The International Steam Pages

Malaysian Jungle Railway Part 1

The following article by Andrew Robinson originally appeared in the Ocean Beach Railway (New Zealand) News in April 2009 and is reproduced by the kind permission of the editors.

Click here for Part 2 (added 11th July 2009)

The Malaysian Rail Network can be visualised as a giant Y with Padang Besar (close to Langkawi) in the northwest, Tumpat in the northeast, Gemas in the centre and Singapore in the south.

You will struggle to find the Jungle Railway on a map. Despite being one of the world’s most scenic journeys, KTM, the rail operator does little to promote it. This explains the stunned silence you get from your travel agent when you try to book a journey on it. Just to complete the challenge, the tourist trains run during the hours of darkness which defeats the point of the journey. 

Kota Bharu the capital of the Islamic state of Kelantan, is famed for its traditional Malay culture, although the lack of economic development makes a stark contrast to the west. From here, it is possible to travel to Tumpat in the north, Sungai Golok/Kokol (Thailand) to the West and the Perhantian Islands to the East. 

On arriving in Kota Bharu one of the first tasks was to purchase a ticket for the Jungle Railway, more correctly known as the East Coast Line. The travel guide suggested that the railway company had an office near the chaotic bus station in the city but this proved elusive. The bus station is a noisy confusing affair with buses and people moving in all directions around a terminal with a small waiting area and even smaller McDonalds Burger Bar – about the size of two telephone booths. The diesel fumes, rubbish and tropical heat add to the atmosphere, so I took a some what dodgy taxi to the small railway town of Wakaf Bahru.

My arrival at the station was treated with some scepticism. They were deeply concerned that I had a paper timetable with me that detailed all the arrivals and departures for the whole network. Since the railway company changed to a computer-based system, arrival and departure times had become something of the mystery as they only became evident once the ticket was printed. The station staff then lent my timetable to the other passengers who were most grateful. 

It took a great deal of good-natured negotiation to get a ticket for a daylight service, they were convinced I would enjoy the journey in darkness much more. They were not prepared to book my ticket through to the final destination of Johor Bahru (near Singapore); because they were not sure if the connecting service would work out. After finalising the details for the next days journey I purchased a ticket for the “Mail Train” to Tumpat, the northern-most extremity of the line. The price was 60sen (about 48 cents NZ.) The train consisted of an early Alco diesel locomotive that produced plenty of noise and smoke but offered very little acceleration to this lightweight train. A covered goods wagon is provided for mail and passengers produce that wouldn’t fit in the carriages and three narrow bodied narrow fan-ventilated carriages. The train stopped every few hundred yards and seemed to be the only link for some of the communities.

As the train pitched and rolled over the track it was quite pleasant to lean out of the window and watch the scenery and listen to the old locomotives efforts.

Tumpat rail yard has a strong colonial feel about it. A system similar to the tablet system New Zealand had is still in use. Bamboo slings are used for the tokens. The precinct seems to consist of two Signal boxes (unusual for a terminal station) goods shed, a particularly gloomy locomotive depot left over from steam days, and a turntable. The colonial theme is carried over into the station; the stationmaster himself seemed to be of British descent. The staff were friendly and gave me a quick tour of the facility. They have a large Craven-type crane in immaculate condition in a back shed.

Meanwhile my carriage was being loaded with onions. Initially they filled up the doorways, then opened the windows and started stacking the bags on the floors and seats. Once we were underway again, the breeze from the motion of the train and generated by the fans located at my head height inside the carriage removed the worst of the aroma. Predictably we stopped once again at every station, hut and jungle clearing along the way, collecting more produce at each stop. The carriage interior seemed to be the preferred location for the freight rather than the wagon provided for the purpose. 

After returning to Wakaf Bharu, I checked out the old British-style crossing gate, still operated manually by a crossing keeper in an adjacent hut despite automatic crossing bells and lights also being present. An advantage of this system is that traffic can ignore the bells and lights if the gate is left open while the train is at the station. 

Near the Goods Shed was a tiny Plymouth locomotive built for the American military during the Second World War. It was so small that the drivers seat swings outside the cab so that the driver can sit down before traversing sideways into the locomotive. 

The station is home to a number of cats and kittens. A particularly adventurous kitten was playing on the street when a car missed it by millimetres. The shock left it lying helpless in the road, hyperventilating. I ran onto the road and grabbed it before it could be hit. I placed it alongside the fence in the shade and was wondering what to do when a local came over and diagnosed “heatstroke” and picked it up and poured in impossibly large amount of cold water down its throat. I thought this would result in a quick end for the kitten but surprisingly it recovered quickly. The local said I should take the kitten home which was totally impractical although the decision to leave it behind was hard. To ease my conscience I gave the girl in the refreshment rooms some money and instructions that the cats were to be fed. Given the exchange rate they should have dined well for some time. 

I had had prior experience with the region’s dilapidated taxi fleet so I was pleased that outside the station was an elderly but well presented Mercedes taxi. The taxi driver seemed polite and friendly and not likely to blow cigarette smoke over me. However, when we went to move off there was a whirr-click sound the silence. After the obligatory peer under the bonnet we commandeered “the bosses” car. 

Weary from the heat and smells I decided to take the conservative option and go to McDonalds for lunch. It seemed a good decision and I was contentedly munching on a burger and reading the newspaper in the refreshingly cool restaurant behind darkly tinted glass when the waitress came over to me and advised “we close now, prayer time”. This must be one of the few restaurants in the world that “closes for lunch”.

Back out in the heat and chaos of the town Central Square I decided it was time to embark on an afternoon adventure. Flicking through the guidebook I came across details of how to get to Southern Thailand. After about half an hour if wilting in the sun the bus turned up and I handed over my NZ$3.70 for the international journey. The bus was air-conditioned and made good progress. Many of the passengers had disembarked before we reached the border. 

The border is marked by a river with a town on each side, Rantau Panjang the Malaysian side and Sungai Kolok the Thai side. Border control on the Malaysian side consisted of a young lady with a desk. She sleepily looked up when I approached and asked whether she could help. I said “I would like to go to Thailand” and she looked back astonished, as though I had just asked the most ridiculous question, but she eventually stamped my passport. The bridge is a modern concrete one and carries road and foot traffic and there is a rarely used rail bridge next to it. The Thai checkpoint would have been easy to walk past but I stopped at the service window and handed over my passport. This caused a great commotion as they thumbed through their manual to find out how many weeks they could allow for my afternoon visit. A number of brightly coloured converted utilities vied for the job of transporting me. I passed this up and walked in to the CBD passing a preserved steam locomotive on the way. The town centre seemed to be full of box-like concrete buildings with a forest of spiky aerials on top. The market was interesting enough but to me it seemed quite claustrophobic and most of the merchandise was clothing which did not catch my interest.

At the railway station a local train had just arrived hauled by an elderly double-cab locomotive. The carriages were all third class ones with timber seats but well maintained. The crew were embarrassed when they saw that I had noticed that they had managed to pull the brake-hose off its fitting. The train was delayed while the smiling crew found a bit of wire to reattach it with. On returning to Malaysia it was fascinating to stand in the middle of the bridge and look between the two countries. The architectural style, culture and religion were starkly different on one side of the river to the other. A number of Malaysian farmers were dropping their Thai workers at the border as I made my way to the bus.

Preserved North British 4-6-0
Ex Indian YDM 4

This time the bus had a staff of three; a driver, a navigator and a conductor. The bus was packed with passengers which made the conductor’s life difficult, particularly as he had to battle his way to the front of the bus to get change for each passenger. 

By twilight a market had sprung up in the town square selling hot food as well as weird and wonderful fruit, toys and other gizmos. The square is also home to a large red and white television mast which was decorated in fairy lights and seemed to be something the locals were quite proud of, a contrast to views held here over towers and masts. 

As there was a religious festival at the mosque next door to the hotel sleeping in was not an option. During breakfast I was amused to see a large fridge-freezer travelling along the road in a trishaw. 

I settled the hotel account and went outside to discover that the taxi that the hotel manager had arranged for me was actually the hotels own van. Another party was also heading to the station, so it was quite a lucrative outing for the van as we were all paying the single taxi fare. 

Shortly after I arrived at the station the train pulled in. This seemed too good to be true and after further thought I realised it was the night train still making its way north and had yet to transform itself into the south-bound day train. This gave the opportunity to give the cats a few snacks. I was amused to see a duck leading a line of ducklings through the car park, with a cat trying to look innocent when it joined the back of the line. A few fierce looks from the mother duck ensured that the cat was in no doubt what the consequences would be if it tried to shorten the line. 

The train must have made good time to Tumpat as it was only half an hour behind schedule when it returned to Wakaf Bharu. Given that this was exactly the amount of time between this trains scheduled arrival at Gemas and the departure of the southbound train towards Singapore I figured I was in with a chance. 

Normally the expresses in this area are hauled by a Canadian built class 25 (If you imagine a turbocharged Dbr you have pretty well got the picture). However, this train had inherited one of the Indian Railways owned, built under licence Alcos that was really struggling to accelerate this long rake of heavy stainless steel carriages. 

I was travelling second class which featured amply leg room, television playing “the Rail Channel” which were a series of recycled Discovery Channel documentaries, tinted glass and very cool air conditioning. Nice though these creative comforts were I felt very insulated from the world outside. Given that it was the scenery that I was there to see I decided to travel in the vestibule at the end of the carriage with the door open. The guard seemed to understand, it seems relatively common that visitors enjoy the noise, heat and fumes while the locals pull the curtains and sleep. 

Despite sometimes being referred to as the East Coast Railway the line predominantly runs inland through dense jungle after following muddy rivers through deep valleys and crossing it many times over black steel bridges. The train stopped at a number of towns along the way, some of which were in spectacular locations while other towns at first glance looked a bit uninspiring. 

I decided to check out the dining options but discovered there was no dining car. Instead an attendant was selling pre-packaged food from the vestibule at the end of one of the carriages. The adjacent WC had been commandeered for bulk storage. When I returned to my seat to eat my selection (carefully chosen to avoid products from the “bulk store”) the car attendant finally succeeded in running her half wet mop over my shoes. She worked continuously to keep the carriage clean and up until that point I had managed to always have my feet somewhere other than where the mop was, but this time she finally succeeded.

Meanwhile at the front of the train the slow revving old locomotive trundled on. The cloud of black smoke that wafted back every time we crawled away from the station indicated that it was doing its best to maintain the schedule but looking at the timetable it was clear that we were losing the battle. 

We pulled into the island platform at Gemas over an hour late and a quick enquiry confirmed that the southbound train had departed and it would be many hours before the next train was due. I local tout tried to sell me a hotel room at a ridiculously cheap price so I brushed him off as travelling onward was my goal rather than booking in to some potentially dubious establishment. A quick look along the main street revealed that the one bus company in town wasn’t going anywhere that I recognised. A taxi driver was keen to take me to a bus station that was, by his confession, some distance away. At the time, a long journey into the unknown in the gathering gloom in a battered cab, in the hope of finding a bus going in my direction seemed a very poor idea. In hindsight the bus network is so extensive that this option would have been just fine. I returned to the station and found it almost deserted. I purchased a ticket for the night train onwards in a first class sleeping cabin as the rest of the train was full.

Rob Dickinson