Consider a continuous Markov chain $X = (X_t)$ on a finite state space and let $Q$ be the (given) transition rate matrix. This matrix is very sparse, with non-zero values on 3 diagonals only (so from each state, there can be transitions to 2 other states only).

Let $P_t$ be the transition probability matrix, so $P_t(j,k) = $ Prob($X_t = k | X_0 = j$).

My question is: what is the best way to quickly compute the $j$th row of $P_1$?

Solving the Kolmogorov forward equations gives $P_t = e^{Qt}$, so one method is to perform this computation explicitly in matlab: expm(Q). But I'm thinking that there is perhaps a better way, particularly given the structure of $Q$ and since I'm only interested in one row of $P_1$. The actual instance of the problem I'm solving is small (120 states, say), but I would like the computation to be very fast.

Edit: following the suggestion by @meij in the comments below, I posted this question here and received some useful answers: https://scicomp.stackexchange.com/questions/6828/efficient-computation-of-markov-chain-transition-probability-matrix

  • $\begingroup$ If $Q$ is diagonalizable, say $Q = V\Lambda V^{-1}$, then using $e^{tQ} = V e^{t\Lambda} V^{-1}$ seems likely to be faster than expm. You can also approximate the exponential using Krylov subspace (Lanczos or Arnoldi) techniques. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2013 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ maybe a good question for scicomp stackexchange $\endgroup$
    – meij
    Apr 11, 2013 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @meij, was not aware of its existence, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Johannes
    Apr 12, 2013 at 7:18

1 Answer 1


What you need is called "computing the action of the matrix exponential" (that is, computing $\exp(A)b$ without forming $\exp(A)$ explicitly. There are techniques based on complex integrals and Krylov subspaces. See http://eprints.ma.man.ac.uk/1426/ and the references included there.

  • $\begingroup$ This was exactly what I was looking for, thanks. The link even contains the authors' matlab code, which works very nicely. $\endgroup$
    – Johannes
    Apr 16, 2013 at 13:40

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