You can see Berlin’s east-west divide from space

Berlin from space, as of April 2013. Image: Colonel Chris Hadfield, Nasa.

When you look at maps of Berlin made in the decades before 1989, it’s impossible not to notice the physical fact of the city's political divisions. Some maps replaced one half of the city with a blank space; others painfully warped geography to delete one side altogether. 

Looking at maps of the city today, it seems like it's once again a unified whole. You’d have to work hard to pick out exactly where the wall once stood.

The same isn't true of aerial photographs, however. In 2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield took a photo of the city from the 200 mile-high vantage point of International Space Station, and something immediately stuck out. To the west, the lights are white; to the east, they’re yellow. The boundary is a sharp, clear line, mirroring where the wall once stood. Hadfield tweeted the photo with the comment

Berlin at night. Amazingly, I think the light bulbs still show the East/West division from orbit.

It’s not immediately obvious why this should be. After all, the wall fell over 20 years before Hadfield took his photo, and you’d imagine large chunks of infrastructure, including street lights, would have been replaced in that time, especially if the eastern ones were out of date. But apparently, not so much. Soon after Hadfield’s photo did the rounds on social media, Christa Mientus-Schirmer, a member of the city government, told the Guardian:

Although we’ve made a lot of progress in the 20 years since the wall fell, we haven’t had the money we would have liked to equalise the two parts of the city. 

A member of Berlin’s street furniture department got a little more technical, telling the publication:

In the eastern part there are sodium vapour lamps with a yellower colour. And in the western parts there are fluorescent lamps... which produce a whiter colour.

The significance of the lights as a reminder of the once-divided city isn’t lost on residents, either. On the 25th anniversary of reunification in November 2014, an artist used 8,000 glowing balloons to recreate the wall's division: 

Image: German Foreign Office.

There’s currently a push within the EU to replace a million streetlights throughout Europe with new, low-emisison models. These would give that whiter light, so it could be that, just as the remaining sections of the wall are disappearing, the light disparity will fade with time. 

While we’re here, a few other things stick out when you view the city from above. That white blob in the centre of the image (and, incidentally, on the eastern side of the divide) is Alexanderplatz, a central square and transit hub that’s undergone renovation since reunification. This explains its relative brightness compared to the yellower areas around it:

This triangular area of brightness on the top left is Tegel airport – you’d have a hard job missing it as an airline pilot:

And finally, here's a photo taken from space of Berlin during the day by the European space agency and beamed back to earth via laser

Click for a larger image.

Not a division in sight.

 
 
 
 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.