Train Ride at Snail's Pace

Slow trains in North Korea bring pain and gain.

Passengers in a train in Pyongyang, April 16, 2012.
RIA Novosti

Public trains in North Korea are so slow that people take what they hope will be adequate food to cope with journeys that may take even much longer than anticipated, passengers say.

Some North Koreans believe they have the world's slowest train service, considering the weak rail network in the impoverished country.

Trains at times stop in the middle of a journey for more than 24 hours, the passengers complain.

A North Korean living in Hamheung of South Hamkyung province who recently visited Hyesan in neighboring Ryanggang province by train said it took him three nights and four days to get there.

“I spent more time in a train that was stationary, in killing hot weather, than in a running train, an experience which I don’t even want to recollect,” the source told RFA's Korean service.

"Travelers bring food before they get on trains because they don’t know how long it will take."

Even so, not all food can be consumed.

"When the weather is hot, like what we are experiencing these days, they can just make do with only one or two meals as the food they bring could turn bad soon," the source said.


Some North Koreans living near railway tracks make a business out of the perennial train delays by selling food to passengers on stationary trains.

“The price of a piece of rice cake is 400 won [about U.S. $0.15 based on market exchange rates] and usually people should eat at least five pieces for a meal,” the source said.

This is expensive by North Korean standards, as the official average monthly wage for government servants is about 2,000 to 6,000 won (U.S. $0.70 to $2).

Some businesses are beginning to sell water to passengers for them to wash their faces, the same source said.

“The water for washing faces, whose amount is very little, costs 300 won (U.S.$ 0.10) and if you want to brush your teeth also, you should pay 500 won (U.S. $0.15) for the water,” the source said.

“The prices are comparatively higher than market prices, but people in a stationary train have no choice. People living near railroads, on the other hand, welcome it when trains stop running,” another North Korean, who lives in North Hamkyung province, said.

“Some trains have dining cars, but the food is of poor quality and the prices are ridiculous,” the source said.

The slow train service is often blamed on outdated engine systems.

While the general public grapples with inefficient train services, North Korean leaders ride on comfortable private trains, according to reports.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's late father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung disliked air travel and took sealed armored train rides to neighboring Russia and China. A train ride to Russia could take 10 days from Pyongyang.

Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA's Korean service. Translated by Juhyeon Park. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

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