Trying Out the Electric Trains

Text and photos by Lau Sook Mei

The majestic Ipoh Railway Station.

Since its maiden run from Kuala Lumpur (KL) to Ipoh on 12 Aug 2010, the Electric Transit Service (ETS) has been popular for weekend hiatus away from the maddening crowd and the stress in KL. Four months later, during the December school holidays, I decided to do my Christmas shopping in KL together with my brother’s family and took an early transit train there.

That's my Ipoh-KL Sentral-bound train at the station.

It was all hustle and bustle at the departure hall of the Ipoh Railway Station, a majestic colonial, Mogul-style edifice completed in 1917. The Monorail Café, though odd is its name, is where you could enjoy nasi lemak and teh tarik for breakfast while you wait for the train.

For refreshment head for the Monorail Cafe.

Slow train to KL

This is my first train ride in twenty years and so I waited anxiously like a child. At 9.15 a.m. sharp the whistle went and the train began to pull out of the Ipoh Railway Station. Looking out of the window, I saw the pre-war shophouses known as “sap sam kan ” (Cantonese, meaning “thirteen shops”) on Jalan Fryer. The train rumbled past a saw-mill, Muslim burial grounds and the Clearwater Sanctuary Golf Resort. Traditional Malay houses with decorative features dotted the country in vivid colours.

We passed the quaint 1894 Batu Gajah railway station, now abandoned. All talks of turning it into a railway museum remained just that, mere talk. The train stopped at the new Batu Gajah station in Kampung Pisang to pick up passengers. Right next to it, the RM430-million Kompleks KTMB Batu Gajah is constructed on 160-hectare of ex-mining land. It encompasses the KTMB’s Central Workshop and Railway Training Centre.

Vast tracts of rather barren sandy land and mining pools dominated the landscape, but I could see sand-mining activities, duck farms and lovely lotus ponds that mirrored the clear blue sky. Though the train ran rather slowly I was glad for the view of our natural landscape of tropical greenery.

Banana plantation.

After leaving Kampar, agricultural land with rubber, oil palm, banana and other crops spanned the horizon for as far as the eyes could see. Leaves shimmered like silver coins in the sun. Here and there, oblivious to passing trains, cows and buffaloes grazed.

Acres of oil palm plantations along the way.

At Tapah Road, the humble old timber railway station stood forlorn, dwarfed by the new one. Built in 1893, rail linking Ipoh to Tapah Road and the port of Teluk Intan made more efficient the export of tin from the Kinta Valley to Penang.

The new Tanjung Malim railway station.

All along the way, I noted railway quarters and Hindu temples close to the stations. Not surprising, since railway workers brought in from India in the 1880s were Hindus. Generations had lived and worked for the Malaysian railway; they are the community behind industrial heritage of our railways.

Kuan Tee Temple near Tanjung Malim.

I was hoping to see more stunning buildings, but all along the railway, it was all crops and the green, green countryside in Perak. This is in stark contrast to the dense industrial development across the border in the state of Selangor.

It was noon when the train pulled into KL Sentral, the largest railway station in South-east Asia. My group took a KTM commuter train to Mid Valley Megamall. We shopped till we dropped. Then, lugging all our Christmassy stuff, we rushed back to Sentral to catch the ETS back to Ipoh at 5.35 p.m.

"Toys-tastic" - the theme for this year's Christmas decoration at Mid Valley Megamall.

Quick ETS to Ipoh

I was impressed; the interior of the coaches was spick and span. The luxurious coach came with comfortable airliner-seats, ample leg-room and luggage stowage, a pantry and large sparkling clean windows. Washrooms were clean and spacious with “Auto Door”.

Inside the ETS.

Large storage space for your belongings.

Right on the dot, the electric train rolled out of KL Sentral, picking up speed as skyscrapers flashed past.

Green, green vegetable farms.

Shortly, out in the rugged countryside, the late afternoon sun cast a shadow of the train along the tracks as it sped past durian orchards, vegetable farms, and plantations. It was magnificent, thanks to the large windows. By 7 p.m. the setting sun had created an artist’s palette: radiant hues in the western sky. Gradually darkness closed in as the train made pit stops at Tanjung Malim, Kampar and Batu Gajah before grounding to a halt at the Ipoh Railway Station at 7.40 p.m., a journey made in good time.

Colours of the setting sun reflected in the eastern sky above oil palm plantations. The blurry photo is due to the speed of the ETS.

The development of the railway in Malaysia has come a long way. It would be worthwhile experiencing a ride on the ETS before the promotional period ends in February, before the offer at RM30 go up to RM45, it is rumoured.

A brief history of Malaysian Rail

The appearance of railway and steam locomotives in the Malay Peninsula marked the modernization of Perak. Sixty years since their invention, on 1 June 1885, the first railway line in Malaysia opened to serve the rich tin fields of the Larut District. Trains ran for 12.8km to transport tin from Taiping to Port Weld (today, Kuala Sepetang).

In 1896, the Federated Malay States Railway was created to manage four railway lines: Port Weld-Taiping, Kuala Lumpur-Klang, Seremban-Port Dickson and Ipoh-Telok Anson (now Teluk Intan) via Tapah Road.

Malayan Railway Administration took over the management in 1948; it was renamed Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in 1962. In 1992, the KTM became Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB). It is wholly owned by the Malaysian government, and is the main operator for inter-citytrains for both passengers and freight.

It was in 2000 that the double-tracking and electrification began on the West Coast line as a privatization project. The single-track line was replaced and with that we lost all the old bridges and stations, most of them over one hundred years old. Perhaps the few remaining stations could be retained to undergo rehabilitation and adaptive re-use to accommodate a new purpose. They are the heritage and historical evidence of the humble beginning of our railway history.



3 Responses to “Trying Out the Electric Trains”

  1. 1 HeriHong December 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    How we wish that some of the old stations have been kept as historical buildings of our industrial heritage. They could have been restored for eatery and retailing.

    The next electrification project goes north of Ipoh all the way to the Thai border. More old stations will get destroyed and replaced, including the very well maintained Chemor, Sg Siput, and Kuala Kangsar stations. It is unfortunate that local communities aren’t heritage savvy enough to protest the demolition.

    We appeal to KTMB to reconsider eradicating all of these northern stations. Restored and revitalised for hometown heritage, they will prove to be the points of interest for local tourism and where locals and tourists can exchange stories in a condusive historical environment.

  2. 2 c.wong December 24, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Awesome post & very insightful. i havent try boarding on an ETS yet, but hopefully pretty soon. As a resident of Bidor, I don’t really understand why Bidor, a densely populated town in Batang Padang have no train station while all along the neighbouring towns in the same district like Tapah Road, Sungkai, Slim River & Tg Malim all have train stations.

    I look forward to see that Bidor will have it’s own train station soon, if not now, hopefully the near future.

    • 3 perakheritage December 27, 2010 at 10:43 pm

      Thank you, c.wong. Yes, Bidor has become quite a big and popular town over the years. One that visitors from far and wide would drop by for its famous “duck mee”. Having train services would definitely enable its residents and visitors to travel in comfort. I hope you’ll get your train station one day.

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