the pyongyang metro

Matching boots
A ČKD/Tatra T4D/B4D on Line 1

No account of the Pyongyang Metro would be complete without a mention of the city’s tram (trolley/streetcar) system. Its first line, 20 km from Songsan to Songsin, opened for Kim Il Sung’s 79th birthday in 1991 (12 April, although it apparently began revenue service three days later), with a second line following on the same occasion in 1992. Later work brought the standard-gauge lines to their current total route length of 50 km. The Kumsusan line, which opened in 1996, is a 3.5-km meter-gauge line that is not connected to the others. The tram system largely serves areas that the Metro does not, in particular west and south Pyongyang. The standard-gauge lines run in large part along Pyongyang’s wide boulevards such as Tongil Street. The routes are:

A real map, for a change

The above route map is at one of the trams’ three depots. It comes from the website Pyongyang’s Transport of Delight, which has several other great pictures of public transport in Pyongyang.

Below is a view of trams crossing Kwangbok Street, 13 lanes wide, by means of a road/tramway underpass. The building to the right is the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace.

Now all we need is traffic

Whether the Pyongyang system is a tram system or a light-rail system is largely a moot point, due to the low levels of traffic on Pyongyang streets and the city’s total absence of traffic lights; the underpass pictured above shows that the trams have segregated running in some locations where they are likely to obstruct, or be obstructed by, other vehicles. Nevertheless, on most of Pyongyang’s broad boulevards, trams run along their own right-of-way at the edge of the road; in some ways this is similar to the situation in cities such as Warsaw. In addition, pedestrians are expected to use tunnels to cross major streets, allowing trams and other vehicles to run umimpeded.

ČKD/tatra kt8d5k

The first trams to be delivered to Pyongyang in 1990 were 45 double-articulated ČKD/Tatra KT8D5K units, numbered 1001-1045, ordered new from what was then still Czechoslovakia; number 1001 bears a plaque in the driver’s cab. These are the only reversible trams in Pyongyang, with driver’s cabs at each end and doors on both sides; expansion of the system after 1991 added return loops at the ends of the lines.

Empty, surprisingly

The picture above of a KT8D5K outside the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace was taken by the author.

ČKD/tatra t6b5k

Full frontal

The second ČKD/Tatra delivery consisted of 129 T6B5K single motor units, which received the service numbers 1046-1174. These were painted in a slightly different livery than the first ČKDs. The photo above of a pair of T6B5Ks was taken by R.A. Bowen and comes from the LRTA web site.

Beware of the panther

Here’s another view of a ČKD/Tatra T65BK running along Tongil Street (that’s a statue of a panther in front of it). Click on the picture to see an expanded view of the street, showing trams running in their own right-of-way on each side of the street, at apparently very little headway between them.

ČKD/tatra kt4k

Great monuments. No food.

The third batch of ČKD/Tatra trams was 50 KT4K units (1175-1224) ordered in 1991; they were the very last KT4 trams built. These were altered at the Shenfang works in Shenyang, China, where the articulation was removed, probably due to technical problems. All of these have now been sent to the North Korean city of Chongjin, which has a new 13-km tram system (another 8 km is under construction). Note the return to the original livery. This 1997 picture of a modified KT4D passing the Workers Party Foundation Monument is from the website of the German magazine Blickpunkt Straßenbahn (Viewpoint Tramway).

ČKD/tatra t4d/b4d

More recently, used ČKD/Tatra T4D/B4D trams from the German cities of Leipzig (200 vehicles), Dresden (95), and Magdeburg (25) have entered service, and now are believed to be the only vehicles used on line 2 (I believe this is the reason for the blue livery). They are generally used in a twin-car formation. This picture comes from the Dutch site It also shows the electric wiring for trolleybuses running parallel to the trams:

Reminds me of Magdeburg, actually

modernized vehicles

This picture appeared in propaganda about the Kim Jong Tae Locomotive Works. At present little is known about this vehicle, although it appears to be a renovated ČKD KT4, with a new front, although like many imports it is claimed to be a new Korean model. A further possibility is that Kim Jong Tae simply copied the Czech design.

Mistaken identity?

the kumsusan line: zürich 4/4 1b

The newest tram line is located in Taesong district around Kim Il Sung University, with twin tracks runninng along the north side of Pipa Street. It has only two stations, built on a loop at each end of the line, as it is designed to take visitors from Samhung Metro station to Kumsusan Memorial Palace, site of Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum. (Before Kim’s death in July 1994, Kumsusan Palace was one of his main residences, and was not shown on any maps.) Shortly after he died the rebuilding of the palace as his mausoleum, and construction of the tram line, commenced. For reasons that have never been fully explained, Kwangmyong Metro station was closed.

Not quite the Disneyland monorail, but close

The above picture shows a tram arriving at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace station. The covered walkway leads to the palace, a couple of hundred meters to the south. On most days, the line only operates in the morning.

The tram pictured is a former Zürich 4/4 1b (Kurbeli) vehicle. (“Kurbeli” means something like “cranky,” as the driver applies power by means of a crank. For some reason these vehicles were also sometimes called Hecht or “pike” — the fish, that is.) These were built between 1947 and 1954 by Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO) and Schindler Waggon Schlieren (SWS), and were withdrawn from service in Zürich on 29 May 1994. After plans by the Zürich transit authority, the VBZ, to sell them to Florence (Italy) fell through, the VBZ had planned to scrap the trams, which would have cost around a million francs due to the disposal of asbestos components. However, the North Korean embassy offered to buy the vehicles immediately, paying 250 000 francs for 18 motor units and 18 trailers. The VBZ was asked to return them to working order as quickly as possible; in addition, one vehicle was painted in the new light and dark green livery, as well as new interior paint, new seats, and a new floor covering. (The North Koreans painted the other trams based on this example.)

A well-maintained tram

This 2002 photo shows one of the Swiss trams in Pyongyang.

It's a jungle out there

For purposes of comparison, the above picture shows a Kurbeli in service in Zürich. It is painted in a special color scheme promoing the city zoo (Image: VBZ). However, this particular vehicle was not among those sent to Pyongyang, and was scrapped in 1995.

The trams were acquired under conditions of great secrecy, with the Koreans refusing to say which city they were destined for, and imposing a media blockade on the shipping firms involved. The vehicles left Switzerland between 3-18 January 1995 and were transported to Vlissingen, near Rotterdam, from where they were shipped to the North Korean port of Nampo. At the same time, the Koreans ordered 1000 tons of tram track from an Austrian company, which was sent to Korea via the Trans-Siberian Railway. At about 60 kilograms per meter, that works out to about 17 km of rails, or just over 4 km of twin tram track; with a 3.5 km route length, some track would be left over for the railyard and for track repair. (Source: tram 2/95 and 3/97; many thanks to Martin Strobel of Tramverein Bern)


Above is a view of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, which has a large moat on two sides. The covered walkway to the tram station is visible in the foreground.


The tramway was built by the Korean People’s Army using manual labor. German diplomat Peter Schaller was one of the few outsiders to witness its construction in 1991, as described in the following excerpt from his book Nordkorea: Ein Land im Banne der Kims (Anita Tykve Verlag, Böbligen, 1994), which provides a fascinating view into life in the DPRK (provided you can read German, of course). The translation is mine:

In 1991, on the occasion of his birthday, the “Great Leader” presented the residents of Pyongyang with a tram line. It ran over a distance of 20 km from Songsan to Songsin. As with most prestige projects, the army took charge of construction, and thousands of so-called “soldier-builders” were brought in.

The line was literally a product of manual labor. The soldiers broke up the asphalt road surface with large chisels, perhaps 50 cm long. One soldier would hold a chisel while another struck it with a heavy sledgehammer. The asphalt chunks were lifted to the side by hand and loaded onto waiting trucks. Everything was carried by hand — stones, cement, and of course the rail segments, each of which was lifted by several soldiers on their shoulders. It was bitterly cold in February, the Taedong River was completely frozen, but the soldiers took off their padded jackets and often worked in their undershirts.

The streets were filled with the small, stocky figures in olive uniforms. They toiled single-mindedly, as if possessed, and the whole scene was reminiscent of China’s “blue ants” and their spectacular deployment in river-control and dam-building projects. The number of workers in Pyongyang was lower, but the style was the same.

Propaganda companies kept up the soldiers’ morale. Martial music and North Korean pop songs droned out of the giant loudspeakers on propaganda wagons, interrupted only by hortatory slogans. To the left and right of the loudspeakers red flags fluttered on tall poles; banners urging fidelity to party and Leader rounded out this stage-managed display of revolutionary élan and readiness.

We foreigners eagerly followed the progress of the work. Would the project really be finished on time, with the first tram running on the birthday? It would be a disgrace for the proud army as well as for the whole people — whom the soldiers represented — if this did not happen.

The closer the magical deadline approached, the more we began to doubt the tramway would be completed on time. The army was under pressure. Night work was begun, and the soldiers toiled round the clock under spotlights.

After the track bed was complete, it was time for the precision work. One thing, above all, remains in my memory: The rail segments were welded together on the spot, and the rough seams needed to be ground off and polished. This too was performed by hand. For days on end the soldiers crouched, legs apart, over the rails. The men worked on the joints with tiny metal files and — I could hardly believe my eyes — with whetstones. Stoic and machine-like, they completed this senseless and somehow also unnecessary work with completely inappropriate “tools.”

Here, for the first time, a thought came to me that I should have had more often in North Korea. The leadership can send this army — not to mention the entire population, itself organized along military lines — anywhere, into any war, any confrontation, any struggle, where and when it pleases. No-one asks any questions, no-one expresses doubt about whether the orders make sense. Each order is to be carried out, even in the face of death.

Needless to say, the tram line was finished in a massive effort. Since then the red-and-white streetcars have become an everyday sight. The first generation of trams came from what was then the CSFR; the second generation were Chinese models. (Perhaps he means the Chinese-modified KT4D trams — ed.) The tramway quickly became a common motif of North Korean propaganda films showing the “workers’ paradise.” In these films, the trams appear at least five or six times from different locales.

The population, unfamiliar with the new means of transportation and its specific features, required a certain amount of time to become accustomed to the new achievement. The main problem was traffic. When the tram stopped in the middle of the road, the waiting crowd stormed onto the street, ignoring the cars. The other direction was also chaotic, as the passengers sprang out of the wagons without paying attention to traffic.

Education was also needed for motorists. It was hard for them to give passengers the chance to reach the sidewalk or the tram unmolested, as pedestrians in North Korea have no rights, and must yield to the more powerful road users. The city government addressed the problem in its usual fashion, through an educational campaign. Wardens were installed at the tram stops, whose job it was to explain the rules, or if necessary to intervene; and the police also helped out.

The second tram line was inaugurated on Kim Il Sung’s 80th birthday. It is 10 km long and runs between Munsu and Tosong. More lines are needed. A third building phase is intended to connect the two existing lines, under the motto “We must still solve this problem.”

trolleybuses and buses

Besides the tramway, Pyongyang has a four-line trolleybus (or “trackless trolley”) system that opened on 30 April 1962 and runs along many of the city’s main streets; it uses mostly hand-built North Korean models. A bus network, consisting of mostly Hungarian Ikarus 260/280 models, along with Chinese and 1950s Škoda vehicles, is also important, but is often hit by fuel shortages; here the trolleybuses have an advantage, as they are powered by domestic electricity. Below is a picture of two trolleybuses traveling along Sungnil Street. Unlike the tramway, the trolleybuses are in use throughout the city, and duplicate some Metro lines. A star is painted on the side of buses and trolleybuses for each 50 000 km of service.

The trolleybus routes are:

Pedal harder!

A photograph of a Pyongyang street taken by Tim Beal, showing trams and trolleybuses running in parallel.

Ready for its close-up

Here’s a closer look at one of Pyongyang’s indigenous trolleybuses, taken by Ian Cowe.

Kilometers, not light-years

And another articulated one, picture supplied by Ernie Lo. Note the Chollima (flying horse) emblem and the distance stars along its side.

pre-war lines

The bad old days

The first electric public transit system in Pyongyang was the tramway built under Japanese occupation (note the Japanese writing on the signs). It opened 20 May 1923, and expanded to a length of 14 km by 1933, but along with the rest of Pyongyang the system was destroyed in the Korean War. The above picture comes from

Hey Joe

This picture of trams running in front of Pyongyang Station (along today’s Yonggwang Street) comes from a picture postcard. Heijo is the Japanese name for Pyongyang.


The following table summarizes the exciting technical details of the three main tram types.:

ČKD T4D/B4DCe 4/4/B4 Type 1b (Kurbeli)*
ManufacturerČKD works
ČKD works
SWS (mechanical parts)
MFO/VBZ (electrical parts)
Zürich, Switzerland
Years built1990 (KT4K), 19911967-19861947-1954
Entered service in Pyongyang19911998?1996
Number built or bought 45 (KT8D5K)
129 (T6B5K)
50 (KT4K)
320 (160 T4D motor, 160 B4D trailer)36 (18 Ce 4/4 motor, 18 B4 trailer)
Gauge1435 mm1435 mm1000 mm
Motors4x45 kW TE 0234x40 kW TE 022B4x63 kW ER
Top speed (approx)65 km/h65 km/h55 km/h
Max. acceleration1.3 m/s21.3 m/s21.3 m/s2
Passengers per car
(approx seated/standing)
50/280 (KT8D5K)
40/120 (T6B5K)
88/141 (KT4K)
Body length 30.30 m (KT8D5K)
15.30 m (T6B5K)
18.11 m (KT4K**)
14.00 m13.95 m
Width 2.48 m (KT8D5K, T6B5K)
2.20 m (KT4K)
2.20 m2.20 m
Roof height 3.15 m (KT8D5K, T6B5K)
3.10 m (KT4K)
3.06 m3.10 m
Weight 38.0 t (KT8D5K)
18.9 t (T6B5K)
20.3 t (KT4K**)
18.5 t***
Doors 5 on each side (KT8D5K)
3, one side (T6B5K)
4, one side (KT4K)
* Figures refer to Series 3; four Series 2 motor wagons were also sold
** Articulated version
*** Motor wagon

deconstructing the ČKD terminology

In case you’re confused, the ČKD trams are designated using the following system:

Articulated cars are preceded by the letter K.

The first letters stand for:
T Motor car
B Trailer

The following digit indicates the number of axles, in the case of articulated models, or the series number.

The next letters denote the length between couplings, as well as running direction:
A 6.7 m (unidirectional)
B 7.5 m (unidirectional)
C 6.7 m (bidirectional)
D 7.5 m (bidirectional)

Wagon width is 2.x m, indicated by the following numbers:
2 2.2 m
4 2.4 m (T4D/B4D)
5 2.5 m
6 2.6 m

The destination country follows:
CS Czechoslovakia
SU Soviet Union
B Bulgaria
D East Germany
YU Yugoslavia
R Romania
K North Korea

Finally, an optional lower-case t indicates thyristor controls; in other systems an M stands for modernized.

For more information in German, look at Straßenbahn Online or the VBZ Tramsite.

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