The International Steam Pages

The Route of the Eastern and Orient Express Part 2

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

Click here for the first part of this article

Click here for the third 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.

From the overpass that links the ferry with the chaotic sprawling bus station and more relaxed railway station, I saw a Class 24 shunting two tank wagons in the Port’s sidings, possibly on their way to the vegetable oil export terminal.

Butterworth is located on a branch line off the West Coast main trunk and the station is a 3 track terminal. After checking that everything was in order for the following day's journey, I explored the two preserved locomotives nearby. One was a North British built Class 56; a 3 cylinder oil burning Pacific. Nearby is a very early English Electric built shunting locomotive, similar to British Rail's 08’s and an older cousin of NZR’s De. The Malaysian locomotive has retained its 6KT engine and the cab layout is startlingly similar to the DE’s. While both locomotives have lain unused and with little maintenance for a number of years, there has been no theft or vandalism. When a timber window surround had rotted, someone had carefully placed the glass inside the cab to keep it safe. The steam locomotive has a “stones” generator on its running board. The area has been landscaped and fenced, making photography difficult but a gate is provided so that visitors can still get into the cab.

The return sailing was less crowded and the breeze, view and fresh baking to munch on, made for an excellent combination. On arrival I caught a taxi to the Penang Hill (Funicular) Railway. The taxi driver couldn’t believe that I wanted to go there, through rush hour traffic; I thought he would be pleased to have a decent journey rather than the short hop from the jetty to downtown. Progress was slow and the meter ticked over as we eased our way through the mainly good natured congestion, only needing the horn a couple of times.

The bottom terminal of the Penang Hill Railway looks ridiculous in an elegant sort of way, a little slice of the charm and elegance of the Swiss Alps transplanted into the sticky Malaysian heat. The system was completed in 1923 and the original cars resembled the old Kelburn Cable Cars. The new ones (1977) have more than a passing resemblance to the new ones in Wellington too. Maybe their fate was decided by the same consultants. The Penang cars provide the main transport for people living on the hill and a timber high-side wagon is provided for their parcels, furniture or anything else bulky that needs to be moved. Passengers travel in compartments with bench seats facing uphill. In my compartment was a local school girl doing her homework on the way up the hill. The system is 2.2km long and rises 690 metres. It is in two sections and it is necessary to change halfway up the hill to the cable car on the top line. In all the ascent takes 25 minutes. A tunnel is encountered near the top of the line, from which the car bursts out of to give a stunning view of Penang Island and the mainland in the distance.

Because of its altitude, the top of the hill has a cooler climate, which made it a popular retreat for the British during colonial times. Hotels and Convalescent Homes are mixed in with private residences and the whole area is beautifully landscaped using plants and trees that can only be grown in this climate. The view became even more spectacular as twilight turned to darkness and the lights of Penang and Butterworth gleamed across a vast area.

The descent was equally enjoyable, passing through the illuminated tunnel and the dark jungle that surrounds the line, the city lights drawing ever closer as the temperature and humidity increased. On leaving the terminal, I found a public bus idling in the turning circle. Both the driver and conductor were Chinese and my initial enquiry as to whether the bus went to Komtar, the Penang transport hub, there was a lengthy and colourful debate between them. The outcome was that no, they didn’t go to Komtar but I should take their bus anyhow. In the absence of any other options, I took a seat. It can’t have been a terribly profitable service as I was the only passenger and the fare was extremely modest. After a 20-point turn to extract the bus from the clutter of illegally parked vehicles, we charged off into the darkness, winding around parts of the city that I suspect few tourist explore. Then, once onto a major road, we suddenly stopped and the conductor pointed out another bus approaching on the other side of the road and explained that it would turn around and pick me up and take me back to downtown. She said that I should stand “there” and pointed to the kerb. So I climbed off the bus and stood on the kerb. Evidently I wasn’t standing “there” as directed and so she came over and made me stand on the exact place. Exasperated with my casualness about the whole process, she ordered the driver to wait to make sure I was OK. This level of service was a bit overwhelming but it was clear that nothing I said would change anything. The only flaw with her plan was that the bus took up the whole lane, making it impossible for any traffic to get past. This didn’t worry the bus crew too much, but after about 5 minutes the bus that I was meant to be catching had become caught in the long traffic jam. Reluctantly the conductor gave me a worried smile and final instructions on how to catch the bus before finally moving on. The other bus duly picked me up and the rest of the journey downtown was uneventful.

It is probably fair to say that Penang’s old town doesn’t look its best late at night. Walking around the deep shadows and closed shops, taking in the sounds and smells was a pretty lonely experience. The idea had been to look for restaurant but the few late night noodle houses that I found were decidedly “bottom end” and my appetite vanished before I even got inside. Returning to Komtar, the normally noisy and chaotic transport centre was closed so I had a fast and cheap taxi ride back to the hotel, the fare was about the same as the cost of the petrol to do a similar trip here.

Breakfast was served on the balcony beside the pool; overlooking the sea and the mainland beyond. Sitting under the Palm Trees enjoying hot pancakes with lemon and sugar, I had no idea that the next time I saw this scene, it would be on the television news. Penang was toward the southern end of the area devastated in the “Boxing Day Tsunami”. The place I had been sitting was covered in debris, as was the highway beyond and the ground floor was extensively damaged.

The old town looked better in daylight and I took the opportunity to have a final look around before taking the ferry one final time for Butterworth. I stocked up on provisions from the English bakery as the rail journey ahead was 22 hours and I felt a Plan B would be a good scheme if on-board catering was below par.

The Butterworth Station money changer was decidedly unimpressed to find Indonesian Rupiah amongst the currency I was changing but managed to give me a good rate. No longer a millionaire but at least having money that would be recognised, I went off the find the train. IE46, the International Express, consisted of a Malaysian Class 23 built by Hitachi (another grey oblong box with a few stripes along the bottom) and three State Railways of Thailand Second Class Day/Sleeper cars. The only thing I knew about the locomotive was that at 2160hp, it had abundant power but that at one stage they had suffered from braking issues. The carriages were built by Hyundai in Korea and at first glance looked moderately ugly inside and out. There is a diesel generator under each carriage which means there is a little bit of vibration and fumes when the train isn’t moving.

Inside, seating is arranged in facing pairs with a narrow partition for each pair. The vinyl seats, formica partitions and chrome hand rails look a bit institutional, but with only having one wide seat each side of the aisle, it is a comfortable way to travel. The passenger in the seat opposite me was an attractive American girl who had just spent her “gap year” exploring countries like Myanmar (Burma) Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam, an itinerary that had included a couple of steam hauled journeys as dieselisation is not quite complete yet. She was due to fly home in two days, a prospect she was dreading after the adventures and freedom she had enjoyed. The journey north was through pleasant but unremarkable scenery. The Thai carriages are larger than the Malaysian stock so there were a few exciting encounters between the train and the encroaching jungle, putting me off the idea of standing beside the open doorway again.

The train crosses the border at Padang Besar. On arrival at the station, everyone had to climb off the train, surrender their departure card and receive the Keluar (exit) stamp in their passport, then hastily fill in an immigration card to enter Thailand. I was pleased that the Malaysian authorities were content with the scribbled mess that their counterpart had produced for me in Singapore. The Thai immigration card seemed to ask the same question several time with different wording. My answers earned me a stern look and a full minutes consideration before the essential passport stamp was obtained. A man dressed in his religious finery was one of the first into the immigration queue and the last to emerge; I am not sure what the problem was for God’s representative, although the predominant religion on this side of the border was different. A State Railways of Thailand Alstom built locomotive had replaced the Malaysian one and we had gained new train staff, a kitchen and more carriages. Once under way, a railwayman made his way through the carriage. To each passenger in turn he would point to them and command “You, dinner”. If you agreed, “Yes dinner” you would be given a menu. My fears of expensive and substandard meals were soon put to rest, I chose the Sweet and Sour Pork which, prepared Thai style by locals, was one of the best renditions of this dish that I have tasted. The meal was $4 but I invested an extra dollar for an ice cold Leo beer. The staff member pulled a table out from a hatch in the floor before serving the meal.

Shortly afterwards the train pulled into Hat Yai, a major railway junction and commercial centre. Here we picked up more carriages, the complex shunting manoeuvres had us passing through virtually every platform in the large station. The yard was packed with locomotives and wagons, the railway is a major transport artery in Thailand. The architecture of the city probably did not look its best in the rapidly fading light. My recollection of it consists mainly of oblong concrete buildings and a profusion of large spiky TV aerials. Once underway, the steward moved through the carriage magically making the tables vanish back into floor and the seats became beds, each carefully made with spotless fresh white sheets and individually partitioned of with curtains.

The train passed through numerous small towns, in nearly every one there was a gazebo near the tracks with the villagers dining and socialising around it. The train was skilfully driven over the excellent track and it wasn’t hard to get a good night's sleep. As daylight returned to the landscape, I saw a couple of steam locomotives at different locations. There were also some vintage aircraft by the track, one looked like a DC3 in the early morning light. The landscape had changed markedly in the course of the night, as the train traversed the wetlands, small pointed limestone hills were visible in the background. As the sleeping car was transformed back into a day car, I went to explore the train. One of the local traders was selling a particularly tasty crunchy muesli in the otherwise deserted dining car, which made for a fine breakfast. Towards lunchtime, the rural landscape gave way to urbanisation and the train quickly threaded it way through the buildings and level crossings before finally arriving at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station, tablet working allowing us to arrive three-quarters of an hour early on this 22 hour 1000km journey. 

Click here for the third part of this article.

Rob Dickinson