Friday, 5 August 2011

The new Penang hill funicular train

There are some people who claim that they do not find it as romantic as before. Yet there are also people who say that they enjoy the new rush of adrenaline. Either way, they are referring to the Penang Hill funicular rail service that reopened to the public on 25 Apr 2011.

"It was so fast," one of my old school mates complained to me, "I could no longer slowly seep in the view of George Town any more. I preferred the old wooden coach. Even with the white and red coach, it was also not that fast and when you come down at night, you can enjoy the twinkling lights of the city."

So I decided once and for all to experience the new funicular train ride up the hill last weekend. Arriving on a Saturday morning, the queue wasn't there yet so I was able to choose the first compartment of the spanking new blue coach that overlooked the front. This is important if you want a good view of the ride. But I shouldn't have sat down because my good view was soon obstructed by other passengers who had more or less the same idea.

Soon, the door closed and we were on our way. The air-conditioning was working fine but frankly, nobody took any notice of it because the first impression of the train ride was the unexpected speed. Pulled by the cable, the coach quickly accelerated as we left the bottom station. It was near impossible to observe the foliage on both sides of the track. Within seconds, we had zoomed past the first station leading to the Cheng Ji Chan Temple and within a minute or so, the old passing loop of the lower line was reached. A new track now runs through the centre.

Pretty soon, the old middle station loomed ahead. One of the old white and red coaches was parked there permanently. Suddenly without slowing down, the coach swerved slightly to the left as it started to pass by the station on a new stretch of track. As I had been conditioned to the coach always stopping here in the past, this came as a small psychological shock.

Before I could recover from this new thrill, I was greeted with the new passing loop that was just above the middle station. From a distance, it looked like any other passing loop except that this one was slightly longer to accommodate the new, longer coaches. Right ahead, I could see an on-coming coach, plunging down the same track. Yah, plunging. In the past, the old coaches would be trundling slowly along the track.

Again without skipping a beat, our coach moved over to the right-hand track while the other coach shifted to the left. With a zoom, it was all over. Only a blur of blue motion as we passed by each other. No opportunity at all to even look into the other coach.

Onward we rushed along as the new track ended and the coach rejoined the old track. There were still two landmarks to look out for. The first was the old passing loop of the upper line. As the coach moved onto the right-hand track, we sped by the second old white and red coach which had been parked by the side. The second was the tunnel. It was unchanged. From what I know, this 258-foot long tunnel is reputedly the steepest in the world for a funicular train system. We zoomed into the tunnel and within seconds emerged into daylight. Up ahead was our final destination, the top station.

What happened during the RM73 million upgrading project that now allowed the new coaches to travel so fast? I was told that previously, the motors that pulled the old coaches were powered by direct current. The new system was running on alternate current and was thus, more powerful. This enabled the coaches to travel much faster and in fact, by having bypassed the stop at the middle station, it is easier for the operator to vary the length of time for a one-way journey. At off-peak hours for instance, the ride could be made slower and vice-versa.  

It has been said that the new and faster funicular train service, by cutting down the journey from 30 minutes to an average of seven minutes, would be able to transport more visitors to Penang Hill. The target was 2.4 million tourists in a year compared to about 600,000 tourists in 2009. Yes, true, the speedier service may cut down the time but at the same time, the increasing visitors to the hill would mean that the queue at the station may be just as long.

When I took the train down later in the day, the queue was stretched till outside the station. Dutifully, I took my place the queue. I anticipated a long wait to go into the coach again but was surprised that the wait wasn't too long after all.

For the downward journey, I was unfortunate not to take the front compartment. Maybe some other time, I'll be better prepared and choose a weekday for a second joyride on the train. But I was also mentioning to my old friend that I had timed the return journey to be about four minutes (seconds not counted) from the moment the coach started moving until it came to a rest at the bottom station.

I had written to him: "This is a journey not to be missed. I would even suggest it to be one of the 10 best train rides in the world. If you are lucky enough to squeeze into the front compartment, you can just imagine it as the ride of your life: practically a 700-metre rollercoaster drop, minus the loops. Along the way, as you approach the old middle station, the track veers to the side and you see the other coach speeding towards you. Then suddenly, after a whoosh, you realise that it has missed you by inches (well, it felt almost like inches anyway) and you continue careening downwards and downwards and downwards and...."

Anyway, I happened to come across a video in YouTube. Take a look at it and decide whether you'll get an adrenaline rush if you were there to experience it first-hand, or whether the excitement of this experience makes up for the romantic loss.

Some brief facts about the Penang Hill railway: It was built as a two-section funicular system at an impressive cost of 1.5 million Straits Dollars. It was first opened to the public on 21 Oct 1923 using four wooden coaches which were replaced by the white and red ones in 1977. Two of the wooden coaches are on permanent display: one at the top of the hill and the other at the Penang Museum. The length of the track is about 2,220 metres or 7,280 feet.

Considering that at its fastest, it may take about four minutes plus to travel one-way up or down, the top speed of the coaches is about 30 kilometres per hour or about nine metres per second.

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