For the past 12 months, I've been resorting more often to using the train to travel between Penang and Kuala Lumpur. It came about because of two primary reasons.
One, the train station in Bukit Mertajam is only a mere four kilometres from my home and therefore, I can happily dispense with the need to ask my wife or son to drive me all the way to the Penang international airport at Bayan Lepas which is 32 kilometres away. Imagine the time, money and effort saved.
Two, as an alternative to flying, my family is coming round to agreeing that rail travel is much safer than taking the inter-city buses. We've heard enough stories about horror bus crashes along the highways and they are not limited to night travel only. The issue of under-paid and over-worked bus drivers has not been resolved at all. Only when there are fatal accidents will the authorities be seen to say or do something. But even then, once the news quieten down, it's back to Square One regarding the bus drivers.
Therefore, can anybody blame me for wanting to use the train services instead of the bus or the aeroplane?
Anyway, the first time that I used the train in the last 12 months was in August 2011. It was the end of the Arthur Tan Malaysia Chess Festival and I chose rail travel to return from Kuala Lumpur just for the lark of it, wanting to experience what first class rail service on the night train was all about.
I have to admit that my first impression of the train service was good: plush seats that could be almost fully reclined, ample leg room, air-conditioned carriage. Journey itself was smooth, the carriages had very good suspension and no longer rocked or shook on the tracks, and the external noises were generally well filtered out. The only drawback was that the carriage lights could not be turned off or dimmed and this affected my sleep greatly. But other than that, I rather enjoyed the journey.
Maybe I should also relate an anecdote. What happened was my fault, actually. When I arrived at the KL Sentral, I went to the wrong waiting area. Instead of the north-bound waiting area, I joined a group of travellers who were waiting for the south-bound train to Singapore. Luckily I realised my error after descending to the platform and I had to make a mad rush to catch the correct train. The whistle blew within seconds of my jumping on board.
Then last April after making a quick day trip by car down to Kuala Lumpur with my daughter, I hopped only the night train for my return trip. This time, I decided to book a second class sleeping berth. At least, I could then draw the curtain and cut off the lights in the carriage as much as possible. Again, it was a very pleasant journey. The mattress was firm and more importantly, the sheets were fresh and clean. The carriage was again very well insulated from the external noises and it was a very smooth ride.
Last weekend when I found that I had to go down to Kuala Lumpur, I resolved that maybe for once I should make the whole journey by train itself. My destination would be the Subang Jaya station and I reckoned that I just needed to hop onto a KTM Komuter train at KL Sentral. So on Friday night, I caught the 11.20pm train from the Bukit Mertajam station - again, travelling on the second class sleeping berth - and I arrived at the KL Sentral at 6.45am the next day. A completely hassle-free trip.
Coming back on Sunday night, the night train left the KL Sentral at 11pm and pulled up at the Bukit Mertajam station at 6.10am this morning. This was the biggest surprise of the whole journey: the train arrived right on the dot.
I've never known the KTM inter-city services to arrive punctually but here, I was already standing on the BM station's platform at the time that KTM had advertised that they would arrive. So I must say that I have been thoroughly impressed by my latest experience and will have no qualms about using the rail services again in the future.
What I'm really looking forward to is for KTM to complete their double-tracking project for the Butterworth-Ipoh sector as soon as possible. I understand that the project is currently scheduled for completion at the end of 2013 but I shall welcome if this can be achieved sooner.
What I want is that KTM will extend their ETS service all the way from Kuala Lumpur to the north as soon as possible. That will reduce the travel time from the present seven hours to four hours. (KL-Ipoh is already two hours with the ETS service, and BM-Ipoh should be even faster as this is certainly a shorter distance.)
Now, wouldn't that be interesting indeed? It will certainly give the airlines a serious run for their money! At the very least, KTM can expect to siphon off prospective air travel passengers who already stay on the mainland and who are, like me, baulk at having to go all the way to Bayan Lepas just to catch a flight to the Kuala Lumpur international airport or the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (KLIA-LCCT).