Schedules Cut, Roofriding Returns

The sight of people riding on the top of train carriages, a common occurrence in many Asian countries but only previously seen in modern North Korea during the famine of the 1990s, is making a return, according to a source who spoke with Daily NK on the 7th.

“The train, which used to go at least twice a week, has been cut to just once a week since the start of this month because of electricity shortages,” the source from frigid Musan County in North Hamkyung Province said, explaining the backdrop. “So, nobody is thinking twice about climbing on the roof to avoid missing it, even in this cold winter.”

Chongjin railways officials have confirmed that energy shortages are the principal cause of the decreased railway services, while even Pyongyang has not been spared by some unusually severe power shortages; one Pyongyang-based diplomat recently told Reuters that the energy shortages are the worst he has seen in several years.

“Embassies and others with generators are using them most of the time to compensate both for poor quality and cuts, and I can tell you that power problems are a main issue of discussion,” the anonymous diplomat commented in the February 1st article.

The line from Pyongyang to distant Musan, a journey which takes a total of 25 hours when running well, has operated two to three times a week since the start of the 2000s (having operated on a daily service prior to the 1990s economic collapse). The frequency of service has only fallen to once a week on exceedingly rare occasions, the source said.

“You can see people on the roof hanging on for dear life, unable to get off. These scenes are reminiscent of the 1990s, and the Ministry of Railways is caught up in a sense of emergency,” she went on.

However, while the activity is clearly dangerous, no death and injury statistics are made available by the North Korean government, and other evidence of accidents, as in any field in the country, remains mostly anecdotal. In this case, the information blackout is exacerbated by the fact that the service is now being operated at night out of fear that cadres might balk at the sight.

“The Ministry of Railways has ordered Chongjin Railways Bureau to have the train operate at night because they don’t want them to see the chaotic, shameful scene,” the source explained.

That being said, the Pyongyang-Hamheung-Kilju-Chongjin-Rajin line, which was electrified long before the North Korean economy collapsed following the death of Kim Il Sung, would probably still have to operate at night even if this were not the case because of persistent energy shortages. In the daytime, when electricity consumption is higher and industrial needs are prioritized, weak voltage often causes trains in provincial areas to move in fits and starts.

Seeing images reminiscent of the 1990s is unsettling a lot of people, the source concluded, explaining, “People are seeing these scenes and recalling the nightmare of 15 years ago. They are even asking whether those times are about to return.”