and beautiful images. Voted up.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      This is a great hub with useful info on riding the Seoul subway. Congrats on HOTD! Voted up!

    • profile image

      Nice Articles! Two Thumb! 2 years ago

      Nice Articles!

      Two Thumb!

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 3 years ago from Malaysia

      Hi HSchneider, your article on American Exceptionalism may provide answer to this wish of yours. It is a sad thing if they don't improve it as infrasture developments were one of the key components that spurred the American economy in the past.

      Thanks for dropping by and the compliment.

      Hi tom yam. Yes, London's subway is expensive for single ride, but even with the oyster card, the ride is still expensive. London is now rated as having the most expensive subway with ticket prices being the highest in the world.

      I have not used the Bangkok skytrain before, but I am sure it is far better than being in the Bangkok city traffic!

    • tom yam profile image

      Russell Pittock 3 years ago from Nakon Sawan Province, Thailand.

      So London is by far the most expensive system to use. No surprise there.

      Here in Bangkok I often use the BTS (skytrain) It's quick and well priced. As an alternative to the traffic jams below it wins out every time.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub, Greatstuff. These subway systems are amazing. I wish my political and business leaders in the United States would put the same effort and talent into improving our very old systems.

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 3 years ago from Malaysia

      one2get2no, thanks for the vote and leaving your comment. Have a great day.

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 3 years ago from Malaysia

      raymondphilippe, having a sophisticated subway system is not everything. Your country is beautiful in so many ways and is on top of my list of favorite countries.

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 3 years ago from The Netherlands

      When I read interesting hubs like these I realize how small the country I live in is in many ways. The scale of these transport systems is mind boggling too me.

    • one2get2no profile image

      Philip Cooper 3 years ago from Olney

      Love this hub...voted up.