The International Steam Pages

The Route of the Eastern and Orient Express Part 1

The following article by Andrew Robinson originally appeared in the Ocean Beach Railway (New Zealand) News in September 2009 and January 2010 and is reproduced by the kind permission of the editors.

Click here for the second part of this article

Click here for his earlier Malaysian Jungle Railway Trip

For more information on tickets etc, see the Seat 61 website. Note especially that the journey from KL to Singapore is half the cost of the northbound version because tickets have to be paid for with the same number of Singapore Dollars as Malaysian Ringgit (the former is worth twice the latter). One shouldn't ask why! Perhaps some of the readers of this article (like me) can remember the days when the two currencies were freely exchangeable at par in both countries and no doubt this has a lot to do with it as do the legendary stupidly strained relations between the two neighbouring nations.

The Eastern and Orient Express, that plies the route between Singapore and Thailand, is often recognised as being the luxury re-incarnation of New Zealand Railway’s Silver Star Express. The route seemed an interesting one, but I was certain I could have more fun and less expense travelling the same route if I used the state railway's trains.

The start of my journey was to have been a ride in one of Singapore’s iconic, plentiful and affordable Toyota Crown Taxis, as distinctive as London’s or New York’s taxis but a great deal friendlier. However, the moment I stepped out of the Hotel and onto the footpath of the busy street, they all either vanished or were beyond reach on the inside lane. After quarter of an hour of this, it was time to move to Plan B, which was to use public transport. I have previously used the tube in London to convey myself and luggage to terminal stations at rush hour; and fighting my way through ticket barriers, escalators and masses of humanity really wasn’t something I wanted to do again. The second disadvantage was that Singapore’s famous Keppel Road station for long distance trains is a bit of a colonial leftover and not well served by public transport. Since Plan A clearly wasn’t working and in the absence of a Plan C, plan B offered the only chance to get to the express on time. I shuffled myself and suitcase along the packed footpath and into the newly extended Dhoby Ghaut MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station. The MRT consists of four lines that are interconnected and serve the majority of the business and residential areas on the island. The services are linked with two light rail lines, a comprehensive network of single and double deck buses and also provides access to the ferry terminals. The MRT lines are mainly elevated in the residential areas and underground in the commercial centre of the city. Dhoby Ghaut is a junction between two lines and the cavernous station extends under the street and into a neighbouring shopping mall. The sense of
calmness, coolness from the air conditioning and space was a marked contract from the atmosphere outside. Both the station and trains are immaculately clean and well laid out. I was travelling on line C which is privately operated by SBS, the Singapore bus company that also has a financial interest in Stagecoach and Megabus in the UK and seriously contemplated buying Stagecoach NZ. Their trains are some of the most modern and are fully automated, requiring no on-board staff. Flat screen televisions showed short documentaries on the history of SBS as well as tasteful advertising. The platform edge is protected by a series of glass doors to prevent passengers falling onto the electrified track and prevents a draft and rail grime entering the platform area. The 6 car trains have no internal doors apart from to the somewhat redundant drivers compartments, so it is possible to see down most of the length of the train as it snakes its way along the network. The concertinas between the carriages are the full width of the car and it is safe and comfortable to stand between the vehicles as they speed along. The ride quality is superb.

I alight at Harbourfront Station, an interesting junction for different modes of transport. The station is joined to the building that was called the World Trade Centre until hastily renamed in late 2001. Many of the ferries to the outer islands of Singapore depart from here, as well as Catamarans to several ports on the Indonesian island of Batam, where components for many of the “made in Singapore” items are made. An aerial gondola runs through a tower in the building. The gondola leads to Mt Fabian in one direction and the recreational area and former defence post of Sentosa Island in the other. The famous
Superstar Cruise liners depart from here, the gondolas often travel above the berthed ships. Nearby lies a preserved steam crane. The forest of container cranes nearby marks the location of one of the world’s busiest container ports, there are actually 3 mega ports within walking distance and the horizon is dotted with ships at anchor.

After crossing the road on the aerial walkway, a taxi almost immediately pulls up as I reach the taxi stand. The driver is good natured but he is unfamiliar with my destination. He had not heard of Keppel Road railway station or KTM, the company that operates the express trains and really thought I should use the bus or if I insisted on rail, I could use the MRT. Eventually he agreed to drive me down Keppel Road and within a couple of minutes we were at the largely forgotten (by locals) and rather grimy station. The driver was unimpressed with it but it was exactly where I wanted to be. Evidently, when Singapore “left” the Malaysian Federation, the rail corridor and station were to remain part of Malaysia for as long as that country ran trains over it. Singapore in more recent years erected a fancy new terminal station at Woodlands, close to the causeway linking Singapore to Malaysia. Singapore had hoped that the Malaysian trains would terminate at Woodlands and Singapore would gain sovereignty over the strip of Malaysian land that slices through their country. However, the trains continued to roll south, meaning that the modern heart of New Asia has a slightly scruffy colonial art deco remnant station in it, defiantly flying a large Malaysian flag. The exterior of the building is marble with three large archways forming the entrance, while the interior is reminiscent of the booking hall of the Railways Road Services depot in Dunedin (now the Settlers Museum). The only variation on this theme is the large attractive murals of exotic destinations painted high above the booking hall.

The time had come to formalise my arrival in Malaysia (theoretically I had been in the country from the moment we drove into the car park). At first glance, immigration seemed very badly laid out, the short queue was in a narrow corridor, ending with a single official in a booth. Just how I was going to collect the necessary paperwork, answer the multitude of questions and negotiate entry was a bit of a mystery; as me and my luggage took most of the width of the corridor and there was no where to write, no forms and no way for anyone to get past. I need not have worried, the official took one look at me and my train ticket for Kuala Lumpur and correctly guessed that I was Bangkok bound, would take a week to get there, x-rayed my bag with his eyes and made the correct declaration of what it contained, deemed my name and passport number to be irrelevant and stamped the passport and the messiest arrivals card I had ever seen and sent me on my way with a smile – all this a full 20 seconds after I had reached his desk.

The railway between Singapore and Johor Bharu is a bit like a New Zealand 1950’s branch line, 70lb rail attached to hardwood sleepers with elastic spikes, with ancient tablet/token machines protecting the single track. Jointed rails and semaphore signals complete the picture. The locomotive for my train was a Toshiba built Class 24. A photo was hardly necessary, if you imagine a grey oblong box containing 2400 h.p. a few radiator grills and a slightly inclined windscreen then you have pretty well got the picture. The carriages had been well built by Hyundai about 10 years previously but had not received much more than a wipe over with a damp cloth since. There was the occasional crazed window, damaged bit of interior lining or other defect, but super efficient air conditioning and so much leg room I couldn’t reach the seat in front of me largely made up for the flaws. The cost was about NZ$30 for the 7 hour journey in second class. The carriage was only half full, third class was more popular and first class was almost deserted.
Right on time the train got underway, the air suspension doing a good job of dampening the plated joints as we bounced our way through the corridor of green, with the high rises and bustle of Singapore just visible beyond. After about 40 minutes we reached Woodlands and everyone disembarked go through Singapore's Immigration departure formalities. The piece of railway thus far must be one for few places in the world where you can be in two countries simultaneously, but now the time had come to surrender my card and collect the green departed stamp on my passport. The causeway carries road, rail and water across the Strait of Johor. The roads are often jammed with buses, cars and trucks, and scooters; each in their respective lanes as they journey between the countries while the low cost trains are largely under-utilised.

There is a historical agreement between Singapore and Malaysia over the supply of drinking water, that doesn’t allow for inflation, which is a major irritant to Malaysia, especially as Singapore on-sells water to ships at market prices. It is thought that if the two countries were on better terms, the narrow strait would be reclaimed as land is at a premium. However, no such moves are foreseeable in the short term and the two countries have opted to build a bridge to replace the causeway, although agreement on timeframes has not been reached and the Malaysian half is well under way with no signs of progress on the Singaporean side. It is envisaged that once complete, Malaysian passenger trains will run to yet another new terminal station, this time at Kranji and terminate adjacent to an MRT station. My final view of
Singapore is the imposing watchtower of the Singapore Immigration Building. Johor Bharu is Malaysia's second largest city, but to me it seems to retain a frontier border town atmosphere. The shops sell goods not freely available in Singapore, cheap fuel is in abundance and travel agencies sell cheap tickets for onward coach and air journeys in South East Asia. The railway station is another reminder that the railway was developed by the British, but it is so surrounded by built structures that it is impossible to photograph nicely. Two uncompleted high-rise buildings in the background were being attacked by large excavators with concrete picks. These buildings and numerous other high rises and shopping malls were victims of the 1997 Asian share market collapse and were being demolished to recover the reinforcing steel for scrap. 
The train quickly made its way through the sprawl of Greater Johor Bharu and emerged into a mixture of farmland and rubber tree plantations. The new line curving off to Pasir Gudang container terminal was visible. This large state of the art Malaysian terminal is competing fiercely with the ports of Singapore, which is perhaps another reason why Malaysia would be indifferent to the Singapore rail link being severed if politics were less complex; to make it more difficult for Malaysian production to travel overseas via Singapore rather than their own facilities. We passed a large cement works which had what looked suspiciously like an ex Queensland Rail English Electric Locomotive shunting its sidings (similar to an NZR DI). Malaysia is working to become the world’s number one Palm Oil producer; the oil is used for the soap (Palm – olive?) and more recently the bio fuel industry.

These oily green palm trees covered the rolling hills for a large portion of the trip. When these trees pass their oil-producing prime, they are harvested and many make their way here in the form of Warehouse kitset furniture. We stopped at a number of small towns en route, many with historical railway remnants such as Goods Sheds, cranes, signal boxes or motor trolleys. Public transport for the village was often in the form of rather battered old buses. The villages themselves seemed an intriguing mix of reasonably basic constriction and 21st century technology consumer goods. I saw a large and fancy new television, wrapped in plastic to keep the rain out of it, in the middle of the lawn with the whole family watching it. The technology wasn’t escaping the railway either, the entire West Coast mainline is being duplicated and electrified as part of Malaysia's contribution to the Trans-Asian rail project. The project aims to develop high capacity lines through most parts of South East Asia and run north to link with the new Trans-continental route between China and Europe. The section of the West Coast line that has yet to be rebuilt was also in good order with heavy welded rail and concrete sleepers. Periodically, track gangers would be seen at the side of the track, hold their hand tools; the pride they have in their work was evident in the smiles. The smooth riding quiet carriages with soft seats and air conditioning were nice although it was easy to become detached from the world outside. Since seeing the world outside was the whole point of going by train, not plane, I was quite pleased to find a solution. With the guard’s permission, I was allowed to ride in the vestibule at the end of the carriage, with the outside door wedged behind me so I could take in the sights and smells. It was a bit precarious and a couple of times the motion of the train and heavy door conspired towards ejecting me, fortunately to no avail. I decided to beat the lunchtime rush and made my way to the buffet car at ten to twelve. This vehicle seemed to be a generation earlier than the rest of the train but was attractively refurbished in a grey and red scheme. However the shelves were bare apart from 3 sandwiches containing something unpronounceable from the ocean and numerous tins of flavoured cold tea. I settled on a small packet of crisps and a tin of orange juice. The suspension of this vehicle must be designed by the same people who ensure that coffee is served during the bumpiest part of a flight. Despite the rest of the train gliding along, the buffet car seemed to have square wheels which making drinking difficult, you just had to catch the tidal waves as they came over the brim of the cup.
The railway company has devised the “Rail Channel” a series of “in flight” documentaries from the discovery channel that are shown on a large screen TV at each end of the carriage. It seemed an ingenious system until I realised that the guard came along at the end of each feature and changed the video tape. However this had the advantage that if there was an interesting or funny bit that you wanted to see again, you could wander through to the next carriage at the required time.

After passing through the expansive outer urban areas, we duly arrived at Kuala Lumpur's gleaming new Sentral Station. KTM, the long distance passenger and freight operator, also operate the three suburban rail lines and long distance passengers can travel to their final destination on these for free. My suburban train was a 3 car EMU built by the Union Carriage Company of South Africa. They were presumably purchased during the years that the African nation had few trading partners. The train was in good order and had comfortable seats despite all suburban trains being deemed third class. The train took me directly to my home for the next few days, the old Kuala Lumpur station. This grand building was built during colonial times to the Northern Indian “Moorish” design used on a number of buildings in the city. The building has large gothic arches, minarets and is an elaborate 4-platform affair. The railway administration building is an equally elegant building and located on the other side of the road, leaving the station building free to trade as a mid range hotel. I had stayed here before, so on arrival I bounded up the main stairwell to avoid waking the sleeping lift operator. When I reached Reception, I found only a few marks in the carpet where the main desk had been and a few cables poking out of the wall. I quietly retraced my steps and found the lift man who explained where reception had been hidden. It had been unobtrusive in its old location of “up the stairs, turn right, through the drawing room, turn left, then left again”. Its new location was even more impressive; now you ignored the welcoming hotel sign, entered the restaurant, waited for your eyes to become accustomed to the mood lighting, turned 180 degrees as if to leave and then deviated slightly to the tobacco and sweet counter. From here the proud manager ran his hotel. On my first visit, I had requested a room with a city view and had been given a large gloomy room with a fantastic city view from the bathroom window. I had noticed that slightly more expensive rooms were light and airy and had great views from the main room. This time I had ordered one of the more expensive rooms and found mine was even larger but still gloomy, and still the view was from the bathroom. They had also decided that New Zealand was a Muslim country and had the bed made accordingly.

After getting the hotel sorted out, I walked along the blisteringly hot streets to the Muzium Negra, as the name suggests: the National Museum. Inside were extensive displays relating to Malay Culture and ceremony. This section seemed to have a slightly dated feel to it but a neighbouring display about wrecks on the Malay Peninsula and the associated treasures was interesting. Outside lies a Bentley from a long forgotten royal visit, an original cable car from the Penang Hill Railway, not unlike one of the old Kelburn ones. There are also two steam locomotives, a stoutly built Bagnall (321.01) from the port and a mainline Kitson (531.01) not looking unlike a Pacific A in New Zealand. I returned to the old station to meet up with Jason, one of the ringleaders in the local rail enthusiasts group. As well as exploring the majestic but mildly redundant station, we checked out a Class 25 (imagine a turbo charged factory built DBR from General Motors) shunting parcels vans and the large steam era water tank. At the end of the platform lies a 10-ton lift hand wound Ransome and Rapier hand crane, somewhat larger and spindlier than the Ocean Beach Railways 5-ton example. There is also a Wickham armoured car which is really a rail mounted army tank. The absence of vandals and thieves means that both vehicles are left unlocked and unsupervised for visitors to clamber over and into, the Wickham was absolutely complete despite not having been used for 50 years.

Shopping normally holds very limited appeal to me, but Kuala Lumpur has two of the best shopping malls in the world. I took the Putra LRT, an elevated fully automatic rail system that operates a large fleet of identical 2 car Bombardier units which have the unusual feature of allowing passengers to stand behind the front or rear windscreen to watch the progress of the train. Putra and the Star LRT that also operates in the city, were developed privately but nationalised following financial difficulties. I disembarked at the KLCC shopping mall (Malaysians seem to love abbreviations). The place is immense and takes the form of a large arc with seven stories of shops around both sides of the centre concourse, with numerous escalators and glass elevators. There are some excellent bookstores and trendy music shops that sell a wide range, including Cantonese pop music that is very catchy. Western artists are well represented too although they are arranged in order of Christian name. The big cosmetic companies are well-represented and even Marks and Spencer tries to pass itself off as a high-end fashion label. The mall is situated in the base of the Petronas Towers which until recently was the world’s tallest building. The twin corn-cobs are often dismissed by people who have only seen photos, as being rather ugly. However, once you view the displays relating to the engineering and construction involved and realise what the building and all its shapes symbolise, it takes on new meaning. The building changes colour with the different light of the day, ranging from a deep green to a silver white and on to black. The building also houses the world class Petrosains museum that has elaborate displays ranging from life sized moving dinosaurs to a simulated helicopter flight and visit to an offshore oilrig. There are a lot of hands on exhibits relating to the oil and transport industry, Petronas being Malaysia’s oil company. The other retail attraction is the famous Petaling Street market which is a chaotic crowded affair with designer watches, clothes, handbags and music, all from slightly doubtful sources. Westerners need to duck their heads to avoid the live wires of the lighting system, the generator noise making the haggling all the more energetic. The battery-controlled toys are interesting; many were beeping, whirring or trying to climb off their display stand. While leaving the market I narrowly avoided being run over by a motorised fruit stall.

The room rate at the station included a Continental breakfast served in the restaurant. The restaurant has a surprising likeness to the Dunedin Station parcels room. At first glance, the meals seemed to consist of reconstituted dehydrated vegetables and noodles but I was quickly assured that my meal would be different. The waiter arrived at my table and announced that he would serve me “American Breakfast”. I said that I thought I was getting a Continental breakfast and pointed out Continental – American: the same! Toast with jam and fried egg. He thought my request to trade the egg for more toast would attract a surcharge but in the end thought better of it. The butter and jam came in a small crockery dish and it was possible to see the previous persons toast crumbs below the surface. While I was eating I saw a large furry rat emerge from the kitchen and wander around the dining area cleaning up the food scraps. On the internet feedback form, I noted that the tame rat was a nice touch and they proudly used my review on their web site!!

Tourist information is a bit thin on the ground in Kuala Lumpur and one day trip that isn’t marketed is the one to Genting. I once again caught the Putra train which was initially crowded, but unloaded the commuters after a couple of stops and sped almost empty along its corridor in the sky toward the edge of the city, to collect the next group for their trip down town. Kuala Lumpur is not a dense city and the government and the technology sectors have relocated to satellite cities beyond the outskirts. A literal translation of the name Kuala Lumpur means Muddy Confluence and it is still possible to view the open area where the two rivers join. The end of the line is at Gombak where the trains are stored and serviced. After handing over NZ$10, a laughably cheap price for the adventure ahead, and browsing the small market that has sprung up at the bus stop beneath the station, I boarded the tour coach for the next leg of the journey. While buses used for short journeys in Malaysia are often in need of an extended visit to the workshop, long distance coaches are of a standard never seen here. The vehicle I travelled on is typical of these, a full length high deck coach with just 7 rows of seats, 3 across, each one deep, soft and luxurious. The coaches are immaculately presented inside and out, complete with a DVD entertainment system. The power to weight ratio is incredible and these machines hurtle along the super-highways while the passengers snooze in more comfort that their own living rooms. The coaches and superhighways have made rail passenger services largely redundant, to the point that locals actively discouraged me from using the trains they considered to be old, slow and mildly embarrassing. The road to Genting involves a long winding climb up a mountain and through native bush. The bus was more than equal to the challenge and the sealed road made for comfortable travelling, the views down into the valleys and over onto other bush covered ranges was spectacular. At the top of the road lies the base station for Southeast Asia’s largest gondola that provides the final link to the Genting Resort perched on top of the mountain. The view continues to get better and better as the gondola cabin weaves between pylons on alarmingly long spans until disappearing into the mist. The resort is a large cluster of concrete hotels, a shopping mall, Malaysian only Casino and a large theme park. There is no additional charge for the theme park with its two roller coasters, mine train, monorail, go-karts and multitude of other rides. Being on top of a mountain means the climate is quite different; a welcome break from the heat and humidity Malaysia is renowned for. The indoor theme park is more modern and draws inspiration from well know fairy tales. The centrepiece is a Venetian street scene complete with floating Gondolas giving rides. Dinner was a locally inspired toasted Kebab which tasted quite different to those available here. 

On my return to Kuala Lumpur, I gave the Petaling St Market another going over. Amongst the purchases was a nice pair of Levi Jeans. I was to later discover that they were held together with plated steel rivets that set off airport metal detectors. The next destination on the journey was Penang. It is possible to do this leg of the journey by train but it would have been in total darkness for the whole trip, on a curtained off shelf-like second class bed. Having previously travelled for a few hours by shelf, I was happy to trade a whole night of it for an air ticket of similar price. The imaginatively named airport KLIA is located nearly 90km from the CBD near the famous Sepang raceway, home to Formula 1 for the region. Airport Ekpess trains run between Sentral and the Airport, running at up to 180kmph. Their trains are specially fitted for the airport run with comfortable seats and large luggage racks. As the speeding train started to slow near the airport, the depot came into view with a brightly coloured European centre-cab locomotive parked outside, the different gauge preventing former KTM locomotives working this line.

The airport is modern, vast, well laid out and very efficient, it competes with Singapore’s Changi for the title of the world’s best. Its design is a combination of traditional Malay architectural lines, symmetry and angles combined with up to the minute features, like automated people movers that run both inside one of the concourses and outside, ducking under the aircraft taxiways before hurtling its way to the satellite terminal used for long-haul aircraft. The airport hasn't had the quantity of traffic it was designed for and a number of the shops seem as though they have never been tennanted. This means that there is no congestion and crowding that is so common at other airports. The aircraft was a Boeing 737-400 that had just come form Kuching, the state capital of Sarawak on the Malaysian portion of Borneo. The interior was in good order and it was a comparatively scenic flight over vast forests of oil palm. The hostesses wear a traditional Batik uniform custom made for them, the outfit almost looked painted on. After the complementary in-flight glass of cordial was served, we landed at the pleasant and functional airport of Penang at the southern end of the island of the same name.

The taxi driver was a little put out about where I was staying as the fare is fixed (no meter) and I was staying at a hotel some distance from downtown, on the north coast. However traffic was light and we got there without any drama. The hotel exceeded expectations by a considerable margin. It was several storeys high but very long and had a number of horizontal steps in it which resulted in zig zagging passageways inside. The hotel had sea-side rooms and hillside rooms; I had opted for the latter as the were on special and I had no plans to stare at the sea. The hillside room could probably be better termed “noisy motorway-side rooms” but in the end I was far too tired to notice.

I asked at reception how the bus service worked and was politely given the standard answer to a “how do I get to…” question in Malaysia, being “take a taxi”. Fortunately one of the other staff gave me the route 
numbers of buses that would bring me back to the hotel and the Malay spelling of a few key destinations. Almost as soon as I reached the bus stop, an elderly Indian built Tata bus rattled to a stop and I hopped on. I had no idea what the fare would be so I held up a 1 Ringgit note, expecting a gesture of how many he wanted. He grabbed the note, grunted and slammed the bus into gear and accelerated away, which I assumed meant he was satisfied with the miniscule amount of money. The bus was fairly crowded so I sat on the padded engine cover behind the driver which was warm and loud but offered a view out of the windscreen, the only clean window on the bus.

Georgetown is the capital of Penang Island and the entire city centre is Unesco World Heritage listed for its unaltered Chinese Architecture. It certainly is an interesting place and attracts its fair share of visitors, but it is also a grimy working city, the pace of which takes some getting used to. The waterfront is a busy place, there was a large well laden scrap barge making slow progress up the strait. Nearby is a traditional Kampong, a fishing village built on stilts with timber walkways linking them. While at first glance they look a bit undesirable, this simpler way of life has become the envy of many who wish they could trade their gleaming high-rise for a wooden shack over the water.

This is also the departure point for the ferries to the mainland town of Butterworth. The eight brightly coloured ferries sail regularly between the two ports, some only taking vehicles while others carry pedestrians on the top deck. The only difference between the two is the provision of bench seats on the passenger deck; there aren’t really any other amenities apart from an excellent English Bakery which looks a little odd tucked to one side of the deck in what seems a pretty industrial setting. However, with a fare of 60 cents for the scenic round trip and onward travel arrangements to check, I happily joined the waiting masses to board. While the waiting area and ferry itself were a bit “cattle” class, the sea breeze was pleasant and the view of greater Penang improved with distance and monuments, high-rises and Penang Hill were all visible, as was Malaysia’s longest bridge that provides an alternative route to the mainland.

Click here for the second part of this article.

Rob Dickinson