North Korean trains make incremental improvements on dismal punctuality record

North Korea's 2019 train schedule
North Korea’s 2019 train schedule. Image: Daily NK

North Korea’s aging railway infrastructure is in such poor condition that it takes over 27 hours to travel from Pyongyang to Chongjin, according to the official railway timetable. This means that a train departing from Pyongyang at 8:40 am will arrive in Chongjin past midday the following day.

Daily NK received a railway timetable from a North Korean source sent on February 18. The document indicates that it takes 1 day, 3 hours and 43 minutes for a train to pass from Pyongyang to Chongjin via 8 stations (including Pyongsong Station, Kowon Station and Hamhung Station), a total of 700 km.

South Korea’s KTX takes just 2 hours and 15 minutes to travel from Seoul to Busan, meaning that it is around 7 times faster than its northern counterparts. The sluggishness of North Korea’s trains is because the locomotives and railway lines are in poor condition, with most trains only able to maintain speeds of 40-60 km per hour on average.

Micheal Doran, a retired English railway company employee in his 60s, boarded a train in North Korea last September and found that it took 36 hours to get from Pyongyang to Chongjin, according to an article he wrote for National Geographic.

Trains departing from Pyongyang heading through stations in Pyongsong, Kowon, Hamhung, Tanchon and Paekam stations to reach Hyesan Station are scheduled to take 22 hours and 26 minutes to reach their destinations.

For their part, North Korean residents have gotten used to long train rides and say that if the trains depart and arrive relatively on time there aren’t any issues. But defectors say that the trains frequently miss their departure and arrival times due to electricity outages on the tracks.

The relatively short Pyongyang-Kaechon trip takes 3 hours and 10 minutes, while the Pyongyang-Haeju line takes 4 hours and 21 minutes. Meanwhile, the Sinuiju-Huichon line takes 8 hours and 56 minutes, while the long-distance train line stretching from Hamhung to Sariwon takes 15 hours and 15 minutes. The line stretching between the two cities of Sinuiju and Nampo are under the direct control of the central government, and leaves at 3:20 am to reach its destination at 12:46 pm the same day.

The timetable that Daily NK acquired was published last year by the Railway Publishing House and is sold for 60 KPW. The foldable color brochure was printed by the Pyongyang General Printing Factory in 2019.

The first page of the brochure shows a picture of the railway line running between Koap and Tapchon, which was built in the Wonsan area in Kangwon Province last year for the rapid transport of marine products from that region. The following page features a 2019 calendar along with the 24 (lunar) divisions of the year at the bottom.

“The operation of trains here is normal. It seems that the electricity situation has improved, so trains are departing on time and proceeding to their destinations without much delay,” the source who sent the timetable told Daily NK.

“In the past, people had to go to the station to confirm the expected departure or arrival times, and they didn’t always provide the most accurate information. But now they’re providing more accurate estimates,” he said. “The timetable clearly shows the departure times, how long it takes to get somewhere, and even where people have to transfer trains, so most people who travel around the country for business have one.”

A separate source in Ryanggang Province added, “More and more people have mobile phones so they’re increasingly using them to buy and sell goods instead of having to take the train.There are also cases where business people give some money to train workers to ensure their products make it safety to their destination.”