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South Korea hopes new speed train links will help boost birthrate

A woman holding up her baby is silhouetted against the backdrop of N Seoul Tower in Seoul

By Cynthia Kim and Jihoon Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is launching a high-speed train service that will reduce the travel time between central Seoul and its outskirts, a project officials hope will encourage more youth to consider homes outside the city, and start having babies.

South Korea has the world's lowest fertility rate, and its youth have often cited long commutes and cramped, expensive housing in greater Seoul, home to about half the population, as the main reasons for not getting married and starting a family.

The birth rate in Seoul is even lower than the national average, and the government has tried to boost the number of newborns through subsidies, with little success.

Officials are now pinning their hopes on the Great Train eXpress (GTX), a 134 trillion won ($99.5 billion) underground speedtrain project that, by 2035, will provide six lines linking Seoul to several outlying areas.

On Friday, President Yoon Suk Yeol inaugurated a section of the first line, which will cut the commute time from Suseo in capital to the satellite city of Dongtan to 19 minutes from 80 minutes now on a bus.

The shorter commute "will enable people to spend more time with their family in the mornings and evenings," he added.

The line is due to go into service on Saturday, and once fully operational, the GTX will be one of the fastest underground systems in the world, with trains travelling at speeds of up to 180 km per hour (112 mph), officials said.

Owning a home in South Korea is costly, with median prices hitting a peak in June 2021 after rising 45% over five years. Seoul is particularly expensive, offering some of the worst value for money per square foot of any advanced economy, analysts say.

Land Minister Park Sang-woo told Reuters the GTX would allow young people to consider homes far away from the capital without having to spend hours commuting. The time they get back can go towards their families, he added.

"With two-hour commute on the way home, for example, how can anyone make time for babies? The idea is to give people more leisure time after work," he said.

Some analysts, however, said the GTX could contribute to the decline of rural South Korea, by sucking more people into the already overcrowded capital.

"To revive regional towns facing extinction, the most important thing is to equip other areas with a similar kind of public infrastructure too," said Kim Jin-yoo, professor of Urban Planning & Transportation Engineering at Kyonggi University.

(Reporting by Cynthia Kim and Jihoon Lee; Editing by Josh Smith and Miral Fahmy)