One Day in the Life of a Korean Subway Driver
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One Day in the Life of a Korean Subway Driver

After a tragic death in January revealed the disgusting lack of bathroom facilities for subway operators, one Chosun Ilbo reporter spent a day riding the trains and listening to their drivers.

“No matter how tough it is, we fix it when a car is stuck in the tunnel, we fix it when a door comes open while the train is moving, we use newspaper. Every passenger’s life is in our hands.”

Last December, subway worker Mr. Kim, 39, was struck and killed by an oncoming train in Yongdu Station on line two while attempting to lean out the door of the engine room to attend to nature’s call. A month later the Seoul Metro announced that temporary bathrooms would be placed in engine rooms.

Every citizen relies on them daily but gives them little thought — subway workers. Our reporter rode in the engine room with Jo Seong-yong, 41, to see first-hand what conditions are like.

Jo is a 16-year “veteran” of the subway. Skilled at driving the train, he said, “if you think about the 4,000 passengers on your train you can’t afford even one second of stress.” With 935 employees on the KTX, and considering that there are 4,370 employees on the world’s largest pleasure ship, the “Freedom of the Seas”, our lives are in their hands.

Our reporter traveled with them on January 7. Driver Jo’s day begins at 5:20 in the morning. Like very Korean subway there is just one driver per train. On lines one through four of the Seoul subway the conductor is at the back of the train. Today our conductor was Yu Tae-in, 26. Like Yu, every subway worker apply to be a conductor, wait for a period of time and undergo education on the safe operation of the train doors. Yu is currently in a 3,000-kilometer probationary period.

Driving the train is simple. Accelerate with the button and lever on the left, brake on the right. There are two pedals by your feet, the left for the alarm and the right for adjusting the headlights. Jo said, “looks simple, right? It’s a little more difficult than you think. You stop about every 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and then get going again. You can’t be nervous. On line four from Dangogae to Oido, you make almost 100 stops round-trip.”

The important thing while driving is to “stop correctly”. If the train isn’t stopped properly passengers won’t be able to get on. Stopping where the screen doors are placed is essential. “If you are 40 centimeters off the screen doors won’t open. So sometimes you have to back up,” Jo said.

But more than anything is the physical condition of subway workers, because they work up to four and a half hours and must regulate their intake of food and water. Jo manages the problem three ways. “First, I stop the train in the tunnel and get out, second, open the door while the train is moving, and third, use a water bottle, newspaper, or tissues.”

The dusty tunnels are also a danger to the workers’ health. After the installation of screen doors the air in the tunnels worsened with no place for the dust to go. Jo said, “the air comes into the driver’s room so I plug up every nook and cranny.” In fact, every hole in the driver’s room is plugged up with newspaper.

Suicides committed on the subway threaten the employees’ mental health, because part of their job is to witness the deaths of people who are unrelated to them. Before calling 119 they administer first aid and handle the incident.

50-year old Kim Yong-guk, who will be the next labor union head, remembers having to deal with suicides when he was a subway worker. “It was at Sadang Station. Someone came running into the station. I pushed the emergency stop switch but the platform was too close and the train was going to fast and hit him. Seeing suicides had such a terrible effect on some people that they changed their jobs.”

Yu had a similar job. “Subway drivers are solo Rambos. Fundamentally we need new policies.”