The International Steam Pages

The Penang Hill Railway, 2010, Part 1

For convenience I have now grouped lifestyle illustrated features by topic:

Part of this material also appears in one of the pages in a series on 'Hills and Trails in Penang. Click here for the index.

This is the first of two reports - click here for Part 2 which covers further progress and the 'new' railway in action for the first time. There is also a 2012 update.

In 2009, I travelled on the Penang Hill Railway for the first time in at least 22 years. I can't remember if the 1987 revisit featured a ride, if not it will have been 30 years. Back then, I was still a little sore that the management had replaced the original wooden bodied coaches with modern steel replacements, now they were also considered life expired and the whole railway was due to be rebuilt. I reported on our journey 'Up Memory Lane' at the time and when I had to go back to Penang to complete purchase of a second home, I took time out to film the railway's operation in its closing weeks - it is available as our Funiculi Funicula DVD.

The old railway ran its last in February 2010 and apart from a visit to hand out a pile of DVDs, I kept a very low profile during our first 2010 visits because it was clear (as I had guessed from the start) that the project was going to seriously overrun its politically dictated time scale. However, we had a full month in Penang from late December 2010 and it was time to check out progress. No construction site welcomes visitors for obvious reasons, so I deliberately chose Christmas Day as likely to be a quiet period and even then I restricted my visit to those areas where the railway can be viewed from the public domain. On what was the original lower section, any kind of access is available only around the Chinese temple just above the Bottom Station and as this is well below the former loop I chose to ignore this and headed higher. Should anyone else want to retrace my visit I have included details below, it's actually a very pleasant hill walk. 

Instead, I turned off the Hill Railway Road (Jalan Keretapi Bukit Bendera) into 'Persiaran Taman Cantik' just before the small fire station. After crossing the twin river bridge over the Sungai Air Puteh (White Water as opposed to the Black Water of Air Itam proper), I turned left up a small unnamed road. I followed this upwards until the point where a concrete motorbike trail branched off in a U shape - the road itself carries on behind the camera. The contractors have used this for staff access and in return have repaired and reinforced it for the continued use of the local hill residents.

Despite its near rural nature, this part of the island is solidly Chinese, there are several Buddhist/Taoist temples and shrines along the way to the junction above, this one seemed to be 'cross-cultural' with Hindu, even Muslim, influences:

In many ways, I consider Penang to be so much 'Malaysia in miniature' that I hardly feel the need to introduce Yuehong to the rest of it. I took a short walk down the path on the left here to see the rubber trees being tapped:

There were close up views like this large spider and far views like the ghastly new 'Goddess of Mercy Statue' - the first Hill Railway viaduct is just visible on the right. At a later stage I was entertained by monkeys and a giant black squirrel who were less obliging for the camera. 

The path climbed with occasional flat sections and even dips to a stream from which I could refill my water bottle. When I had walked these paths in the 1970s, there was no concrete yet in this area and the rubber tree terraces were almost totally overgrown. Now the trees are even older but someone is happy to make a few cents by tapping them, in a normal estate they would be considered to be way past their economic life, cut down and replaced. This one, apart from the cuts, was the size of many a natural jungle tree. Quite where the money came from to build this brand new temple, I have no idea, it seems to me strange to erect what may become a grand place somewhere which is only accessible by motor bike or a fair hike from the railway.

Now the views were of the south side of George Town and the bridge to the mainland.

One of the points that had been stressed to me in 2009 was that the contractors would have due regard to the environmental impact of their project. In this respect, they could only do better than the vegetable and flower growers who have made a right old mess. You simply can't do this kind of thing on a steep tropical hillside on a sustainable basis, but there is no official will to control this activity. Of course, if no one bought the flowers it would soon stop...

I was closing in on the railway, when I came to a junction I surmised (correctly) that left would lead to the Middle Station, so I chose right and this led me to Claremont Station. In fact, things were not as quiet as I had anticipated. First, I met an old engineer friend on a motor bike, we exchanged notes on progress and then almost immediately I stumbled on a works train coming down. Without really trying very hard, I have become a bit of a character as far as everyone on the railway is concerned and on immediate recognition, shouts of 'Merry Christmas' rang out. The wagons are using a temporary single cable - in this case there is no 'balancing working' as a special winch is being used. On the viaduct, the life expired and dangerous emergency concrete steps have been replaced by steel ones and additional safety steel wires - the electrical cables have been tidied away under the steps. There was no thought of trespassing so I made my way up towards the site of the former crossing loop at the top of this viaduct - it was hard going, someone had kindly provided a rope and steps for the steepest part.

I ducked into the jungle to try to see what remained of the loop - this is what I found, one of the old cars parked on a section of disused track. This is the view from the public Moniot Road crossing, note the new pulleys which follow the left side only of the original alignment.

Upwards I went to Viaduct Station - by now I was very impressed with what I had seen. The environmental impact was minimal and some of the older equipment had been replaced by very similar new equivalents. This is the viaduct - some cleaning has been necessary as decades of cable grease have got everywhere including the drainage holes. I couldn't examine the structure closely, but I had been told before that some remedial work would be necessary. The structure has been specially grouted to strengthen it but with proper care to ensure the minimum effect on the heritage look of the old rubble wall and from a distance it was impossible to spot. When the trains are running again look out for some yellow traces! There were naturally piles of redundant material which will have to be cleared up before the railway reopens, most noticeable was the name of the Swiss supplier of the original rails which have now been replaced - "L. DE ROLL BERNE". The same name is on the preserved wooden bodied coach at the Top Station.

Being blessed with a long standing 'rugby knee' I made my way very gingerly down to the new passing loop and cutting which bypasses the old Middle Station. Although the track is finished, work is not yet complete here and the whole station area is very definitely 'off limits' at the moment. However, just above is a path and this is the view looking down (the station building is in the background). Fortuitously, the original upper section was slightly longer than the lower section and that meant the new loop was constructed above the station. The original cutting here has been widened, at the station itself the track level has been lowered slightly and a 'dog leg' constructed to connect the sections. The 'dog leg' design is a compromise to allow a small section of the old track to remain as part of the Engineering Museum based on the old winding house and also minimise the amount of excavation without impairing operation - naturally computer simulations assisted in determining the final layout. All this work has been done essentially 'manually' in the same manner as in the original construction nearly 90 years ago. If any of you readers have seen old pictures, you will see that compared to 2010, a lot less care was taken about the hillside then which was left looking like the proverbial 'billiard table' for some distance on either side! Of course, in time, the vegetation has all grown back, this time the recovery time for the small area affected will be very short.

Both sections of the original railway were built in a parabolic shape, which had the property of compensating for the weight of the cable when the cars were well separated, assuming both had identical loads. As a result, the power requirements were relatively small and constant considering the masses being moved. The new system will naturally no longer be as well balanced (especially when the cars are just above and just below the old Middle Station) but will have the considerable advantage of using more modern technology and requiring just one electric motor. Although the power requirements will vary much more and be significantly greater than before at the peak, at the same time the system will use regenerative braking which will then return much of this to the grid. Previously when the loads were unbalanced for any reason, rheostatic braking was used whereby the surplus energy was discharged as heat. Overall, the electricity bill is expected to be significantly lower.

The old car cannot stay in its current position much longer - since taking this picture the main cable has been put in on the right side. It it will be moved to just below the old station - certainly it looks from a distance as if platforms for visitors to the museum are under construction which is a good sign. 

There are staff quarters here, so I was able to meet some of the 'drivers' featured on our DVD - they had all not only received their personal copies but were most effusive in their thanks. In other words, it rounded off the kind of experience that make my hobby very special... After which there was just the small matter of another 300 vertical metres or so to descend, covered at a snail's pace as my knee was threatening to disintegrate totally, I was forced at times to engage reverse gear to maintain progress. Along the way I met my engineer friend again, he was on his way back up with bags of curry puffs for the staff who had given up their holiday to press forward the project, naturally he had no problem persuading me to take a couple as I was starving after my day's exercise. I said my prayers at the shrine half way down the motor bike trail and headed home on the buses. The one thing I didn't waste my time praying for was a durian, the hills here have plenty of such trees, but we were the best part of 6 months away from the season.

A few days later, I returned to inspect the lower section. By now the main cable had been laid and the first of the two cars had just been hoisted on to the railway at the Bottom Station, palpable progress which I assume was viewed by the powers-that-be who are funding the project and security was even tighter than usual.

I walked up to the Chinese temple station and under the first large viaduct. From these angles, the new safety steps are almost invisible, the new safety wires are again visible and the old communication wires (not used for many years after the introduction of radios) are clearly gone.

Further up, the track now goes straight through the middle of the former lower loop. Note the original track ties (metal sleepers) still in position and the new ties, also the new (thicker) cable which is not yet under tension.

I have to say that despite many understandable fears when the project was first announced, the end result should satisfy most of those in both the 'moderniser' and 'traditionalist' camps. The team in Alam Langkawi, especially Chief Engineer Soon Eng Kooi, get my vote of thanks for a sensitive and difficult job well done. I look forward to my next trip here by which time the railway should be fully operational once again.

Later I enquired about what would happen to the redundant material, especially the historic old rail sections. Some will be used for security railing and non-structural purposes and some will be incorporated in the construction of the new platform for the middle station museum, which will have 'disabled access' like the new Top and Bottom Stations. As suggested above, this museum will include the old winding house and its machinery as well as the old car on the track below.

This is the first of two reports - click here for Part 2 which covers further progress and the 'new' railway in action for the first time.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson