Thursday 29 July 2021

Blast From The Past: North Korea’s Whacky 1930s Japanese Railcars

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

North Korea's State Railway regularly flaunts its modernisation efforts by the unveiling of modernised rolling stock and revitalised train lines. In reality, billions (of dollars) will be needed to fix North Korea's crumbling rail system after decades of underinvestment and neglect. Today, most lines have speed limits that force trains to drive at just 30km/h on battered stretches of tracks and frequent power outrages bring services to a grinding halt. The situation is little better when it comes to the state of the DPRK's rolling stock, with dilapidated trains from the 1960s having become the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps most stunning is the fact that even in the 21st century, a number of 1930s-era Japanese railcars still see regular passenger service in North Korea.

The Keha-class railcars are a group of diesel-powered railcars that were produced for the Chosen Government Railway (Sentetsu) from 1930 to 1942. After Japan's rule over Korea came to an end in 1945, the railcars were inherited by the Korean State Railway in North Korea and by the Korean National Railroad (nowadays known as KORAIL) in South Korea. In South Korea the Keha railcars were retired between 1957 and 1963 and subsequently scrapped. [1] Due to North Korea's reluctance to retire anything before it is properly irreparable, the North Korean railcars ironically were only at the beginning of their service lives at the time the examples in South Korea were scrapped.

Only little is known about the Keha-class' post-war career in North Korea, but at least two were seen in service on the electrified Pukbunaeryuk Line that runs along the border with China in 2009 at Simridong Station and in 2012 at Rimto Station. [2] [3] Thorough examination of satellite imagery shows Keha-class diesel railcars of the same type in service on this line in more recent years as well. Nonetheless, most of the trains serving this line are ex-East German Berlin subway rolling stock that have been converted to electric multiple units (EMUs) rather than diesel trains or railcars, which require fuel that the DPRK has difficulty obtaining in sufficient quantities.

Six Keha1 and Keha2-class railcars were first built for Sentetsu in 1930 by Maruyama Sharyō and Nippon Sharyō in Japan respectively. [4] Following the success of the first six railcars, Sentetsu accepted another 21 into service in the next two years. In 1934, a single railcar built by Nippon Sharyō was put into service and in 1936 the Gyeongseong Works built a single railcar for VIP use (this would be the only railcar of the class that was built in Korea). [1] Then in 1938, Nippon Sharyō delivered five newly-designed 100-passenger railcars intended for use on mountainous lines. Finally, in 1942, an uncertain number (but believed to be seven) of railcars of another Keha design were built by Nippon Sharyō for Sentetsu. [4] The Korean State Railway (Kukch'ŏl) eventually inherited a total of 29 Keha-class diesel railcars from Sentetsu in 1945, with the remainder going to South Korea's National Railroad.

Little details are available regarding the classification and numbering of these railcars in State Railway service, although the two sets of railcars seen in the above images appear to have numbered in the 900s series. Another two sets appeared in a North Korean documentary showing children of mountain villages using the railcars to commute to school in the 1990s, also on the Pukbunaeryuk Line. In this case, the railcars were pulled by a Saebyŏl-class diesel-hydraulic shunting locomotive (although some have been converted to electric operations). By towing the railcars with an electric locomotive, they effectively become regular passenger cars, albeit ones originally designed around 1930s comfort standards.

Another sighting of the antique railcars came in 2021 when a set was seen being pulled by a former East German Type GI subway train (these have since all been converted to EMUs in North Korea and designated as the 500-series). The footage revealed that at least some of the cars have been extensively renovated to create a more fresh, modern aesthetic, undoubtedly also offering more comfort than the 1930s-era wooden benches previously in place.

To an outsider, the decision to maintain these ancient relics in operational capacity may seem odd, with costs associated with keeping the outdated technology working potentially outweighing their benefit. However, in North Korea both labour and spare parts are vastly cheaper resources than completely new railcars, considering the stifling requirement of autarky in the North Korean economy. In fact, given a dearth of actual resources and an abundancy of essentially free labour, perpetual maintenance is almost always preferable over investment in new systems. Additionally, the railcars' low standard of technology may be deemed acceptable due to the correspondingly poor state of the railroads on which they operate.
Although it could be framed as a testimony to North Korean engineering, the continued usage of trains like these show that North Korea is far removed from getting its rail network to an acceptable level of operations, let alone catching up with South Korea, which has a robust transport system with modern KTX high speed trains. Over time, the gap between these two nations will continue to grow more absurd, while the Keha-class railcars steadily approach a century of service. Perhaps one day their marginal use will be insufficient to warrant further operation in the face of their slowly appreciating value as museum pieces, but knowing North Korea, that day will not soon come.
Special thanks to Army-G.

[1] Byeon, Seong-u (1999). 한국철도차량 100년사 [Korean Railways Rolling Stock Centennial] (in Korean). Seoul: Korea Rolling Stock Technical Corp.