Public-private partnership implements new elite train service

Small taxies and trucks wait for customers outside of Pyongyang Station. Image: Daily NK

A North Korean “affluent train” is being operated for use by the country’s elite, including donju (the nouveau riche) and senior government officials. A similar service was operated occasionally in the past, but the new train is being operated as a joint private-sector/government project, report sources in the country.

“The train travels between Pyongyang and Sinuiju and is operated jointly by the Ministry of Railways and some donju,” a Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK on August 30.

“The Ministry of Railways permits the use of their diesel engine while the donju supply fuel, and the two groups divide the profits seven to three, respectively.”

“The train is powered by diesel, unlike regular trains, and the top speed it can attain is about twice as fast,” he continued, noting that “it’s also more comfortable than a regular train and offers a wide range of beverages, including beer and wine, and even provides train travelers with fresh fruit.”

Although superior to the regular trains in speed and comfort, tickets are considerably more expensive. A trip from Pyongyang to Sinuiju costs around 400,000 to 500,000 North Korean won (US $50-60), some 10-fold higher than a regular ticket and too expensive for most North Koreans.

“On regular trains, security officers conduct serious inspections of passengers and force travelers to pay bribes, but security officers on the ‘affluent train’ afford passengers a great deal of respect,” a separate source in Pyongyang added.

“Those people who ride the train are generally wealthy high-level government officials and their families, so security officials are careful about their behavior out of fear of repercussions.”  

The train, which is reminiscent of luxury trains used by the elite, also has a completely different “social code” onboard than regular trains, she said. If a young person boards the train, strangers have no qualms about approaching them and asking what their parents do, or how they came to be onboard such a train.

Moreover, even when passengers disembark the scene remains somewhat unusual for North Korea. They are typically met by either relatives waiting for them or baggage carriers, and often have an air of attitude to emphasize that they are influential people, according to the second Pyongyang-based source.

“Regular trains generally take twelve hours instead of the usual nine to get from Pyongyang to Sinuiju because they stop and start all the time. And twelve hours is still considered fast for ordinary trains; there are times when it takes longer,” a source in North Pyongan Province reported.

“But the diesel trains are quick and don’t stop along the way. That’s why they’re expensive. Only those with money can afford a ticket.”

Ha Yoon Ah is Daily NK's editor-in-chief. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.