Communist countries loved their railways. In all Communist Bloc countries, (or, if you prefer, “countries of really existing socialism”), the railway’s role was, should we say, blown out of all proportion. For example, in the USSR of 1975, the railway’s share of cargo transportation was 62% (higher, actually, than it had been in 1913), while for passenger traffic the figure in 1980 was 38%.
One can argue that the vast territory and low population density of the Soviet Union played a role, but the same predisposition towards rail can be found in nearly all other communist states – and, as we will see, it is especially pronounced in the case of North Korea.
There are many reasons why this might be the case. Perhaps it reflected a general tendency to disregard infrastructure: the government was unwilling (or unable) to build a modern road network, so the country was not a hospitable environment for individual cars and motor transportation could not flourish.
On the other hand, one could also say that communist governments, obsessed with control and centralized micro-management, were fond of railways exactly because a railway network was large but easy to administer from the center.
Finally, another explanation is possible: centrally planned economies are notoriously slow when it comes to technical progress outside of a few selected areas, so it is possible that they retained the transportation structure from the early 1900s simply because they had little reason to modernize.
As Kim Il Sung himself pointed out: “the railways are arteries of our country”
No matter what, in most communist countries it was the railway which served as the backbone of the economy.
But at the same time, these countries were not particularly active in railway construction – like pretty much everywhere in the world, railway networks’ growth slowed after 1945, and the railway map of the country has largely remained unchanged for decades.
The North got a very good inheritance when the Korean peninsula was divided. Japan had invested heavily in its colony’s heavy and chemical industries, so by 1945 Korea was arguably the most industrialized part of East Asia outside of mainland Japan.
The first Korean railways became operational in 1899, and, by the end of the colonial rule, the total length of the Korean railways reached 6362 km, of which roughly 3800 km of track was in what would become North Korea. Both in terms of density and technological sophistication, it was one of Asia’s best rail systems.
Independence, however, saw a massive exodus of the country’s skilled personnel, particularly engineers, most of whom had been Japanese settlers. However, in a short time, new Korean experts were trained, often in Soviet colleges, and the railway continued their operations.
For subsequent decades the railway remained the backbone of North Korea’s transportation system – as Kim Il Sung himself pointed out: “the railways are arteries of our country.”
Roads in the countryside were usually unpaved and generally in bad shape, and the chronic shortage of fuel for cars and buses further aggravated the problem. Until the rise of privately-owned buses and trucks in the early 2000s, any long trip in North Korea was, by default, made by train.
The Kim family is no exception: both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were notoriously afraid of flying, so they used a specially designed train (Kim Jong Un sometimes flies, but as we all know, he chose a train for his recent visit to China).
The total length of the North Korean railway network currently reaches 5100 km. It includes both the standard gauge rails (4591 km) and narrow gauge (523 km). The “standard gauge” is 1.43 cm wide. Gauge sizes across the globe vary widely, but the Koreans use the most standard, used by 55% of all world railways. Russia, however, uses a wider gauge of 1524 mm.
Another peculiar feature of North Korean railways is their wide use of electricity, with around 80% of the track electrified. This was done in the 1970s and 1980s, when diesel oil, used in non-electric locomotives, was seen an expensive imported commodity, while electricity was seen as abundant (hence the depiction, now grimly ironic, of the power station on the North Korean coat of arms).
The continuing use of the steam engine locomotives is another manifestation of the politically-motivated desire to avoid excessive dependence on imported oil. Steam locomotives need locally produced and abundant coal, even though they are notoriously inefficient. In the past decade, they have largely been removed from the main lines, but they are still used in auxiliary roles.
At the same time, 97% of the North Korean railways consist of the single-track lines. This means that the trains have to stop frequently, to give way to trains moving in the opposite direction (in South Korea, over half of all lines use the double-track system). This does not help to increase speed. Indeed, on the main line which connects Pyongyang to Sinuiju on the Chinese border, the speed seldom exceeds 60 km/h, while on branch lines it is much lower, close to 15 km/h.
TRAIN IN VAIN
The reliability of the transport is further undermined by frequent electricity cuts, and the reliance on electric traction backfired when the power supply declined. In the late 1990s, when the situation was at its worst, a trip from Pyongyang to Chongjin, a large city on the most distant north-western corner of the country, would take a few days, even though the distance was a mere 700 km.
Now things are better, but one must still be prepared for long waits, and only international passenger trains are on time, especially on the Pyongyang-Sinuiju line, which is used by nearly all foreigners who travel to Pyongyang by rail.
There is a consensus that North Korean railways are in a sorry state
There is another international train connection: one can arrive in Korea from Russia via the Hasan/Tumangang stations on the Russo-Korean border, but this train is seldom used by foreigners, due to many formal and logistical difficulties they are likely to face.
Apart from the Hasan/Tumangang link, of which we will talk later, there are three lines connecting Chinese and North Korean railway networks: in Dandong/Sinuiju, Jian/Nampo, and Tumen/Namyang.
Of these three links (all use bridges) Dandong/Sinuiju is most important, being located on more or less a straight line from Beijing and Shenyang to Pyongyang, hence it reportedly handles close to 75% of all traffic. Incidentally, it is also used by the special trains of the Kim family.
There is a consensus that North Korean railways are in a sorry state. The rolling stock largely relies on the technology dated from the 1960s, or even 1950s, while the tracks are in a truly bad shape: sometimes with rails from the colonial era.
MOSCOW TO THE RESCUE?
In 2014-15, when media was abuzz about Russia’s supposed “return to North Korea,” and Moscow briefly entertained highly unrealistic expectations about DPRK investment prospects, Mostovik, a large Russian construction company, began to discuss the full-scale reconstruction of the DPRK’s railways.
It was expected that the North Korean side would pay the company with mining rights for rare earth and other minerals. Like other much-discussed projects of the period, this one amounted to nothing, but the-then estimates are still valuable: it was estimated that the upgrade of the entire railway network would cost some USD$25 billion.
Talks of the DPRK’s railway’s future often mention Russia, and the long-discussed projects of connecting the South Korean networks with the TransSiberian Railway (TSR) via North Korea.
This grand project has been discussed for twenty years, but the actual work is yet to start: indeed, there are good chances to believe that, in spite of all talk and occasional boosts of activity, no actual work on the project will start for another twenty years.
The reasons for this delay is political. The cost of the entire project is now privately estimated at USD$8-10 billion: not an amount of money that Russian companies are likely to invest in such a politically unstable region.
The sorry fate of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, as well as other similar endeavors, has demonstrated that even a well-supported project with a long history can die overnight or be used as a hostage by one of many interested parties. If Seoul, Pyongyang or Washington chose to stop the construction, they could do it with relative ease, leaving the Russians with large bills to pay.
It was estimated that the upgrade of the entire railway network would cost some USD$25 billion
Talks of the brilliant future prospects will continue, but not a single bulldozer will start work until the situation in and around Korea is judged sufficiently stable – that is, perhaps, for another half-century.
There is, however, one short railway line which connects the Russian station of Hasan with Rason port. This 54 km long line, built (or rather rebuilt) recently, is unique: it can be used by trains with both Russia’s wide gauges and the Korean standard gauge.
Not a single bulldozer will start work until the situation in and around Korea is judged sufficiently stable
Though often presented as the first part of the future Trans-Korean railway, its function is limited for the moment. The railway was built by RasonKonTrans, a joint venture company which is owned by the Russian (state-owned) railways, and Rajin SEZ.
This joint venture is responsible for shipping Russian coal to third countries via a specially equipped pier at the port of Rason. To Russian mine operators, the project provides a cheaper and easier way of exporting coal overseas, avoiding the trouble of dealing with the crowded port of Vladivostok. It is a good and viable project, but it has little to do with the grand plans for the Trans-Korean railway.
Admittedly, the economic significance of North Korean railways is in decline. The growth of market economy brought a great demand for transportation services, and North Korea’s new entrepreneurs are eager to fill the gap.
From the late 1990s, privately-owned “sobicha” (service cars) began to traverse the countryside: trucks which are used to move people and goods around for a fee which goes not to a state-run company, but to an entrepreneurial individual. Privately owned intercity buses are increasingly common, too.
The era of railway domination is probably coming to an end, but for a majority of North Koreans, a long trip inside their country remains associated with trains.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: CPC_9951 by nknews_hq on 2016-10-06 09:08:42