A train ticket issued in 1950 for travel from Penang to Bukit Mertajam.
A 1943 Prisoner Of War letter sent to Private R. Pegg who was held at the River Valley camp before being transferred to the Death Railway in 1943. The penciled initials “RV” represent River Valley camp.
Cikgu Omar’s wife at the Prai Railway Station in 1947.
A derailment caused by an unfortunate collision with an elephant in 1894.

“PEEP!, Peep!” “Sila berdiri di belakang garisan kuning!” (Please stand behind the yellow line).

The loud shrill of the warden’s whistle almost makes me jump out of my skin. Briskly, I walk further ahead, away from the waiting crowd. Usually the first carriage has the least number of passengers, which means that chances of getting a seat are higher.

Although Keretapi Tanah Melayu started its electrified service more than a year ago in Alor Star, this is the first time I’m giving it a try.

The interior is clean and there’re plenty of empty seats. I pause a moment to determine the direction of the morning sun and finally decide on a seat that allows me to avoid the glare. The warden whistles sharply again and the train resumes its journey, pulling away from the Alor Star station silently. My friend, Sim Sing Beng, who has invited me to visit his father-in-law’s century-old bean curd factory in Bukit Mertajam, is right. Taking the train does have its many advantages compared to driving. I recall what he said: “Our Federal Government has given us something so good and practical. We’d be silly not to use this ultra modern Kommuter service!” Those were the exact words that spurred me to make the change.

As the train glides effortlessly past the Gurun station, my mind starts to travel back to a time when the steam engine was just introduced in Malaya. Unlike the modern interstate railway service of today which allows passengers to travel seamlessly from Perlis all the way down to Johor, the early railway services were very far from that. By the end of the 19th century, Malaya had a very fragmented rail system operated by at least six railway companies.

While the lucrative tin mines in Perak witnessed the first railway track and inaugural use of the steam locomotive engines operated by the Perak Government Railway in 1885, there were also similar operations in Muar (Johor), Klang (Selangor), Sungei Ujong (Negri Sembilan), Bukit Mertajam (Penang) and Singapore, in the late 1890s.


Railway at the Batu Caves quarry in 1906.

BIRTH OF EFFICIENT MODE OF TRANSPORT

The early development of railway in British Malaya is unique. In most countries, jungle paths, trails or rough roads first came into existence before the railway system was constructed. In Malaya, however, the exact opposite happened. Historically, the waterways, especially rivers, were the main source of transportation and movement for the local population.

River transport was supplemented by bullock-cart transport utilising the narrow earthen tracks that joined tin mines to riverine villages. The few paths or denai that criss-crossed the thick tropical jungles in the mid-19th century were only used for transportation on elephants. As a result, there was never any actual need for proper roads prior to the presence of the British.

It was the constraints of river and cart transports that subsequently led to the development of railroads in Malaya during the 1880s. With tin revenues increasing at a very rapid pace, it soon became clear to the British administrators that there was a dire need for a more efficient and faster mode of transportation.

Proper roads only began making their presence once the construction of the railway started. These so called feeder roads served the main purpose of transporting goods and people within the vicinity to nearby railway stations to continue their journey onward.

NEW FRONTIERS

The early 20th century saw the completion of numerous connections that allowed rail travellers to travel further than before. New frontiers in the north and east of the peninsular suddenly became easily accessible. Naturally, the number of railway stations also increased in tandem. Among these, the railway “station” in George Town, Penang, built in 1907, held the record for being the only station in Malaya that wasn’t directly connected to a railway line.

This iconic building with its imposing tower on Penang island only housed the ticketing facilities and railway administrative offices. Passengers from George Town had to take the ferry at Weld Quay and cross the Penang Strait. There, they would board the train at Prai, Province Wellesley.

With the increase in connectivity, the railway authorities soon began looking at ways to increase revenue. Sometime in the mid 1920s, plans were put in place to entice ocean passengers on route to the Far East to take a short detour and visit Malaya. A first-class single fare of 20 Straits dollars between Penang and Singapore came into existence for this very reason.

East-bound travellers whose ship called at both Penang and Singapore ports had the opportunity to explore Penang island for a few days before hopping onto the express train service down to Kuala Lumpur.

The standard itinerary at that time usually provided for a day’s tour of the capital and a night’s stay at the posh Station Hotel which was conveniently located in the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station itself. The journey continued southwards to Singapore the next day.

Every effort was taken to ensure that there was enough time for the traveller to rejoin the boat at Keppel Harbour and resume the voyage to the final destination.

This first-class fare worked out to about four cents a mile, an amount considered an extremely reasonable rate at that time. In addition, passengers seeking further comfort were able to opt for first-class sleeping berths which cost an additional two Straits dollars each. The carriages were divided into compartments comprising a lower and an upper berth.

To further encourage long distance travel, books containing coupons for an aggregate distance of a thousand miles were obtainable at major railway stations at special concession rates. Coupon books for first-class carriages were sold for 50 Straits dollars while those for the second-class paid only half that amount.


Malayan Railway promoting travel to tourist destinations.

HOW FAR WE’VE COME

The advances made in the rail system during the first 40 years of the 20th century were soon negated by the Japanese invasion of Malaya during World War II. Bolstered by their capture of the impregnable Fortress Singapore, the Japanese Imperial Army began harbouring hopes of continuing their relentless march westwards to Burma and India.

To realise their military ambitions, the Japanese forces had to first construct a 415km railway line between Ban Pong in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat over the border in Burma. This project came at a very high cost for Malaya. Tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war together with a large number of able-bodied Malayans were forcibly conscripted. These men lived in squalid camps and had to endure various tropical diseases and widespread starvation. Many lost their lives building the Death Railway. The Malayan railway system was meticulously torn apart and shipped to the Siam-Burma border to provide the much needed raw materials. These included thousands of bridges, tracks and coach-stock.

The rail system was only rebuilt after the end of the war. The British forces returned in September 1945 and made it their priority to get the trains up and running as quickly as possible. The authorities knew that a functional railway system was crucial for the country’s speedy recovery. They quickly set about bringing back as much hardware as possible from the Death Railway to help in the reconstruction efforts.

Three years later, the British implemented the Malayan Railway Ordinance to streamline and bring together the entire rail administration in the country.

As a result of that, the Federated Malay States Railway became known as the Malayan Railway Administration.

As the train comes to a stop at the Sungei Petani station, I see a young couple and their son board the carriage. Their arrival reminds me of the train journey made by Cikgu Omar and his family back in 1947. Cikgu Omar, a teacher at Sekolah Melayu Seberang Perak in Alor Star, was an avid photographer. Some 70 years ago, during the year-end school vacation, he brought his young wife and son with him to Singapore where he pursued a professional photography course. He went on to become a distinguished photographer, winning numerous awards for his work, which depicted life in Alor Star and its surrounding villages during the years leading up to independence. Today, a large portion of his photographic collection is kept in the National Archives.

The announcement over the PA system jolts me from my reverie. The next stop is Bukit Mertajam. By this time, the carriage is already full of passengers. I alight and make a beeline for my friend Sim’s car. Leaving the station behind us, I catch sight of an old locomotive steam engine beside the main entrance. Indeed, we have come so far since that fateful day of June 1, 1885 when the first train in Malaya pulled up at the Taiping station.

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